The Great American Flyers
The Dancing Nicholas Brothers Defied Gravity — Higher And In More Ways Than Any Other Dancers Or Athletes Like Michael Jordan — And They Are Likely The Greatest Flash Act In Showbiz History
Hollywood comedian Bob Hope joins Harold and Fayard Nicholas in a dance step aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier Ticonderoga. Viet Nam Photo Service., 12/1965.
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
March 16, 2015 — Nobody ever got “air” like the dancing Nicholas Brothers, not even Michael Jordan in mid-leap during a monster jam. Fayard and his younger brother Harold were, by almost unanimous consent, the greatest airborne flash act in show business history.
Their specialty was somersaults into mind-boggling leg splits from which they rose almost in slow motion, and rapid-fire tap dancing that sounded like short bursts from an angry Gatling gun.
For the record, the Nicholas Brothers were running up walls and doing backflips (into splits) long before Donald O’Connor’s justifiably famous “wallies” in his “Make ‘Em Laugh” routine in Singin’ in the Rain.
The brothers were a legendary act at Harlem’s Cotton Club during the 1930s where they gyrated and flipped to the swingin’ sounds of Cab Calloway, Chick Webb and Duke Ellington. The original club, located on Lenox Avenue (now known as Malcolm X Boulevard), shuttered its doors in 1935 – 80 years ago. Later on, their specialty numbers in such movies as Stormy Weather, Orchestra Wives, Down Argentine Way and Sun Valley Serenade generated wild applause in movie houses coast to coast.
Harold and Fayard began their show business careers as a child act in their hometown of Philadelphia in 1930 where their mother played piano and their father played drums in an orchestra called the Nicholas Collegiates. It was Fayard who caught the dancing bug first, lingering after his parents’ stage performances to watch other acts on the bill.
“I liked what I saw,” he told us during an interview we had with the brothers in 1999. “They were singing, dancing and telling jokes … having fun up there. So, just by watching, I taught myself how to perform.”
When we met, Fayard was garrulous about the Nicholas Brothers and their legacy. He was dressed in a blue leisure suit and sported a Planet Hollywood baseball cap. Harold, more taciturn, wore thready sweatpants and a gray sweater and had his gray hair tied back into a nubby ponytail. His inscrutability seemed even more so accented as it was with a wispy Fu Manchu goatee.
The Nicholas Brothers started out as pint-sized performers and remained lithe, super-charged and hobbit-sized throughout their careers. There must be a physics postulate somewhere about minimal body mass and lightning-fast propulsion leading to spectacular aerial dynamics. Just don’t make the mistake of calling Fayard and Harold a flash act!
Harold: We weren’t a flash act. We did tap and acrobatics.
Fayard: Yes, “flash” is a bad word. When you say, “flash,” you think flashy. Be we did classical tap. In our routines you’d see a little bit of ballet, eccentric dancing and you see acrobatics and classical tapping. We can do a routine without any splits, just tap dancing.
Reel to Real: We read in Marshall Stearns’ wonderful book, Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance, that the film choreographer Nick Castle said your hands (Fayard’s) were as beautiful as Fred Astaire’s.
Fayard: Actually, he said that my hands were the best in show business. I love Fred Astaire. He was a perfectionist and he did all those wonderful things. He used his hands like I do; I just did more of it. I went to a rehearsal hall in Philly and rented a room with mirrors so I could see myself. I figured I was going to do more with my hands, and work with my whole body – to give this a Nicholas Brothers style! That’s what I taught Harold.
Reel to Real: Do you have a favorite routine from all your movies?
Harold: I thought the thing we did in Stormy Weather was great – the one where we slide down the gutters in a split for our big finish. We did that number in one take. You know Astaire said that was the best number he ever saw in a movie.
Fayard: I like all our routines because I could see progress in all of them.
Reel to Real: You worked with Gene Kelly in The Pirate in 1948.
Harold: It was the first time we did straight dancing … no tricks or tumbling or anything. But it was interesting because the three of us synchronized our moves. Gene had seen us in New York and told us that some of the stuff we were doing was what he’d like to do.
Fayard: Producer Arthur Freed at MGM called Gene into his office one day and said: “Gene, I’ve got the story that you can do with the Nicholas Brothers” It was the script for The Pirate, but Freed warned Gene that any number he might do with us could be cut out when the picture played theaters in the south. Gene said: “I don’t give a damn! It’ll play the same all over the world, so why do we have to just think about the south? The movie played in the south and they never cut us.
Reel to Real: Who was the greatest dancer you ever saw?
Harold: “Baby Laurence” Jackson was fantastic. Guys today are dancing like Laurence danced back in the 1940s and ‘50s. Savion Glover … he’s thinking Baby Laurence even though he may have never met him. I know that’s the kind of rhythm he’s doing.
Fayard: We danced with about every dancing there was. Outside of my brother, I would name Eleanor Powell. She could do ballet, tap, ballroom, splits, acrobatics … everything. And she could do it all well. Some say she was the world’s greatest female dancer, but I say she’s the world’s greatest dancer. She’s better than everybody.
Reel to Real: Sadly, Eleanor Powell had a relatively short film career.
Fayard: Yeah, but when she was on screen, you paid attention. I remember one of her friends threw a birthday party for her and they transformed her garage into a theater. We watched all her movies and then they played the Nicholas Brothers movies over and over. And she sat next to me and held my hand and would say: “Did you see that?” And she kept squeezing my hand, never taking her eyes off the screen and saying: “Watch this,” like I had never seen the routine before. Then, after she blew out the candles on her birthday cake, I said: “Eleanor, I don’t count when I dance.” And she said she didn’t either, and I said: “Well, we do have something in common.” I then said: “Eleanor, I pick up a lot of steps that I don’t have names for.” And she said: “Me, too!” Then I said: “Wow, we really have something in common.”
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
MTM Exclusive: João Cerqueira When Jesus of Nazareth comes back to Earth — maybe for the third time, maybe not — he finds that not all of those known as his most dedicated followers see things from a similar point-of-view.
Four Festivals Fold In Favor Of Touring Mega-Spectacle Coachella, Sasquatch, Bonnaroo, And Austin City Limits Will Be Closing Up Shop As Of 2017 And Changing The Format Of American Music Festivals Forever.