Archive for Nicholas Brothers

Gregory Hines: The Bridge to Now

Posted in African American Interest, Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2013 by travsd


Gregory Hines (1946-2003) was born on Valentine’s Day. While his brother and dad (both named Maurice) also tapped (the three — and then two — of them were originally together in an act), it was Gregory who became a movie and television star. To my mind, he almost single-handedly rehabilitated tap in the public consciousness. He (and the many others who followed) did such a good job at that transformation, that it is hard now to remember how things were just before it came along, when tap was regarded as not only intolerably old-fashioned, but even racist.

The turnabout had come in the 1960s, when black political consciousness began to be raised. At that time, show business was one of the few areas of public life where African Americans had made any inroads careerwise. At the time, it started to seem a shame that many people seemed to think that tap dancing was all black people could do — it became associated with watermelon, fried chicken and other negative stereotypes, rather than a cultural folkway to be proud of. Its foremost exemplar in mainstream show business by the 60s and 70s was Sammy Davis Jr, whose old school show biz antics were a tough pill for many (including this commentator) to swallow. Ironically, though, there’s no arguing with Sammy’s dancing — it’s the purest, best thing he did. (I can do without his singing, his patter, or his attempts at humor).

Hines represented a new generation. When he was younger, he’d been in a rock band. As opposed to high energy Las Vegas style insincerity, Hines brought a laconic, matter-of-fact cool to his performances, an attitude that made you come to him — and want to do so. There was a bit of informality to him, as though you were in the rehearsal studio and he suddenly said “Here—watch this”, and improvised a dance.

He also turned out to be an excellent actor, fulfilling that unrealized dream of the Nicholas go from being a young African American tap dancer cast solely in films for specialty dance numbers…all the way to being a full fledged movie star. (The Cotton Club, Tap, White Nights, Waiting to Exhale, etc etc) 

He was only 57 when it was very suddenly announced that he had died of cancer. The news came as an awful shock. But there are countless dancers out there right now whom he inspired. He kept it going; now they’re keeping it going.

On top of his talent, Hines knew how to honor the wellspring of where it came from, and that for me is what it’s all about

To find out more Gregory Hines, vaudeville, about the variety arts past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.  

The Berry Brothers: First Black Performers at the Copacabana

Posted in African American Interest, Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on December 25, 2012 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Warren Berry (1922-1996). The Berry Brothers (Ananias, James and Warren) were principal rivals to the Nicholas Brothers as acrobatic dancers in the 1920s and 30s. The act began with the two older brothers, Ananias (1913-1951) and James (1915-1969) who started out in carnivals and black vaudeville in the early 20s with a tribute act honoring Walker and Williams. By the mid 20s, their family had moved to Hollywood, with the boys acting in Our Gang comedies and performing at parties for Hollywood stars. From 1929-1934, the two were featured at New York’s Cotton Club. In 1929, they were the first black performers at the Copacabana, and were featured in Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds revue in London. In 1932, they were on the very first bill at Radio City Music Hall.

In 1934, Ananias briefly left the act and Warren stepped in to replace him. Then Ananias came back and the act was a trio. In 1938 they engaged in a famous dance-off with the Nicholas Brothers at the Cotton Club, in which the highly acrobatic Berry Brothers performed legendary feats. In addition to their rigorous touring schedule, they also appeared in numerous films, including Lady Be Good (1941), Panama Hattie (1942), Boarding House Blues (1948) and You’re My Everything (1949.) After Ananias passed away in 1951, the surviving brothers went solo. Warren worked for 15 years as a film editor at Screen Gems.


To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


And don’t  miss my new book Chainof Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc


Adelaide Hall, the Nicholas Bros., et Al.

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, African American Interest, Dance, Hollywood (History), Singers, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , on October 20, 2012 by travsd


A twofer! Today is the birthday of both Star of Vaudeville #373: Adelaide Hall and Star of Vaudeville #65: Fayard Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers. Coincidentally they both appear in this 1935 Vitaphone short in this “All-Colored Vaudeville Show” with The Three Whippets as their opening act — not be sneezed at!

To find out more about the variety arts past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.


The Gravity Defying Nicholas Brothers

Posted in African American Interest, Dance, Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2009 by travsd


Brothers Fayard and Harold Nicholas (born 1914 and 21 respectively) literally grew up in a vaudeville house. Their parents ran the house orchestra Nicolas’ Collegians at the Standard Theatre, Philadelphia. Fayard recounts watching the shows every day after school. There he saw the likes of Bill RobinsonBuck and Bubbles and Reed and Bryant, whom Fayard called his “first great influence”. Fayard taught himself to dance by watching these great performers and he then transmitted the knowledge to his brother and their sister Dorothy. The Nicholas trademark – the split – was lifted from a dancer named Jack Wiggins. The three made their debut at the Standard in 1930 as “The Nicholas Kids.” Dorothy, who didn’t like the late hours, soon dropped out, but the Nicholas Brothers kept at it and became something of an overnight legend. If you will note the birth dates at the top of this entry you will observe that Fayard and Harold were all of 16 and 9 when they made their debut, but they were already stopping the show wherever they went. Self-taught though they were, the children were clearly prodigies. Leaping head-high into the air, landing in a full split, and then coming up out of the split as though yanked by a giant unseen hand – and all in less time than it takes to type this – such was the stuff of the Nicholas Brothers.

Their reputation proceeded them all the way to New York, where they secured a long-term engagement at the Cotton Club in 1932. Vaudeville by now was winking out. A good many of the vaudeville theatres by this time were presentation houses, but the Nicholas Brothers worked these venues as long as there were engagements to be had. Prestige dates followed through the thirties: Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds in London (1936), The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, and the Broadway show Babes in Arms (1937) where their choreographer was Ballanchine.

They both longed for movie stardom, and indeed, did work in many Hollywood films in the thirties and forties – but it was almost always a dance turn. They rarely got a chance to prove that they could act, or that they could carry a picture as the stars they were. Eventually, the team split, with Harold working in Europe and Fayard in the U.S. In 1991, they were given an award by the Kennedy Center.

The gentlemen were very present in the PBS American Experience Vaudeville documentary. Harold Nicholas (who died in 2000) in particular comes across as a justifiably bitter man. His brother Fayard passed away in 2006.


To find out more about the Nicholas Brothers and vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever excellent books are sold.

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