Sometimes it all seems worth it.
Yesterday, late at night, I received an e-mail from a music teacher at a Catholic elementary school in Connecticut. He had introduced his young students to great musicians of the past, such as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, and arouse their admiration and excitement when he showed them videos of The Nicholas Brothers. Recently he came upon my post on Fayard and Harold from 2012, and felt compelled to write me agreeing with my lament that such miraculous performers could be so forgotten today because of their marginalization by the film industry and society. He wrote…
“We have most definitely talked of racism but I now want to read the class your article and get the feedback. Your article is succinct and eloquent. Your article assessment is sadly true. My goal is not necessarily to revive the Nicholas Brothers: it is to kindle in each of the kids in the class the spirit of excellence that each of us has and to let nothing stop us from reaching the top.”
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 circulated 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, and though Hollywood couldn’t resist using them, their talents were kept intentionally obscure, so no one would find out that two short, almost indistinguishable young men from Philadelphia could make Fred, Gene, Donald and Ray look like they were dancing in galoshes. When Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire were asked the question “Why didn’t you have the Nicholas Brothers do a number in any of your movies?,” their responses were roughly, “Do you think I’m crazy?”* and “Have you seen the Nicholas Brothers?”
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 (You can watch a documentary about the brothers here) 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 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 a video 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.
(The word you will be looking for is “Wow.” )
* 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 so you couldn’t be sure they were black, and the movie was a bomb. That was their sole appearance in a mainstream Hollywood musical. I don’t want to think about it.