Advertisement

Charles (Honi) Coles; Broadway Tap Dancer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Charles (Honi) Coles, the elegant hoofer who tap-danced over the decades for the cultural elite on Broadway and the criminally inclined in Prohibition-era speak-easies, died Thursday.

His wife, Marian, said her Tony award- winning husband--as best supporting actor (Mr. Magix in the 1983 musical “My One and Only”)--was 81 when he died at their New York City home. He had been battling cancer.

Gregory Hines, who was greatly influenced by Coles, said Coles’ dancing showed “really what tap is and what it means.”

Singer Lena Horne had once said that Coles was so graceful “he made butterflies clumsy.”

Advertisement

Coles’ career began with vaudeville and club acts and expanded to the stage and television. Among his other Broadway credits are “Hello, Dolly!” and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” He also performed with the national touring company of “Bubbling Brown Sugar.”

Coles, who was given his nickname by his sister, appeared in the movies “The Cotton Club” and “Dirty Dancing” and his broadcast appearances included the television version of “The Tap Dance Kid.”

Locally, his urbane showmanship was displayed at UCLA in 1986 with the revue “Essence of Rhythm,” in which he starred with Eddie Brown, Howard (Sandman) Sims and Jimmy Slyde. The four represented the various styles of tap highlighted by Coles’ easy stroll across the stage in which he said: “If you can walk, you can dance.”

The Philadelphia-born Coles never studied dancing formally, but learned by emulating Bill (Bojangles) Robinson and John W. Bubbles. Coles also performed with such big bands as those of Cab Calloway and Count Basie and with Fats Waller’s group.

Advertisement

In 1946, Coles teamed with Cholly Atkins and the team of Coles and Atkins were cast three years later in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” on Broadway.

“He thinks each step,” said Carol Channing, who starred in the show. “Each step is a story . . . that’s a star.”

Last year, President Bush awarded him the National Medal of the Arts.

As age diminished his strength, Coles resorted to the nuances of tap.

Advertisement

“Maybe I was a stronger hoofer at one time, but I can sell it now,” he told The Times several years ago.

Besides his wife, Coles is survived by a son, daughter and several grandchildren.


Advertisement