Interview With Fayard Nicholas
Hi Lindy Hoppers!!!
Some real "Off the Wall" Stuff

This page contains our 1998 interview with Fayard Nicholas -- BUT we also had occasion to meet, talk and dance with Fayard in the period from 1998 until his passing in 2006. The other interviews and reports are:

Interview With Fayard Nicholas

On February 4, 1998, we had the rare opportunity to spend about four hours with Fayard Nicholas, one of the famous Nicholas Brothers of tap dancing fame. Mr. Nicholas is in the National Rehabilitation Hospital, recovering from a stroke. It was with some trepidation that we approached his room. We had only intended to bring along a Life Magazine as a gift, and we had no intention of making an extended visit.

Mr. Nicholas warmly invited us to sit down and began to speak, "My brother and I made sixty five films starting with Kid Millions (Eddie Cantor)..." The conversation lasted nearly four hours, interrupted only briefly by doctors' consultations. During this time, we were joined by Angela, "Dr. Daniel" Fierer, and Jackie Vincent. Although Mr. Nicholas was speaking from a wheelchair in a hospital dressing gown, his eloquence and absolute mastery of sophisticated conversation made all of us feel that we were at a posh nightclub sharing celebrity gossip.

The Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold came from a musical family. Their parent had an orchestra, The Nicholas Collegiates. The family travelled together and thus, the brothers got to see some of the very best vaudeville acts of the 1920s. Fayard says that he taught himself to dance while watching the various acts from the wings. Then he taught his brother and younger sister to dance. They worked up an act and showed it to their father, who loved the act. According to Fayard, he didn't want to change anything, but offered three pieces of advice:

  • don't look at your feet
  • "I like the way you use your hands"
  • look at the audience

With that, the "Nicholas Kids" were launched at the Strand theater in Philadelphia in about 1927. They were apparently quite a success. Mr. Nicholas said that they always went on last because "nobody wanted to follow kids." Their fame grew and engagements poured in. As a measure of their success, they played in London with their parents and travelled on the Queen Mary, the height of opulence and luxury for the time. Also, they got around on land in a chauffeured Packard limousine and had tutors because they worked all night.

After touring with their parents band, they were recognized by Owney Madden, the gangster who owned the Cotton Club in Harlem. They were brought to the club to audition before Duke Ellington, who was amazed by their talent. He called them real "Originals" and put them into the show, the pinnacle of African-American entertainment in the 1920s. By this time, their sister had dropped out of the act due, according to Mr. Nicholas, to the "late hours."

The Cotton Club was rigidly segregated. The performers were all black, but no African-Americans were allowed to be in the audience. In this bizarre situation, only the Nicholas "kids" were allowed to mingle with the celebrity clientele. Mr. Nicholas recounted meetings with Bette Davis, Jimmy Durante, Mayor Jimmy Walker, the Marx Brothers, and Charlie Chaplin. Mr. Nicholas says that they always ordered orange juice when they chatted with celebrities.

When the Ellington Band was replaced by Cab Calloway, the Nicholas Brothers continued at the Cotton Club. Brother Harold Nicholas was very adept at impersonations and did a featured number (today, one might call it "Duelling Cabs") in which he and cab Calloway took turns singing verses to "Minnie the Moocher".

During this part of the conversation, we asked Mr. Nicholas about Zoot suits. I believe that the Nicholas Brothers were not part of the Zoot movement. His response was merely that "Zoot suits were not our cup of tea, we always wore tuxes." Mr. Nicholas also remarked that he and his brother always strove to add "class" to their performance.

Daniel mentioned that he could never do anything of a cooperative nature with his brother, and then asked for the secret of the Nicholas Brothers long partnership. Mr. Nicholas said that they shared everything and had a real commitment to their work. He recounted stories of other "brother acts" where the two parties were not even on speaking terms.

Mr. Nicholas touched on his period of military service during World War II. Brother Harold was exempted because he weighed less than 100 pounds, although Mr. Nicholas says that the military doctors kept looking at the broad shoulders in his suits, and had Harold weighed on three separate occasions. Fayard, at 115 pounds, was inducted and served initially in a laundry unit in Mississippi but was eventually transferred to a special services unit in Fort Huachuca, AZ, where he performed for the GIs.

