Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Nicholas Brothers

When most people are asked who the greatest dancer in film history was, they might answer "Gene Kelly", "Fred Astaire", or "Ginger Rogers". Those who are more knowledgeable might answer with "Cyd Charisse" or "Eleanor Powell". For me the greatest dancers in the history of film will always be Fayard and Harold Nicholas, collectively known as the Nicholas Brothers. The Nicholas Brothers blended tap dancing with acrobatics and even ballet to create some of the most spectacular dance routines of all time. Indeed, mere words do not do their dance routines justice. They simply have to be seen to believed.

The Nicholas Brothers' talent for performing came naturally. Their mother, Viola, was a classically trained pianist. Their 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. It was perhaps inevitable that their children would follow them into show business. With their sister Dorothy, Fayard and Harold Nicholas formed a dance team called "the Nicholas Kids". Dorothy eventually left the act and the team became simply "the Nicholas Brothers".

The Nicholas Brothers proved to be very much in demand as a song and dance team. Their radio debut was on The Horn and Hardart Children's Hour on 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 only inevitable that the Nicholas Brothers would find their way into motion pictures. In 1932 they made their film debut in the short "Pie Pie Blackbird" with Eubie Blake and his band. Over the next five years they would appear as a speciality act in several more films, including Kid Millions (1934), The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1935), Babes in Arms (1937), and Down Argentine Way (1940). The Nicholas Brothers would also appear on Broadway. 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 Forties would find the Nicholas Brothers very busy. They continued to be a popular speciality act in movie musicals. They appeared in such movies as The Great American Broadcast (1941), Sun Valley Serenade (1941), Orchestra Wives (1942), Stormy Weather (1943), and The Pirate (1948).  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.

Unfortunately the Fifties would see the beginning of the end for the Hollywood musical. The Nicholas Brothers' last Hollywood film was The Pirate in 1948. In the Fifties The Nicolas Brothers appeared exclusively in films made in Europe and Mexico, including Botta e risposta (1950), El misterio del carro express (1953), El mensaje de la muerte (1953), Musik im Blut (1955), and Bonjour Kathrin (1956).

Fayard and Harold Nicholas did not simply dance on screen and stage; they taught dance as well. They taught dance at both Harvard University and Radcliffe. Among their students were Debbie Allen and Dianne Walker.

Sadly, the Twentieth Century would not be a particularly good time for a black dance team, even one with the talent of the Nicholas Brothers. Race relations at the time would not permit the Nicholas Brothers to play the leads in films, something they could have easily done. Both Fayard and Nicholas were handsome and they had very good voices. Arguably their talent at dancing surpassed even the legendary Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. 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 a routine from Stormy Weather. No less than Fred Astaire said of this routine that it was ""...the greatest dance number ever filmed."


Caftan Woman said...

My dad was a huge fan of the Nicholas Brothers and made sure to instill that admiration in his children. I had never seen "The Big Broadcast of 1936" until last year and what a treat it was to see them so young and so accomplished.

Hal said...

They were just kids, and already phenomenal, in "Pie, Pie Blackbird" which also features the gorgeous Nina Mae McKinney singing. Well worth seeking out on YouTube.

Unknown said...

I think that they were the best there ever was, especially with those splits that they could do right after another!