From vaudeville to the Cotton Club, from Broadway to Hollywood, the Nicholas brothers thrilled audiences with their unique blend of athleticism and grace. Hailed by The New York Times as "great tap dancers" and "masters of timing and ministers of grace", the siblings finally received long overdue recognition in the 1980s and 90s. While they had enjoyed a measure of success on stage in the 30s and in film in the 40s, the prevalent racism of Hollywood and the rest of the USA hindered these pioneers from achieving the heights of white counterparts. They enjoyed wider acclaim in post-war Europe, Both brothers also displayed depth as dramatic actors in film roles but neither was able to fully capitalize on those skills either. Instead, they were content to be feted and praised for their career which spanned six decades.
Harold Nicholas was the youngest of three, born to musicians Ulysses and Viola in March 1921. At age five, he joined his elder brother Fayard and sister Dorothy and performed in vaudeville houses in Philadelphia as the Nicholas kids. In 1930, he and Fayard made their professional debut as the Nicholas Brothers on "The Horn and Hardart Kiddie Hour". While performing at Harlem's Lafayette Theater, a talent scout from Warner Bros. signed the duo to appear in films and the brothers made their debut alongside Eubie Blake in the short "Pie, Pie Blackbird" (1932). Shortly thereafter, the Nicholas Brothers began appearing alongside such notables as Cab Calloway and Ethel Waters at Harlem's famed Cotton Club. Harold also landed a small part as a pint-sized orchestra conductor in 1933's "The Emperor Jones".
During their stint at the Cotton Club, movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn saw them perform and offered the Nicholas Brothers their first feature, "Kid Millions" (1934). Over the next fifteen years, Harold and Fayard performed the balletic jazz routines--tap punctuated by acrobatic feats of skill. In signature moves, the pair would perform splits and jump over one another. These showstopping numbers proved a favorite with audiences of all races (except in the South where their routines would be edited out).
Before they achieved full-fledged success in films, though, the Nicholas Brothers conquered the stage, starring in London in "The Blackbirds of 1936" and on Broadway in "The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936". The latter was choreographed by George Balanchine and staged by Vincente Minnelli. Balanchine was so impressed with the dancers, he created an Egyptian Ballet for them in the 1937 Rodgers and Hart hit "Babes in Arms". (The songwriters also penned a special number "All Dark People (Is Light on Their Feet)".) Having vanquished the Great White Way, the Nicholas Brothers set out on a tour of South America in 1939, appearing on the same bill as Carmen Miranda. When Miranda was brought to Hollywood for a featured role in "Down Argentine Way" (1940), so too were the Nicholas Brothers. Although director Irving Cummings wanted to edit their number, dance director Nick Castle argued for including it in its entirety. After a test screening where the audience cheered and demanded the projectionist rewind the film and run an encore of the sequence, the matter was settled. Harold and Fayard had definitely arrived, although they still felt the sting of a racially segregated country.
In 1941, the brothers were teamed onscreen with rising star Dorothy Dandridge (whom Harold would marry in 1942 and divorce in 1951) to perform the Oscar-nominated "Chattanooga Choo Choo" in "Sun Valley Serenade" (1941). The following year, they introduced another tune which caught the Academy's attention, "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo" in "Orchestra Wives". But it was their amazing, gravity-defying display of terpsichorean skill in "Jumpin' Jive" from 1943's "Stormy Weather" that assured them a place in the pantheon of memorable movie dance sequences. An all-black musical that featured the likes of Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway and Fats Waller, "Stormy Weather" showcased the Nicholas Brothers at their peak. They only went on to appear in a handful of others musicals, most notably their last, "The Pirate" (1948), directed by Vincente Minnelli in which they achieved a small victory in dancing onscreen with Gene Kelly.
Although the siblings would continue to make appearances together throughout the 50s (i.e., Dwight D Eisenhower's inauguration), Harold opted to launch a solo career in Europe where race was less of an issue. In 1965, Harold and Fayard toured Vietnam with Bob Hope and the USO entertaining American troops. As musical tastes devolved into specialty offerings and rock 'n' roll overtook Tin Pan Alley, the brothers found their act falling out of favor. Each attempted to stretch by undertaking dramatic roles. Harold earned excellent notices as a gangster in "Uptown Saturday Night" (1974) but found it difficult to break the typecasting as a musical performer. Instead he returned to Broadway replacing Gregory Hines as the star of the Duke Ellington revue "Sophisticated Ladies" in 1982 and then toured in the popular "The Tap Dance Kid". He basically played himself in "Tap" (1989), helmed by Nick Castle Jr, and graced Robert Townsend's "The Five Heartbeats" (1991) and (in his final acting role) "Funny Bones" (1995). In the 1990s, the Nicholas Brothers began to finally receive their due as recipients of numerous accolades (e.g., the Kennedy Center Honors) and as the subject of books and documentaries. Harold succumbed to kidney failure and cardiac arrest following surgery in July 2000.