It is a beautiful day, sunny and clear.
I’ve been up all night watching old Nicholas Brothers movies. Now I’m heading uptown on the West Side Highway in a minivan, the radio pumping out a chorus of the 70’s band Chic’s hit “Everybody Dance.” I sing along, “Dance, Dance, Dance!” I say to myself, “Did someone say ‘dance’?” Out loud, I say, “Get focused brother, ’cause today, this is my mantra: Dance, Dance, Dance, Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah!”
My assistant looks at me like I’m crazy. Okay, I admit the disco groove comes from a different generation, but the rhythmic genius of these Nicholas Brothers cats is that they can hang with any swinging band of any era. The two brothers tapped their way through Harlem’s hottest nightclubs, down Broadway, into Hollywood, and across world venues!
As a child, I recall that during the annual February marathon of Black History Month television programming, I would be glued to the boob tube from dawn to dusk watching movies, including classic films and musicals made during the Golden Age of Hollywood. The entertainers from this period I found most memorable were Fayard and Harold Nicholas.
One of the best-choreographed dance sequences I’ve ever seen is in 20th Century Fox Studios’ Stormy Weather (1943). It features the Nicholas Brothers in tuxedos performing their classic, breathtaking staircase routine: They do splits down each stair, then run up the staircase … Do splits down, slide down (OUCH!) and rise again, every part of their bodies engaged in motion. Unfortunately, this was to be their last appearance on film as a duo.
I consider the Nicholas Brothers the greatest dancers of all time. Their unique style exuded artistry and choreographed brilliance — asmooth mix of tap, ballet, and acrobatic moves. They appeared with Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Dorothy Dandridge, Ethel Waters, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, Don Ameche, Betty Grable, Fats Waller, Katherine Dunham, Bob Hope, Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, and Gene Kelly, to name just a few. There is no question that these vaudeville-influenced brothers astonished and excited theater, film, and television audiences all over the world.
We pull up in front of their building.
The apartment is small but cozy. I decide to shoot in the living room. Fayard settles into a recliner. Harold pulls up a chair beside him. I explain that an image of the pair surrounded by memorabilia and their belongings will allow people to make a personal connection to them as well as to their work, and trigger wonderful memories of their performances.
As I finger through their record collection, I come across Cab Calloway’s music, and mention his name. Fayard pipes up: “Harold does a mean Minnie the Moocher, ‘Hi dee hi dee ho!’” No response from Harold, however. It seems to me Fayard’s the extrovert.
I mention the film Sun Valley Serenade, featuring a young Dorothy Dandridge. Harold excuses himself. Fayard says, “Let’s not talk about that.” Okay. I try again: “In The Pirate, you made Gene Kelly look like he could dance!” Fayard laughs and recalls, “He gave us a routine we could do in our sleep. When he showed up and we were not rehearsing, he wanted to know why. Harold stood up and did the steps as they were laid out. Then he sat down. Gene turned red as a tomato and walked away.”
Harold enters with a pair of tap shoes and a mandolin. He explains, “There is a lot of responsibility when you are the best. The key is never upstaging the lead, or you will soon find yourself unemployed.” Fayard responds with “Please! The studios allowed us to do whatever we wanted, because there was no one that could dance better than us.”
As my assistant packs the van, I turn and look at the building.
In many movies, the Nicholas Brothers are credited simply as “Specialty Dancers.” They are more than dancers; they are the most versatile entertainers of all time. It’s funny to hear how much all the big producers in film and theatre loved the Nicholas Brothers. How could you not, when all you had to do was turn the lights on the team, roll film, or open the curtains?