The Nicholas Brothers – dance pioneers
Most classic film fans have seen the Nicholas Brothers’ stunning performance in the 1943 film Stormy Weather. But other than that, I’m sure most movie fans don’t know much about her. Since today is Harold Nicholas’ birthday, I thought this would be a good time to write about her.
Fayard Nicholas was born on March 17, 1921 in Mobile, AL and Harold Nicholas was born on March 27, 1921 in Winston-Salem, NC. You grew up in Philadelphia. Her father, Ulysses Nicholas, was a drummer and her mother, Viola Harden, played the piano. They led a band at the Standard Theater in Philadelphia. Fayard watched them from the front row as a kid and saw all the black variety shows. He was fascinated by dancers like the legendary Bill Robinson. So he imitated her.
Fayard taught himself by observing the stage performers and then imitating them. First he tutored his sister Dorothy and they performed as the Nicholas Kids. Then Harold joined in the act. Dorothy dropped out and the Nicholas Brothers were born. Harold usually imitated Fayard. Her tap dancing style is called “Flash Dance” which was popularized by The Four Step Brothers and The Berry Brothers. I’m sure Fayard saw her perform.
As their fame grew, the Nicholas Brothers became the mainstay in New York’s Cotton Club. Fayard was 16 and Harold 11. While at the Cotton Club for two years, they performed with bands led by Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Jimmy Lunceford. They appeared in the 1932 short film Pie Pie Blackbird starring Eubie Blake. When producer Samuel Goldwyn saw the Nicholas Brothers at the Cotton Club, he brought them to Hollywood to appear in the 1934 film Kid Millions. They appeared in the 1936 Broadway musicals The Ziegfield Follies and the 1937 musical Babes in Arms. Famed ballet choreographer George Balanchine was so impressed that he taught them some new techniques.
The Nicholas Brothers moved to Hollywood in 1940. Her best known performance was the performance of Jumpin’ Jive with Cab Calloway and his orchestra in the 1943 film Stormy Weather. Other films include Down Argentine Way (1940), Tin Pan Alley (1940), The Great American Broadcast (1941), Sun Valley Serenade (1941) and Orchestra Wives (1942). The Nicholas Brothers have never acted in a film. They were featured actors and their segments were removed so the films could be shown in the southern US, where Jim Crow laws still existed. But there’s no question that the Nicholas Brothers have been the pinnacle of every film they’ve starred in.
After dancing with Gene Kelly in the 1948 film The Pirate, Harold moved to France. So they stopped performing together. They were forgotten until they appeared in the 1974 film That’s Entertainment. And after that there was interest in them. They received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1991. Harold Nicholas died on July 3, 2000 and Fayard Nicholas died on January 24, 2006 at the age of 91. Here’s Cab Calloway and his orchestra with the Nicholas Brothers performing Jumpin’ Jive from the 1943 film Stormy Weather.
— Frank Pozen for Classic Movie Hub
Frank Pozen writes our monthly film classics column. You can read all Franks Classic Movie Music articles here.
Frank Pozen writes about music, wrestling and more on his blog, Frank Pozen’s Big Bad Blog, including his post AccuRadio Song of the Day. You can follow Frank on Twitter @frankp316.