Justice for the Nicholas Brothers

At the Sun Valley Lodge, there is a television station devoted to playing the 1941 film “Sun Valley Serenade” on a loop. It is a genuinely awful movie, starring John Payne of “Miracle on 34th Street” fame, Norwegian ice skater Sonia Henie, and Milton Berle, although it does show the famous ski resort in the days when guests used to be towed around the slopes on their skis by horses. Last time I was in Sun Valley to give a presentation, I watched about half the film in disconnected bites, since I never can sleep on such trips. This time I finally saw the whole thing. At about 3 AM, as Glenn Miller was leading his band in the longest version of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” in history, Fayard and Harold Nicholas suddenly flipped onto the screen, and Sun Valley Serenade briefly went from fatuous to immortal.

If your reflex response to that last sentence was “WHO??“, you are part of the reason for this post, and also in the vast and deprived majority of Americans. As I went among my future audience of lawyers and their spouses yesterday morning, happily informing them that the terrible movie playing around the clock in their rooms included the dance team called “the unforgettable Nicholas Brothers” in more than one tribute, I learned that none of them had any idea what I was talking about, and many of these individuals were old enough to have been able to see Fayard and Harold in a theater. The Nicholas Brothers were, you see, the greatest tap-dancers who ever lived, and the most amazing dance team that ever will be.

The fact that they have been virtually forgotten is accountable to several factors, among them that the movies they appeared in are all about as well-remembered as “Sun Valley Serenade”; that their films, except for one, were in black and white; that they were primarily stage performers, and that they seldom appeared on television, and were past their primes when they did. The main reasons the Nicholas Brothers are forgotten, however, is that they were black, and they were so much better than the white dancing stars who were their contemporaries.

The team’s best numbers were in all-black cast musicals, and when they were in a movie with white stars, their routines were slotted in so they could be easily excised when the film was playing in the South. Even though their wizardry on the dance floor was openly acknowledged in the movie industry at the time—the reactions of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire to the question “Why didn’t you have the Nicholas Brothers do a number in any of your movies?” were roughly, “Do you think I’m crazy?”* and “Have you seen the Nicholas Brothers?” respectively—they were buried, kept intentionally obscure, so no one would find out that two short, almost indistinguishable kids from Philadelphia could make Fred, Gene, Donald and Ray look like they were dancing in galoshes.

There were many tributes to Fayard and Harold in their twilight years (Fayard died in 2006; Harold in 200o), when all the right things were said about them, and they never seemed to betray much bitterness about their careers, which I always found endearing and remarkable. I’m bitter though. To me, they epitomize the harm racism did to our culture, robbing us of the talents, skills, contributions and genius of literally millions of Americans who could have made the nation richer, stronger and happier if they had just been given a chance. In the admittedly narrow case of the Nicholas Brothers—I recognize that tap-dancing isn’t going to save the world—racism robbed millions of Americans of the special, transcendent joy of seeing human beings defy natural laws to music, and two brilliant dancers/artists/athletes  of the recognition, riches and cultural immortality they earned and deserved. It is all so wrong.

There is YouTube now, and maybe some small portion of what was taken away from our culture and the brothers can be restored. We can, at least, help the culture to remember the Nicholas Brothers. It isn’t hard: all we have to do is give people a chance to watch them. Play the videos for your kids…I don’t care if the films are black and white, it is literally impossible to watch these guys do their dances without dropping your jaw, no matter how young you are. Put them on your Facebook pages, send them to your friends, and most of all, watch them yourself. The wonderful thing about the Nicholas Brothers is that they really are unforgettable, if we only give ourselves the chance to remember them.

Now here’s your chance.

_______________________________________________

* To be fair, Gene Kelly did have them featured in one of his movies, “The Pirate,” a big budget MGM musical  with Judy Garland. He even danced with them. But their choreography was toned way down so that Gene could be the stand-out; they were in clown make-up, and the movie was a bomb. That was their sole appearance in a mainstream Hollywood musical.  I don’t want to think about it.

__________________________________________

Spark: Sun Valley Lodge

Sources:

Graphic: Nicholas Brothers Official Website

 

 

16 thoughts on “Justice for the Nicholas Brothers

  1. Gregory Hines has said that if they ever do a bio pic about the two of them that the dancing will have to be CGI becuase no one can do the moves they did.

    • I think he was right, don’t you? Among other things, they were tiny. I don’t care how fit you are, those splits and pulling yourself up like that will tear up anyone over 150 pounds or so. Is it any surprise that they both had to get hips replaced?

      • I totally agree. There is no way you will find dancers who today who could do what they did. The only person I have ever seen who could do the hand free splits that they did was Sammy Davis Jr and he said he could only do once a show as he body couldnt handle it more then that.

        • Yes! Thanks for reminding me of Sammy, who was just as small, though not as muscular, as the Nicholas Bros. And Sammy had to have BOTH hips replaced.

          The leaping INTO the splits is what I find amazing–and painful to even think about.

