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Nicholas Brothers made impossible look easy

Sunday, July 30, 2000

I adored the Nicholas Brothers.

That's the only way I knew them, no first names. I never met them. And yet they gave me afternoons of excitement and joy, for all of 11 cents.

The movie musical was always my best treat. They were big and brash, and the stories they told were impossible in real life. I see them now on classic-movie channels. I still thrill to dance numbers on tables and pianos, full orchestras appearing from nowhere and Betty Grable never mussing her hair. It was heaven.

The Nicholas Brothers were part of it.

Harold, the youngest brother, died July 3 at age 79.

It was a coincidence that I had just watched the 1940 movie "Down Argentine Way" two days before his obituary was in the newspaper. I uttered "Oh, no" out loud when I read it.

His dancing with brother Fayard, now 85, has no equal. Their movies may have lost their magic, but those dance numbers remain among the most exciting I have ever seen.

Unlike today, when you go to a movie at starting time and leave when it is over, we would sit through it three times, quite often just to see the Nicholas Brothers do those incredible leaps and splits and taps, always smiling as if this were the easiest thing in the world.

Those splits! We used to cover our faces with our hands and peek as they would sail through the air and land like open scissors. Ouch.

The brothers were honored at the Kennedy Center in 1991, thank goodness, and they had tears in their eyes, and so did I. I think that's the first time I knew they were Harold and Fayard, not joined at the hip as the Nicholas Brothers with no identities of their own.

Harold, of course, had been married to Dorothy Dandridge early in his career. The couple knew tragedy and triumph. I saw only the triumph.

I knew nothing of the racial discrimination they lived through. Even as marquee names, they, like Dandridge, were not allowed the privileges of white people. They were applauded and cheered onstage in hotels and clubs, but they entered by the back doors. They could entertain us, even thrill us with their talents, but they couldn't sit with us.

I sat in movie theaters and watched the best there was, and I had no idea what happened when they weren't on film or on a stage. Even at the Cotton Club in Harlem, only whites were permitted entrance to the entertainment provided by the likes of the Nicholas Brothers, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington or Satchmo.

I never knew. I never asked.

There have been documentaries and biographies of late, some reruns from recent interviews with both of them. One of the most surprising things I learned from these was that while I was watching those magnificent dance numbers as a 10-year-old, I had no idea the numbers were designed in such a way they could be plucked from the reel at any given time and not be missed. And that would be done in cities and towns where audiences preferred not to be exposed to black entertainers.

It made me feel ashamed.

All of this was going on while I was being given memories to last a lifetime, seeing talents the likes of which we will not see again, except by their legacy on film.

I think what always appealed to me was the way they looked at each other, smiled and acknowledged what fun they were having, neither one upstaging the other. And there were the grace of those hands and the waving arms, the leaps and twirls and the incredible rise from those splits as if they were yo-yos on strings. Just awesome.

I appreciate most dancers, the innovators like Astaire, Kelly, O'Connor, Fosse, Hines and so many others. But the Nicholas Brothers stand out in my memory.

I will always be awed by their magical performances in "Stormy Weather" or "Sun Valley Serenade," which I must have seen more than a dozen times in my lifetime.

Knowing the hard road they traveled, I doubt I could admire them any more than I always have, but I now think of them with more appreciation. I value what they gave me as a little white girl sitting in a movie theater, ignorant as to the prejudices in the world perhaps, but wide-eyed at the talent on the screen.

All of our eyes should be wide open by this time. So should our hearts. Things should be different. But sadly, too much remains the same.

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