Harold's older brother Fayard (1914-2006)
Here's the two of them together, but the above photo is a bit misleading, as the Nicholas Brothers were rarely seen...
I briefly wondered if I should do this post as an "Under the Radar", my recurring feature dedicated to talented people who never quite achieved fame, but the above advertisement convinced me that the Nicholas Brothers were famous enough, at least in their day. Touring the continent--that would be Europe--triumphant appearances in England, France, Sweden, Portugal, Italy and Denmark. Unfortunately, here in North America, the continent of their birth, there were no triumphant appearances in the United States South, either live or on film. On the latter score, their motion pictures either were all-black productions (and often shorts) which never made it past the Mason-Dixon line, or mostly white pictures that featured the two of them in specialty numbers (one of which they shared with a pre-Carmen Jones Dorothy Dandridge, Harold's then-wife) that existed outside a movie's main storyline, so as to be easily edited out when it was shown in the land of Dixie. But such scenes weren't edited from the films shown in London, where Harold and Fayard became popular enough to warrant a Royal Command Performance in 1948. What did King George VI care about Jim Crow?
Produced by Jack Haley Jr (the Tin Man's boy), 1985's That's Dancing! was an offshoot of Haley's That's Entertainment! film compilations. Starting in 1974, these were themselves theatrical films that celebrated the heyday of the Hollywood musical. What made TD! a bit different from TE!, is the latter was solely dedicated to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which could give someone too young to enjoy that heyday the misleading impression that only MGM made musicals in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. In fact, all the major Hollywood studios produced musicals. It was a very popular form of movie entertainment in that era. Now at the time Metro did have deeper pockets than the other studios, and eventually was able to lure stars of the genre who had originally achieved success elsewhere. For instance, Fred Astaire first rose to fame at RKO before hearing the roar of Leo the Lion. Astaire eventually danced through enough of MGM's Metrocolor product to be featured quite prominently in all three That's Entertainment! movies, but was never seen dancing with Ginger Rogers in black-and-white. That's Dancing! redresses this imbalance by showing production numbers from all the major studios, thus giving you a more rounded picture of motion picture history (part of MGM's generosity in that regard may have had something to do with then-owner Ted Turner also owning the film libraries of several of its competitors, but I'm just speculating.) The Nicholas Brothers did do one film for Metro, The Pirate, but most of their cinematic movements were at 20th Century Fox (which I guess qualifies them these days as Disney Legends), including Down Argentina Way, which is featured in That's Dancing! Because it's a bit similar to another clip I want to show you, I'm going to skip DAW for now, but I will show you Harold and Fayard, now in their golden years, promoting the release of That's Dancing! Watch:
They seem like a couple of nice guys.
And they were a couple of nice kids. Their mother was a pianist and father a drummer who played in their own band at Philadelphia's Standard Theatre, which from 1914 to 1931 specialized in black vaudeville entertainment. Oldest boy Fayard got to see all the top black entertainers at his parents' place of employment and obviously was quite taken with the dancers. Entirely self-trained, he taught his sister Dorothy and kid brother Harold how to dance, and they formed their own act, The Nicholas Kids. Dorothy soon dropped out and that was when the act's name was changed to The Nicholas Brothers (of course they were that before there ever was an act.) Their combination of tap and acrobatics got them noticed pretty quickly, playing not just the Standard but now-legendary Cotton Club (though at the latter only white audiences were allowed to see them perform, discrimination at its most head-scratching.) Then came Broadway. The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 (a show that also featured Bob Hope and Josephine Baker), and the very next year Rodgers and Hart's Babes in Arms. All well and good, but none of that meant posterity. For that you needed moving pictures, especially for those two, who, after all, moved pretty damn fast, examples of which now follow.
First up is a scene from an all-black movie about an all-black radio station none-too-subtly titled The Black Network. Fayard is 21 (but looks 15) and Harold is 15 (but looks 10.) Watch:
As you watched them dance, did you keep in mind that it's supposed to be a radio audition? At least it was tap and not ballet.
Finally, we jump ahead seven years to 1943, by which time both brothers were old enough to drink, not that it matters since they couldn't possibly have done what you're about to see next unless they were cold sober. Deciding to do it in the first place, then they might have been as high as a Sun Valley chairlift. Here's the preternaturally amazing Nicholas Brothers at their amplified-tapping, gravity-defying, land speed record-breaking, bone fracture-resistant best. But first you have to sit through a few minutes of Cab Calloway (and that, my friends, is hardly a hellish experience):
And to think, spandex hadn't even been invented yet!