  2. Some 15 or 20 years ago I had the honor and privilege of shaking Fayard Nicholas’ hand. It was backstage post-curtain at a Santa Monica CA community theatre musical (don’t remember which one). He was in audience and came backstage to congratulate the kids after. I’m old enough (80) to remember him. But what may surprise you is that the show’s young dancers, late teens and 20s, knew who he was; made a big fuss over him and asked for his autograph.

    The dear old gentleman was delighted.

  3. Gene Kelly DID have the Nicolas Brothers dance with him in “The Pirate” (1948). And Fred Astaire called their dance number (Jumpin’ Jive) from “Stormy Weather”- The greatest movie musical sequence he had ever seen.

    • Yes, Gene had them as his back-ups in virtual disguise, with them toned down to do exactly what he was doing, but slightly less flamboyantly. They were not given a chance to do what they could do, or a solo number. The use of them in “The Pirate” is infuriating, and exactly what I was referring to. They might as well have been hobbled.

  4. They were one of a kind!! Super smooth! Two of a kind with innate talent for movement.Pure elegance! They are the epitome of unique!! They are in a Tap class of elegance,alone!
    Hines/Glover,though talented,don’t compare.
    Sad about their hip problems.Tappers should forget about splits,no matter how fabulous they look,especially their type of splits! Blah! Blah! Blah!

  5. Arrant nonsense. I’ve probably read a more poorly substantiated argument, but at this moment I can’t think when. Your astonishing dismissal of the ‘Be a Clown’ number in ‘The Pirate’ is staggering. The number was the celebrated hit of the show and showcased the brothers in a vibrant athletic number. You emphasise the fact that Fayard and Harold were dressed as clowns, but you deliberately omit the fact that Gene was similarly attired. Furthermore, the brothers appeared at Kelly’s AFI tribute and acknowledged the impact that number had on their careers. I can understand why you ‘don’t want to think about it’… because it’s devastating to your idiotically conceived and poorly written argument. The Nicholas Brothers never had the career they should have had because of racism in America, that is true, but playing fast and loose with certain facts only serves to undermine the impact of your article. You, sir, are a complete and utter clown… in make-up, or not.

    • You’re nuts, right? This is an insulting and unjustified rant based on this single paragraph:

      “To be fair, Gene Kelly did have them featured in one of his movies, “The Pirate,” a big budget MGM musical with Judy Garland. He even danced with them. But their choreography was toned way down so that Gene could be the stand-out; they were in clown make-up, and the movie was a bomb. That was their sole appearance in a mainstream Hollywood musical. I don’t want to think about it.”

      ???

      1. It was “the hit of the movie,” which was a bomb, a famous one. The clip was used in “That’s Entertainnment” to highlight—Gene Kelly (with the Nicolas Brothers)

      2. What was the impact of the movie on their careers? Here, via the Internet movie database, is the complete list of what Harold Nicholas did on screen between The Pirate and Ten Years later, when he had effectively stopped dancing except in clubs:

      1956 Bonjour Kathrin
      Specialty Dancer (with The Nicholas Brothers)
      1955 Music in the Blood
      1955 Sie können sich sehen lassen (TV Movie)
      Dancer (with The Nicholas Brothers)
      1953 El misterio del carro express
      Dancer (with the Nicholas Brothers)
      1953 El mensaje de la muerte (with The Nicholas Brothers)
      1950 I’m in the Revue
      Dancer (with The Nicholas Brothers)

      Got that. jerk? Wow! Their career really took off! Did MGM use them again? No. Did any major studio? No. Did Kelly, who had the power to put them on TV? No. Do you know how the Nicholas Brothers were credited in “The Pirate”? They weren’t. The Brothers were a class act and never said what they could have and perhaps should have about their treatment. They were gracious to Kelly…I wouldn’t have appeared, if I were them.

      In that light, this is hilarious: “You emphasize the fact that Fayard and Harold were dressed as clowns, but you deliberately omit the fact that Gene was similarly attired.” Yes, you moron, because Kelly was the star of the movie, and everyone knew who he was. Fayard and Harold were in clown make-up so nobody who wasn’t familiar with them would know they were BLACK, you ass.

      The number was an insult, a prime example of the racism of the day, didn’t help their career at all. My criticism, and the essay, are impeccable on the facts. Sorry the truth hurts. No, I’m really not.

      • I waited until the inevitable insulting response from this silly person to ban him, but I wanted to respond to his initial sally. Heavens, I dared to impugn his favorite cult movie while accurately pointing out its pusillanimous misuse of the Nicholas Brothers. In his even nastier response—yes, I baited him, because I knew I was going to ban him—he raved on about how great The Pirate is—the damn thing, despite beautiful art direction and some nice dances, is well-nigh unwatchable. Judy Garland as a Dominican ingenue? It’s pompous, over-produced and silly. This was the second abusive comment I got out of the blue today on an old post. Abusive but with valid points I can tolerate if it’s not TOO abusive, but defending the anonymous, unbilled use of the Nicholas Brothers is too much, when it exemplifies the point of the original post.

        I will continue to pronounce jerks jerks. It’s ethical. Someone needs to tell them.

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