Harold Nicholas, the younger of the two Nicholas Brothers who brought an elegant but distinctively gymnastic style of tap-dancing to a number of major Hollywood musicals in the 1930s and ‘40s, died in New York on Monday. He was 79.
He had been scheduled to attend a tribute to the Nicholas Brothers on Saturday at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in Hollywood, but recuperation from a heart operation last week was going more slowly than he expected. He returned to New York Hospital on Friday, complaining of poor circulation in his legs, and another operation took place Saturday. The cause of death was reportedly kidney failure and cardiac arrest.
Child prodigies Harold and his elder brother Fayard made their film debut in 1932 (“Pie, Pie Blackbird” with Eubie Blake) and the same year began dancing at the Cotton Club, the famed New York cabaret that showcased black performers. Producer Sam Goldwyn saw them there and hired them for their first Hollywood musical, “Kid Millions” (1934).
Because of racial prejudice, they appeared as guest artists, isolated from the plot, in many of their films--a strategy that allowed their scenes to be easily deleted in the American South. But nobody other than Lena Horne (subject to the same restrictions) could raise the temperature of a film more dramatically than they did in such features as “Sun Valley Serenade” (1941), “Orchestra Wives” (1942), “Stormy Weather” (1943) and “The Pirate” (1948).
Harold had also appeared without Fayard as early as 1933 (“The Emperor Jones”) and thereafter earned solo credits in “Carolina Blues” (1944), “Uptown Saturday Night” (1974) and in a solo stage career in the 1950s and early ‘60s. He introduced the song, “Come Rain or Come Shine” in the 1946 production of “St. Louis Woman.” He also starred in the Broadway Duke Ellington musical “Sophisticated Ladies” on tour in 1982 and in the touring musical “The Tap Dance Kid” (1985).
Reunited as a duo in the mid-1960s, the Nicholas Brothers subsequently won a host of honors, including the Kennedy Center Honors, the Ellie, the Gypsy, the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award, the American Black Lifetime Achievement Award and the Dance Magazine Award.
Harold was married to actress/singer Dorothy Dandridge in 1942, a union that ended in divorce. He was recently married to longtime companion Rigmor Newman. In addition to his wife and his brother, he is survived by his sister Dorothy and a son, Melih.