Fayard Nicholas : Dancer Taps Into Fond Memories

Times Staff Writer

Fayard Nicholas was wearing slippers, not tap shoes.

The man whose moves inspired Gene Kelly, Gregory Hines and other notable dancers fidgeted recently in a wheelchair as he recalled 60 years in show business. Nicholas, 71, was in the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, recovering from surgery to replace an arthritic hip.

In Hollywood, his younger brother, Harold, 68, won rave notices as the grandfather who doesn’t let death deter his taps in “The Tap Dance Kid,” which just completed an 11-week run at the Pantages Theatre. As the older Nicholas said with obvious pride: “He can do all those things we used to do in the movies. How about that!”

Still slim and radiating energy, Fayard Nicholas can no longer slide and tap, tap, tap at an unreasonable speed down a seemingly endless double staircase, taking turns with his brother as they leap over each other and execute the stunning airborne splits that were their trademark. When they did that in the 1943 musical “Stormy Weather,” audiences routinely, and incorrectly, assumed the sequence was the product of trick photography.


Desire to Leave

But, even in the hospital, Nicholas finds a way to dance in the chains that time forges. “I want to get the hell out of here,” he said as his fingers suddenly tapped back and forth across the tray of his wheelchair to some urgent interior rhythm.

Gods in the pantheon of tap, the Nicholas Brothers played the Cotton Club in Harlem during its shady heyday, danced on screen with Gene Kelly and other greats and were discovered all over again in “That’s Entertainment” and other recent compilations of unforgettable moments in American movies.

Nicholas, who retired to the Woodland Hills facility last year, is no grouser. He emphasized the good folks and good times in his long career, pausing once or twice to praise his Bahai faith. But he is also a clear-eyed witness to the minority experience in an industry that often promulgated stinging racial stereotypes and withheld stardom from many minority performers with extraordinary gifts.

Chiding Culture

Nicholas doesn’t bring up the downside of show-business history unless prompted. Even then, he chides the culture as a whole, not the industry. “There’s less prejudice in show business than in any other business,” he said. But for minority performers, it became obvious as he talked, success often was bittersweet.

On Nov. 19, Lincoln T. Perry, better known as Stepin Fetchit, died at 83 in the Woodland Hills hospital where Nicholas reminisced.

By shuffling, grinning and pleading, “Feets, don’t fail me now,” Perry became the industry’s first black star and first black millionaire. But he lost his fortune and the regard of those who saw his lazy, shiftless screen persona as one of the most racist stereotypes of all. A trailblazer whose name became an epithet, Perry was a unique human archive who, silenced by strokes in his last years, could no longer reveal what he saw, heard and felt in segregated Hollywood.

According to Nicholas, his was a better, though sometimes trying, time to be gifted and black.

Started at Age 9

Nicholas started dancing professionally at age 9. His parents had an orchestra and were playing in Philadelphia, the Manhattan-born performer recalled. “Every day after school I would go to the Standard Theater and find a seat as close to where my father was playing drums as possible. And then I’d start shaking. I shook that seat so hard I broke it.

“Just by watching, I taught myself to dance,” he said. “Then I taught my brother and sister.” His parents were so impressed with the act their underage offspring put together that they gave up their own performing careers to manage them full time, although their sister, who couldn’t cope with nightclub hours, quickly retired.

The Nicholas Brothers were different from other tap-dance acts, Nicholas said. “These other dancers could make millions of taps, and they’d sound good, but they’d stay in one place, and, most of the time, they’d look at their feet.

Never Looked Down

“We used our whole bodies. Other dancers didn’t understand that. They’d just use their feet, and let their hands hang down. But we’d give them that and that,” he said, illustrating the something extra that the Nicholas Brothers delivered with two graceful sweeps of his articulate hands. The team never looked at their feet, because their daddy warned them not to, and they always smiled as they danced.

The act started as a nonstop string of tap dances but quickly evolved into something more varied and complex. This wasn’t a purely aesthetic decision. “We were so tired,” Nicholas recalled. “I said, ‘Brother, this will never work.’ He said, ‘What are we going to do?’ ‘Let’s add some singing to this act,’ I said. ‘Let’s talk to the people. Let’s make ‘em laugh. It’ll give us a breather between dances.’ ”

During the ‘30s, the brothers were favorites at the Cotton Club. The fact that it was run by gangsters had little effect on the young dancers. “That’s how we could work there,” he laughingly said of the club’s law-flouting management. “These two little kids working until 3 o’clock in the morning--that’s cruelty to children!”

