The Nicholas Brothers


Dancer

About

Also Known As
Fayard Antonio Nicholas, Harold Nicholas, Fayard Nicholas
Birth Place
Mobile, Alabama, USA
Born
October 28, 1914
Died
January 24, 2006
Cause of Death
Pneumonia

Biography

From vaudeville to the Cotton Club, from Broadway to Hollywood, the Nicholas brothers thrilled audiences with their unique blend of athleticism and grace. Hailed by The New York Times as "great tap dancers" and "masters of timing and ministers of grace," the siblings finally received long overdue recognition in the 1980s and 90s. While they had enjoyed a measure of success on stage in th...

Family & Companions

Geraldine Pate
Wife
First wife; married in January 1942; divorced in 1956; mother of Nicholas' sons; later married to attorney Leo Branton.
Barbara Nicholas
Wife
Married from 1967 until her death on March 7, 1998 at age 72.
Katherine Hopkins Nicholas
Wife
Fourth wife; married in 2000.

Bibliography

"Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers"
Constance Valis Hall, Oxford University Press (2000)

Notes

Mr. Nicholas has undergone two hip replacements.

"I'm glad all the things we did are on film--it's there forever." --Fayard Nicholas to Los Angeles Times, July 2, 2000.

Biography

From vaudeville to the Cotton Club, from Broadway to Hollywood, the Nicholas brothers thrilled audiences with their unique blend of athleticism and grace. Hailed by The New York Times as "great tap dancers" and "masters of timing and ministers of grace," the siblings finally received long overdue recognition in the 1980s and 90s. While they had enjoyed a measure of success on stage in the 30s and in film in the 40s, the prevalent racism of Hollywood and the rest of the USA hindered these pioneers from achieving the heights of white counterparts. They enjoyed wider acclaim in post-war Europe, Both brothers also displayed depth as dramatic actors in film roles but neither was able to fully capitalize on those skills either. Instead, they were content to be feted and praised for their career which spanned six decades.

Fayard Antonio Nicholas was the oldest of three, born to musicians Ulysses and Viola in October 1914. Watching in the wings of theaters, he absorbed the dance steps of the vaudeville headliners and soon was teaching his younger siblings, sister Dorothy and brother Harold. By 1927, the trio was performing in vaudeville houses in Philadelphia as the Nicholas kids. In 1930, he and Harold made their professional debut as the Nicholas Brothers on "The Horn and Hardart Kiddie Hour." While performing at Harlem's Lafayette Theater, a talent scout from Warner Bros. signed the duo to appear in films and the brothers made their debut alongside Eubie Blake in the short "Pie, Pie Blackbird" (1932). Shortly thereafter, the Nicholas Brothers began appearing alongside such notables as Cab Calloway and Ethel Waters at Harlem's famed Cotton Club.

During their stint at the Cotton Club, movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn saw them perform and offered the Nicholas Brothers their first feature, "Kid Millions" (1934). Over the next fifteen years, Harold and Fayard performed the balletic jazz routines--tap punctuated by acrobatic feats of skill. In signature moves, the pair would perform flying splits by jumping over one another. These showstopping numbers proved a favorite with audiences of all races (except in the South where their routines would be edited out).

Before they achieved full-fledged success in films, though, the Nicholas Brothers conquered the stage, starring in London in "The Blackbirds of 1936" and on Broadway in "The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936." The latter was choreographed by George Balanchine and staged by Vincente Minnelli. Balanchine was so impressed with the dancers, he created an Egyptian Ballet for them in the 1937 Rodgers and Hart hit "Babes in Arms." (The songwriters also penned a special number "All Dark People (Is Light on Their Feet).") Having vanquished the Great White Way, the Nicholas Brothers set out on a tour of South America in 1939, appearing on the same bill as Carmen Miranda. When Miranda was brought to Hollywood for a featured role in "Down Argentine Way" (1940), so too were the Nicholas Brothers. Although director Irving Cummings wanted to edit their number, dance director Nick Castle argued for including it in its entirety. After a test screening where the audience cheered and demanded the projectionist rewind the film and run an encore of the sequence, the matter was settled. Harold and Fayard had definitely arrived, although they still felt the sting of a racially segregated country.

In 1941, the brothers were teamed onscreen with rising star Dorothy Dandridge (whom Harold would marry in 1942 and divorce in 1951) to perform the Oscar-nominated "Chattanooga Choo Choo" in "Sun Valley Serenade" (1941). The following year, they introduced another tune which caught the Academy's attention, "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo" in "Orchestra Wives." But it was their amazing, gravity-defying display of terpsichorean skill in "Jumpin' Jive" from 1943's "Stormy Weather" that assured them a place in the pantheon of memorable movie dance sequences. An all-black musical that featured the likes of Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway and Fats Waller, "Stormy Weather" showcased the Nicholas Brothers at their peak. They only went on to appear in a handful of others musicals, most notably their last, "The Pirate" (1948), directed by Vincente Minnelli in which they achieved a small victory in dancing onscreen with Gene Kelly.