Pearl Harbor day, December 7, has been significant for Mr. Nicholas -- it was on this date that he got an induction notice (in 1942), met his first wife (in 1938), and had his stroke (in 1997). Both Nicholas Brothers were honored as "national treasures" by the Kennedy Center in 1992. Last year (i.e 1997) the Kennedy Center had the idea of bringing all the living honorees together to celebrate the 25th year that the Center has been in operation. Following the ceremony and a meeting with the President, Mr. Nicholas and his wife got into their limousine to head back to the hotel. While en route, Mr. Nicholas felt dizzy and lost the use of one arm and was thus transported directly from the White House to GWU medical center. It was determined that a heart operation was needed to repair damage which had caused the stroke. Following surgery, Mr. Nicholas has been recuperating at the National Rehabilitation Hospital. He dislikes the hospital food and has a preference for cheese crackers, macadamia nuts and grape soda.

When asked about his family, he mentioned that his children not involved in dance, but that his grandchildren ( ages 7 and 9) call themselves the "Nicholas Sisters" and appear to be ready to continue the family tradition. Continuing the conversation on family matters, Mr. Nicholas touched briefly on brother Harold's whirlwind courtship and marriage to Dorothy Dandridge and the fact that his parents lived long enough to see their success in films.

Mr. Nicholas says that he fell in live with Los Angeles, the first time he saw it and has lived there ever since. He has survived fire, high winds, floods, and earthquakes and remains a devoted Californian.

After this, we had to take a short break, while Mr. Nicholas consulted with his doctors. We were ready to let him get some rest, but he insisted that we sit down and continue the conversation. We let him take the lead, and here is a brief summary of our notes.

  • The famous "Flying Split" was invented after Mr. Nicholas saw a vaudevillian do a split going down without using his hands. This impressed Fayard ( at age 8, he says) and he thought that he could do one better -- he taught himself to get up without using his hands. The next logical step was to jump into the split. Apparently, the first flying split ever was done over a fire plug in Philadelphia.
  • The conversation moved to the film work of the Nicholas Brothers. Fayard mentioned the work of African-American artists was often "removed" when films were shown in the Old South. In fact, several of the Brothers best sequences are quite separate from the films in which they are set. For example, in Sun Valley Serenade, the plot has all the principals (Glenn Miller, John Payne, Milton Berle, Sonja Henie) involved in a band rehearsal at a ski resort. These folks are dressed in ski clothes. The band goes through "Chattanooga Choo Choo" one time, and the action switches to the Nicholas Brothers who are inexplicably in a night club setting, wearing tuxedos. They do their number and the action goes back to the ski lodge --- without explanation.
  • Mr. Nicholas seemed most proud of his work in The Big Broadcast of 1936 where the brothers had dialogue and a role central to the plot --- meaning that their sequences could not be cut.
  • We chatted for some length about the "off the wall" move in Orchestra Wives. In this, the brothers run at a vertical wall, get three steps up the wall, do a back flip and land in a flying split. We asked him simply, "what was it like the first time?" He said that the choreographer who dreamed up the stunt posed it as an impossible goal ("if only...") The brothers had themselves harnessed with ropes and pulleys as a safety precaution and attacked the wall, mastering the stunt within a week. Donald O'Connor paid the brothers a tribute in Singin' In the Rain when he does part of a Nicholas Brothers routine, ending with the "wall"; indicating that nobody but the Nicholas' could do the stunt, when O'Connor hits the wall, it turns out to be paper and he plunges through.
  • The incredible routine in Stormy Weather involves a set that looks like a staircase, but the "steps" are about three feet high. In the routine, the brothers do flying splits over each other as the go both up and down the staircase. Mr. Nicholas says that they only took one take to film the routine.
  • Although they had a small role in Down Argentine Way (a stinker that stars Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda, and Don Ameche), their act was very popular. In New York, people would call the theater to find out when the Nicholas Brothers segment was being shown, and arrive just for that part --- and leave afterwards.
  • In 1948, the Nicholas Brothers undertook a tour of the Old South with Dizzy Gillespie. Fayard says that he did this with some misgiving, and only after assurances of personal security, dignified lodging and lots of money. Mr. Nicholas says that the entire company received an exuberant welcome, and that the trip went smoothly without incident. So many folks had commented about the specifics of their work, that he seriously began to believe that their sequences had not been cut from the films.
  • Note: all of these films are shown regularly on the American Movie Classics cable channel

I mentioned the Stork Club, in the context of the little wooden figure of a stork that we had found in New York (It is described in the Travel Guide). Mr. Nicholas gave us some insight into segregation and its evil effects that is worth remembering in these times. Apparently the Stork Club was run by gangsters and rigidly segregated. Josephine Baker, the famous singer, was the Toast of Paris and not only welcome but also a very desired guest at the very best clubs, casinos and palaces in Europe. When Ms. Baker did a show on Broadway, she invited the Nicholas Brothers to be part of it, and even incorporated a sequence where Harold Nicholas did an impression of her. One evening, George Jessel escorted Ms. Baker to the Stork Club, where they were barred by a doorman -- who knew full well who both people were and knew that Florenz Ziegfeld was in the party. The doorman asked, "Who made your reservations?" Mr. Jessel replied, "Abraham Lincoln." The group, including the Nicholas Brothers, integrated the Stork Club that night.

