Special to the AmNews
“The Nicholas Brothers defied gravity, they hung in the air and stayed there for a long time. I saw this with my own eyes.”
These are the words that my father, Norman Sandoval, used to describe his experiences when watching the famed Nicholas Brothers perform in person, on multiple occasions, in New York and Philadelphia.
My father would then ask me to clearly define the word “defied” to make sure that I understood the weight of his statement. To defy is described as “openly resist or refuse to obey,” and according to my father’s experience, the brothers did just that, and he added that the Nicholas Brothers (Harold and Fayard) were not “ordinary men” by standards of which ordinary is measured. In his observation, they were exceptional and used their “magic” in a way that terrified no one, but make no mistake, “they defied gravity.”
At the Film Forum Tuesday, Sept. 27, “The Fabulous Nicholas Brothers” will be shown—back by popular demand—as part of Film Forum’s weeklong “Marx Brothers & the Golden Age of Vaudeville” celebration.
For many, the story of the Nicholas Brothers, Fayard (1914-2006) and Harold (1921-2000), who rank at the very top of the 20th century’s greatest dancers, is all but lost.
These brothers, magical or not, smashed racial hurdles, and the self-taught performers became headliners at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club and stars of vaudeville and Broadway—with their show-stopping numbers in Hollywood movies making them internationally famous.
Known for effortless balletic moves, elegant tap dancing and jaw-dropping leaps, flips and splits—along with a sly sense of humor—the Olympian brothers are in the end impossible to categorize. The dancer’s dancers, their fans have included Bob Fosse, Gregory and Maurice Hines, George Balanchine, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Michael and Janet Jackson and Fred Astaire, who called their “Stormy Weather” staircase number the greatest musical sequence of all time.
This tribute will be presented by Bruce Goldstein, a friend of the brothers and writer and co-producer of an award-winning 1991 documentary on the team.
Goldstein presented his first Nicholas Brothers tribute at Film Forum in 1988. His current talk, using film clips, recordings and vintage photographs, was first presented at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, which ended with the audience of 500 spontaneously giving a standing ovation.
Honing their craft in Philadelphia, the Nicholas Brothers saga began in the early 1920s, when Fayard started imitating the dance acts he saw at the Philadelphia vaudeville house where his parents were musicians.
He soon started teaching his toddler brother Harold. By the late 1920s, they were a professional act known as The Nicholas Kids.
In 1932, they were booked into Harlem’s world famous Cotton Club, headlining with Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Ethel Waters. They made their first film that same year. In 1940, they appeared in their first of five films for 20th Century Fox. Their breathtaking, daredevil numbers in those movies (including the all-Black “Stormy Weather,” with Lena Horne, Bill Robinson and Fats Waller) made them internationally famous.
The Brothers continued performing together up until Harold’s death in 2000—an extraordinary 75-year career. A highlight of their later years came in 1991, when they received The Kennedy Center Honors, the nation’s highest award for the performing arts.
“No other dancers had the same combination of elegance, humor, charisma and chemistry,” said Goldstein. “And they had a deep love for each other—rare among sibling acts. No one comes close to them.”
Mark Monday, Sept. 26, because Goldstein will also present “Vaudeville 101” at 2:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. (paired with a new restoration of the Marx Brothers’ first feature, “The Cocoanuts”). Live vaudeville was once the leading form of American entertainment—until talkies killed it.
For more information, links and showtimes, visit www.filmforum.org.