Do You Know The Nicholas Brothers?

Fargard (1914-2006) Harold (1921-2000)

The two greatest tap dancers that ever lived-certainly the most beloved dance team in the history of entertainment are Fayard (born 1914) and Harold (born 1921-2000), the famous Nicholas Brothers.

The Nicholas Brothers grew up in Philadelphia, the sons of musicians who played in their own band at the old Standard Theater, their mother at the piano and father on drums. At the age of three, Fayard was always seated in the front row while his parents worked, and by the time he was ten, he had seen most of the great black Vaudeville acts, particularly the dancers, including such notables of the time as Alice Whitman, Willie Bryant and Bill Robinson. He was completely fascinated by them and imitated their acrobatics and clowning for the kids in his neighborhood. Harold watched and imitated Fayard until he was able to dance too, then apparently, he worked his own ideas into mimicry.

It seems that the Nicholas Brothers were immediately successful. Word soon spread through the city about their ingenuity and unique dancing abilities, and they were first hired for a radio program, “The Horn and Hardart Kiddie Hour”, and then by local theaters, like the Standard and the Pearl.  While at the Pearl Theater, the manager of the famous New York Vaudeville Showcase, The Lafayette, saw them. Overwhelmed by what he saw, he immediately signed them up for his theater.

From the Lafayette, the Nicolas Brothers opened at the Cotton Club  in 1932 and astonished their white audiences just as much as the residents of Harlem, slipping into their series of spins, twists, flips, and tap dancing to the jazz tempos of “Bugle Call Rag”. It was as if Fayard and his still younger brother had gone dance-crazy and acrobatic. Sometimes, for encores Harold would sing another song, while Fayard, still dancing would mockingly conduct the orchestra in a comic pantomime that was beautifully exaggerated. They performed at the Cotton Club for two years, working with the orchestras of  Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Jimmy Lunceford. During this time they filmed their first movie short, “Pie Pie Blackbird” in 1932, with Eubie Blake and his orchestra.

After this, their career began to gain momentum from the Cotton Club. The Nicholas Brothers then journeyed to Hollywood in 1934 to appear in the films “Kid Millions”, “The Big Broadcast” (1936), and “Black Network”.

In addition to the Kennedy Center Honors, the Nicholas Brothers have received numerous awards, including the Ellie, the Gypsy, and the American Black Lifetime Achievement Award.  They were inducted into the first class of the Apollo Theater’s Hall of Fame and the Black Filmmaker’s Hall of Fame and received their star on Hollywood Boulevard.  There have been film tributes at the National Film Theater in London, sponsored by the British Institute; at the D.C. Filmfest in Washington, C.C.; and at the JVC Jazz Festival in New York, to name a few.  Most recently, the Players presented an evening of Nicholas Brothers films.  The Cinematheque de la Danse in France is planning a film retrospective to honor the brothers later this year.

The Nicholas Brothers are the recipients of the 1998 Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement in Modern Dance, to be presented in June, and they are the subject of “Brotherhood in Rhythm”; The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers”, a 1998 Ph.D dissertation at New York University by Constance Valis Hill.

Sources: NicholasBrothers.com, blackhistory.cmgworldwide.com, YouTube