Their parents had to watch their prodigies perform from backstage. Cab Calloway could help make the club famous around the world, but he and other blacks couldn’t sit in the audience. “The doorman would tell you, ‘You can’t come in,’ and he was black,” Jackson said. The talent also was unwelcome in the club’s only bathroom, as the white attendant who cleaned it made clear.

Like George Raft and Charlie Chaplin, Tallulah Bankhead was a regular at the club and one of the brothers’ early fans. Apparently because they were children, they were allowed to join guests at their tables, where they drank orange juice while the paying customers downed overpriced hooch.

Bankhead later told Fayard that he and Harold, as graceful as they were athletic, were the greatest dancers in the world. “If you were white, maybe you would be dancing with Ginger Rogers,” the notoriously candid actress added.

Success at Apollo

The young Nicholas Brothers regularly wowed the raucous crowd at the Apollo Theater, where audience displeasure meant cries of “Take ‘em off!” They also appeared in the very uptown “Ziegfeld Follies of 1936,” with Bob Hope, Fanny Brice and Josephine Baker. Nicholas recalled how unhappy the legendary Baker was in that show. As she had in Paris, the black performer writhed in a costume of bananas. But, in an apparent concession to American prejudices, Ziegfeld restaged the number with a lot more bananas, a lot less sizzle and absolutely no physical contact between the black star and the white hunks who surrounded her on stage.

The brothers made their Hollywood debut in “The Big Broadcast of 1936.” Lena Horne, for whom MGM devised a makeup shade called light Egyptian, and other tenacious, charismatic performers would slowly change the complexion of Hollywood. But, when the brothers broke into the business, black actors were routinely depicted in one-dimensional roles, often as shiftless servants. White performers such as Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor still routinely appeared in blackface. Nicholas remembered his tangled feelings at seeing Cantor’s minstrel-show mugging in the 1930 movie “Whoopee.”

‘Made Me Laugh’

“I didn’t like it but it made me laugh,” he said. “All these little blue-eyed blondes would surround him. They liked him. Maybe that’s why I didn’t hate it so much.”

The Nicholas Brothers never played demeaning parts, he said. “They didn’t dare ask us to do that shuffling and everything because we wouldn’t have done it.” Nor did they suffer the fate of those black performers whose roles in films were limited to specific sequences that could easily be snipped out when the movie was distributed in the South. “They never cut us out,” he said. “They even liked the Nicholas Brothers in South Africa!”

Although they often devised their own routines, the brothers also worked with such distinguished choreographers as George Balanchine on Broadway and Nick Castle at 20th Century Fox. Castle dreamed up the spectacular routine for “Stormy Weather.” “Let’s not rehearse this,” Castle suggested. “Just do it.” They did, on the first take.

‘Never Lets Up’

“It just keeps building and building and building and it never lets up,” Nicholas noted. “Man, that’s a tough act to follow!”

If the bad old days of “Feets, do your duty” are gone forever, minority performers continue to make less money than their white counterparts. In 1980 only 10 black actors or actresses earned more than $50,000, according to figures compiled by the Screen Actors Guild. That same year, 312 white members of the guild made more than $50,000, including 82 who earned more than $100,000. About 7% of SAG’s membership is black, according to its equal-employment officer Rodney Mitchell, who identified minority females as the least likely to succeed in Hollywood.

Although Fayard Nicholas won neither the fame nor the fortune of a Fred Astaire or a Gene Kelly, he isn’t complaining. But he would like to see the Nicholas Brothers’ contribution recognized by a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. As he pointed out, Eleanor Powell was nominated for the honor four years before her star was unveiled. She didn’t live to see it.

Two years ago, Nicholas said, he was told that he and Harold had been chosen for the honor and that a major studio would pay the $3,000 installation fee that now stands between the brothers and their star.

“They’ve already given George Burns three, and we’re having trouble getting one,” said Nicholas. He laughed and, once again, his hands began to dance.