The Nicholas Brothers were part of a small cadre of black dancers who appeared frequently in Hollywood films of the 1930s and ’40s. Their appearance in the short film Pie, Pie Blackbird (1932) led to a string of features in Hollywood motion pictures, including Kid Millions (1934), An All-Colored Vaudeville Show (1935), and The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1935). Fayard and Harold spent their careers shifting between engagements in vaudeville, movies, nightclubs, concerts, Broadway, records, radio, television, and extensive worldwide tours. Because of their versatility—they could sing, act, and dance and thus were considered a “triple treat”—they headlined all over the world. Fayard Nicholas later said, “We did everything in show business except opera.” They made their Broadway debut in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 alongside stars such as the singer Fanny Brice, the comedian Bob Hope, the actress Eve Arden, and the dancer Josephine Baker. In 1937 the brothers so impressed the choreographer George Balanchine with their dancing that they were cast in his production of Rodgers and Hart’s musical Babes in Arms.
During the 1940s the Nicholas Brothers continued to appear in films, including Down Argentine Way (1940), Tin Pan Alley (1940), and Sun Valley Serenade (1941). Because of the racial prejudice characteristic of the era, black performers never held major roles in mainstream feature films, and—unlike such tap dancers as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly—the Nicholas Brothers did not have the opportunity to try out their acting skills. Instead of leading men, they were presented as a specialty act. Unlike other black performers, however, they rarely donned service uniforms; they usually appeared in formal tie and tails or well-cut suits. Despite these racial restrictions, the brothers’ brief but noteworthy film appearances brought them worldwide celebrity and gave them star billing wherever they traveled. In only one film—The Pirate (1948), starring Gene Kelly and Judy Garland—did they have roles apart from dancing.
The crowning achievement of their work was preserved in the film Stormy Weather (1943), which had an all-black cast. In it the brothers, suited magnificently in white tie and tails, dance on, over, and around the Cab Calloway Orchestra bandstands, dance side-by-side up a flight of stairs, leap onto a piano where they trade syncopated notes with the pianist, jump out onto the floor in full splits, dance up a divided stairway built of gigantic white stairs, meet at the top to exchange a few thrilling moves, and then leap into splits and slide down separate ramps, meeting once again on the dance floor to finish this dazzling routine with a crisp bow.
In the early 1940s they performed with Cab Calloway in the musical variety show The Cotton Club Revue. They had starring roles on Broadway in the musical St. Louis Woman (1946), with music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Johnny Mercer, and book by Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen; also featured were Pearl Bailey, Rex Ingram, and Ruby Hill. In 1948 they headlined the indoor circus extravaganza Cirque Medrano in Paris. The following year they appeared in a Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium for the king and queen of England...