Monday, October 20, 2014

The 100th Birthday of Fayard Nicholas

If you are a fan of musicals and a fan of dance in particular, then you probably know who the Nicholas Brothers are. The Nicholas Brothers were Fayard and Harold Nicholas who together made perhaps the most spectacular dance team ever on the silver screen. The Nicholas Brothers combined tap dancing with acrobatics and even ballet to create some of the most incredible dance routines of all time. Fayard Nicholas was born 100 years ago today.

Fayard Nicholas was born on 20 October 1914 in Mobile, Alabama. His mother, Viola, was a classically trained pianist. His father, Ulysses, was a drummer. Both had college educations. They played in bands in vaudeville, forming their own band called the Nicholas Collegians in the Twenties. Nearly from birth, then, Fayard Nicholas was exposed to musicians and vaudeville performers. Fayard would be followed by two more siblings, his sister Dorothy and his brother Harold. Surprisingly enough, none of the Nicholas children had any formal training in dance or singing. By watching the performers on stage Fayard taught himself both how to sing and how to dance. He then taught his younger siblings, Dorothy and Harold, how to sing and dance as well. The Nicholas family eventually settled in Philadelphia.

Eventually Nicholas formed a dance team with Dorothy known as the Nicholas Kids. Harold later joined the dance team. Dorothy eventually left the act, whereupon they became the Nicholas Brothers. The Nicholas Brothers soon made a name for themselves. They made their debut on radio on The Horn and Hardart Children's Hour, which aired on n WCAU in Philadelphia,  Afterwards they performed at such local theatres as the Standard and the Pearl. It was in 1932, when Fayard was 18 and Harold was 7, that the Nicholas Brothers made their debut at the Cotton Club in Harlem in New York City. They would perform at the Cotton Club for two years. It was also in 1932 that they made their debut on film, in the short "Pie Pie Blackbird" with Eubie Blake and his band.

Over the next few years the Nicholas Brothers would be very much in demand. They appeared as a dance speciality act in such films as Kid Millions (1934), The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1935), Babes in Arms (1937), and Down Argentine Way (1940). They made their debut on Broadway in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. In 1937 on Broadway they appeared in Rodgers and Hart's Babes in Arms.

The Nicholas Brothers did not slow down in the Forties. They toured England, Europe, Latin America, and Africa. It was in 1948 that they gave a Royal Command Performance for King George VI at the London Palladium. The Nicholas Brothers would also perform for many Presidents of the United States. They also continued to appear as a speciality act on film, appearing in such movies as The Great American Broadcast (1941), Sun Valley Serenade (1941), Orchestra Wives (1942), Stormy Weather (1943), and The Pirate (1948).  In the Fifties the Nicholas Brothers appeared in several movies made in Europe. They would later teach tap dancing at both Harvard University and Radcliffe College. Fayard appeared in the films The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970) and Hard Four (2007), as well as a Bob Hope special in 1971.

In a different time and place the Nicholas Brothers could have been stars on the level of Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire. Both Fayard and Harold Nicholas were gifted with good voices and they were both handsome men. More importantly, they might well have been the greatest tap dancers of all time. Either Fayard and Harold could give Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire a run for their money. Had opportunities for African Americans in the Thirties and Forties been greater, it is not hard to imagine that Fayard and Harold Nicholas could have been major movie stars.

For those of you who have never seen The Nicholas Brothers in action, here is proof of their talent. This is their "Jumpin' Jive" sequence from the movie Stormy Weather. No less than Fred Astaire thought that it was the greatest dance sequence ever filmed.

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