Fayard Nicholas was wearing slippers, not tap shoes.
The man whose moves inspired Gene Kelly, Gregory Hines and other notable dancers fidgeted recently in a wheelchair as he recalled 60 years in show business. Nicholas, 71, was in the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, recovering from surgery to replace an arthritic hip.
In Hollywood, his younger brother, Harold, 68, won rave notices as the grandfather who doesn't let death deter his taps in "The Tap Dance Kid," which just completed an 11-week run at the Pantages Theatre. As the older Nicholas said with obvious pride: "He can do all those things we used to do in the movies. How about that!"
Still slim and radiating energy, Fayard Nicholas can no longer slide and tap, tap, tap at an unreasonable speed down a seemingly endless double staircase, taking turns with his brother as they leap over each other and execute the stunning airborne splits that were their trademark. When they did that in the 1943 musical "Stormy Weather," audiences routinely, and incorrectly, assumed the sequence was the product of trick photography.
Desire to Leave
But, even in the hospital, Nicholas finds a way to dance in the chains that time forges. "I want to get the hell out of here," he said as his fingers suddenly tapped back and forth across the tray of his wheelchair to some urgent interior rhythm.
Gods in the pantheon of tap, the Nicholas Brothers played the Cotton Club in Harlem during its shady heyday, danced on screen with Gene Kelly and other greats and were discovered all over again in "That's Entertainment" and other recent compilations of unforgettable moments in American movies.
Nicholas, who retired to the Woodland Hills facility last year, is no grouser. He emphasized the good folks and good times in his long career, pausing once or twice to praise his Bahai faith. But he is also a clear-eyed witness to the minority experience in an industry that often promulgated stinging racial stereotypes and withheld stardom from many minority performers with extraordinary gifts.
Nicholas doesn't bring up the downside of show-business history unless prompted. Even then, he chides the culture as a whole, not the industry. "There's less prejudice in show business than in any other business," he said. But for minority performers, it became obvious as he talked, success often was bittersweet.
On Nov. 19, Lincoln T. Perry, better known as Stepin Fetchit, died at 83 in the Woodland Hills hospital where Nicholas reminisced.
By shuffling, grinning and pleading, "Feets, don't fail me now," Perry became the industry's first black star and first black millionaire. But he lost his fortune and the regard of those who saw his lazy, shiftless screen persona as one of the most racist stereotypes of all. A trailblazer whose name became an epithet, Perry was a unique human archive who, silenced by strokes in his last years, could no longer reveal what he saw, heard and felt in segregated Hollywood.
According to Nicholas, his was a better, though sometimes trying, time to be gifted and black.
Started at Age 9
Nicholas started dancing professionally at age 9. His parents had an orchestra and were playing in Philadelphia, the Manhattan-born performer recalled. "Every day after school I would go to the Standard Theater and find a seat as close to where my father was playing drums as possible. And then I'd start shaking. I shook that seat so hard I broke it.
"Just by watching, I taught myself to dance," he said. "Then I taught my brother and sister." His parents were so impressed with the act their underage offspring put together that they gave up their own performing careers to manage them full time, although their sister, who couldn't cope with nightclub hours, quickly retired.
The Nicholas Brothers were different from other tap-dance acts, Nicholas said. "These other dancers could make millions of taps, and they'd sound good, but they'd stay in one place, and, most of the time, they'd look at their feet.
Never Looked Down
"We used our whole bodies. Other dancers didn't understand that. They'd just use their feet, and let their hands hang down. But we'd give them that and that," he said, illustrating the something extra that the Nicholas Brothers delivered with two graceful sweeps of his articulate hands. The team \o7 never \f7 looked at their feet, because their daddy warned them not to, and they always smiled as they danced.
The act started as a nonstop string of tap dances but quickly evolved into something more varied and complex. This wasn't a purely aesthetic decision. "We were so tired," Nicholas recalled. "I said, 'Brother, this will never work.' He said, 'What are we going to do?' 'Let's add some singing to this act,' I said. 'Let's talk to the people. Let's make 'em laugh. It'll give us a breather between dances.' "