Although the siblings would continue to make appearances together throughout the 50s (i.e., Dwight D Eisenhower's inauguration), Fayard suffered with arthritis which made it difficult for him to maintain his standards. In 1965, the brothers toured Vietnam with Bob Hope and the USO entertaining American troops. As musical tastes devolved into specialty offerings and rock 'n' roll overtook Tin Pan Alley, they found their act falling out of favor. Each attempted to stretch by undertaking dramatic roles. Fayard won praise for his turn in "The Liberation of L.B. Jones" (1970), helmed by William Wyler, but that would prove to be his sole non-musical film role. In 1989, he shared a Tony Award for his choreography of "Black and Blue," a musical review featuring a score of blues standards. By the 1990s, the Nicholas Brothers began to finally receive their due as recipients of numerous accolades (e.g., the Kennedy Center Honors) and as the subject of books and documentaries. Their abilities live on in Fayard's granddaughters who perform as the Nicholas Sisters.

Life Events

1926

Performed with sister Dorothy and brother Harold in vaudeville in Philadelphia as the Nicholas Kids

1930

Professional debut with brother Harold on "The Horn and Hardart Kiddie Hour"

1932

Film debut in the short "Pie, Pie Blackbird", also featuring Eubie Blake

1932

With brother, performed at Harlem's The Cotton Club alongside such acts as Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters and Duke Ellington

1934

Feature film debut, "Kid Millions"

1935

Had integral role in "The Big Broadcast of 1936"

1936

Appeared on the London stage in "Blackbirds of 1936"

1936

Broadway debut in "The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936", directed by Vincente Minnelli and choreographed by George Ballanchine

1937

Had featured role in the Rodgers and Hart musical "Babes in Arms"; Ballanchine again choreographed

1939

Toured South America alongside Carmen Miranda

1940

Breakthrough feature, "Down Argentine Way", also featuring Carmen Miranda

1941

Teamed onscreen with Dorothy Dandridge peforming the Oscar-nominated song "Chattanooga Choo Choo" in "Sun Valley Serenade"

1942

Introduced the Oscar-nominated "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo" in "Orchestra Wives"

1943

Performed what is considered their best screen dance. the "Jumpin' Jive" number in the all-black musical "Stormy Weather"

1943

Drafted into the US Army; assigned to laundry detail in all-black unit in Louisiana

1944

Discharged from military service

1948

Final film appearance as the Nicholas Brothers, "The Pirate", directed by Vincente Minnelli; broke racial barriers by dancing in one scene with Gene Kelly

1948

Toured the southern USA with Dizzy Gillespie

1953

Performed at the inauguration of US President Dwight D. Eisenhower

1965

Joined brother to tour Vietnam with Bob Hope's USO show

1970

Solo acting debut in "The Liberation of L.B. Jones", directed by William Wyler

1989

Contributed to the choreography of the Broadway stage musical "Black and Blue"; shared Tony Award for choreography

1992

Was subject of documentary "The Nicholas Brothers: We Sing and We Dance"; aired on A&E

1996

Taught at Harvard as visiting dance artist with brother Harold

1997

Suffered mild stroke

1998

Performed with granddaughters who kept family tradition alive by performing tap numbers as the Nicholas Sisters; Fayard quoted as saying, "they do everything we did--in skirts!"

Family

Ulysses Nicholas
Father
Musician, orchestra leader. Died of a heart attack in 1935.
Viola Nicholas
Mother
Musician, orchestra leader.
Dorothy Nicholas
Sister
Dancer. Younger; performed with brothers in vaudeville.
Harold Nicholas
Brother
Dancer. Born on March 17, 1921; performed with brother from early age; died on July 3, 2000.
Anthony Fayard Nicholas
Son
Born on March 28, 1945.
Didier Paul Nicholas
Son
Born on October 29, 1950.
Nicole Nicholas
Granddaughter
Dancer. Born in July 1985; with sister performs as the Nicholas Sisters.
Cathy Nicholas
Granddaughter
Dancer. Born in December 1987; with sister performs as the Nicholas Sisters.

Companions

Geraldine Pate
Wife
First wife; married in January 1942; divorced in 1956; mother of Nicholas' sons; later married to attorney Leo Branton.
Barbara Nicholas
Wife
Married from 1967 until her death on March 7, 1998 at age 72.
Katherine Hopkins Nicholas
Wife
Fourth wife; married in 2000.

Bibliography

"Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers"
Constance Valis Hall, Oxford University Press (2000)

Notes

Mr. Nicholas has undergone two hip replacements.

"I'm glad all the things we did are on film--it's there forever." --Fayard Nicholas to Los Angeles Times, July 2, 2000.