Mr. Nicholas said that he thought that Eleanor Powell was the best dancer that he had ever known because she could do it all -- ballet, tap, ballroom, jazz and swing. He also says that she was a tremendously witty and charming person. He also mentioned that he taught Betty Grable the fundamentals of tap dance. One of his best memories is the Fred Astaire sought him out at a party and said, "I have always wanted to dance like you." Although they never performed together, Mr. Astaire has some very kind words for the Nicholas Brothers in the film That's Entertainment. Mr. Nicholas also had some high praise for Gene Kelly and his highly athletic style of dancing.

With respect to more contemporary dancing, Mr. Nicholas mentioned that he has had several enjoyable meetings with Frankie Manning. The best "now" story concerned a flat tire that he had on the way to teaching a class in Los Angeles. A young man stopped and changed his tire for him. Later in the class, the good samaritan turned out to be Chester Whitmore.

On a final note, and almost as an aside, Mr. Nicholas described an odd incident on the set of Sun Valley serenade. It seems that Glenn Miller asked some of the band and the Nicholas Brothers to listen to a new song that he had received from a New York arranger. The group sat by the piano as Chummy MacGregor played the new tune. Mr. Nicholas turned to Glenn Miller and said,"Do you think that's any good?" Miller replied,"No --- it stinks." The song was "Chattanooga Choo Choo." It went on to sell a zillion records and became the Nicholas Brothers' most requested number. Fayard says that he has "Gotten used to it."

This was a dizzying afternoon -- as if the golden age of Hollywood had come to life just for us. We will treasure these memories forever. The best part happened at about 5:00 pm when word was received that Mr. Nicholas would be discharged on Tuesday February 10, 1998.

From: Buck Smolow

Fayard's brother Harold Lloyd Nicholas is named after THE Harold Lloyd. Fayard and his mom LOVED H.L. the original and when Fayard's bro was born Fayard insisted he be named Harold Lloyd. Once at a big Hollywood soiree, they had a chance to meet the real HL who only really knew them as "the Nicholas Brothers" and said he was a huge fan at which point Fayard admitted that he was SUCH a fan of Harold Lloyd that he named his little brother after him!!
PS, I just watched Stormy Weather and WOW!!!

From: Sue Fedor

Harold Nicholas was married briefly to Dorothy Dandridge.

Dorothy Dandridge was born in Ohio in 1922. She toured America with sister and mother, performing in Baptist churches before Los Angeles put her on the screen. Her roles were largely stereotypical black ones, as with her sisters in the Marx Brothers' A Day at The Races. Among her film roles were a dance number with Fayard and Harold Nicholas in Sun Valley Serenade, a southern schoolteacher in Bright Road (1953) and the title roles in Carmen Jones (1954) and Otto Preminger's production of Porgy and Bess (1959).

Dorothy Dandridge was twice married and had an institutionalised child. She became bankrupt and was found dead in 1965. (Also, there's a porn star by the same name....)

About the Fayard Nicholas Interview
By: Mark Kraft <<>>

Dear Frank-
Just read your interview of Fayard Nicholas.. very nice indeed! I was especially interested, as I am currently researching the first major website on Cab Calloway. I have [talked to] Cab's grandson recently and it looks as if he is interested in assisting me on the site, so it may become, for all intensive purposes, official. I was interested in first seeing whether you would mind if I took excerpts from your interview for the site ( I will be willing to link to and give credit to your site, of course ) [Editor's note; Certainly!] I was also somewhat curious about the possibility of contacting Fayard in order to get down his recollections that are specific to working with Cab Calloway. Could you perhaps help me arrange a phone interview? [Editor's Note: We lost Fayard's phone number --- can any of our readers help Mark out?]

My work is getting pretty historically detailed.. I feel almost as if I am researching a whole novel at times, but I want to make sure that the site really brings to life the man and his times. On the off chance that you have any research, rare recordings, pictures or memorabilia of Cab or the Cotton Club ( or can round up a friend or two that does ) I would also be interested.
---Mark Kraft

[Editor's Note: So, anyone who can help Mark out now has his e-mail address!]

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