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by George Spink

During the mid-1970's, Chicago's Biograph Theater showed a week-long festival of 20th Century Fox musicals, including the two starring Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, Sun Valley Serenade (1941) and Orchestra Wives (1942). I had seen both films on TV a couple of times, but never on the big screen. What a thrill that was for me!

One of the highlights of both films were performances by the Nicholas Brothers, one of the finest dance teams who ever lived. They were already well-known by the time they made these films. Dorothy Dandridge joined the Nicholas Brothers in both films. And she joined Harold Nicholas in marriage in 1942, which lasted until 1951.

In Sun Valley Serenade, they sang and danced to "Chattanooga Choo Choo;" in Orchestra Wives, they performed with the band on "Kalamazoo." Fortunately, thanks to the magic of You Tube, we can view both performances right here:

"Chattanooga Choo Choo"

The Nicholas Brothers began singing and dancing when they were children. Fayard, born in 1914, and Harold, born in 1921, were naturals, as this early video shows:

Their parents were musicians who often worked at the Standard Theater in Philadelphia. By the time he was 10, Fayard had seen many of the top black vaudeville acts at the Standard.

The Nicholas Brothers became the featured act at Harlem's Cotton Club in 1932, when Harold was 11 and Fayard was 18. By 1940, they were in Hollywood, appearing in "Down Argentina Way":

In 1943, the Nicholas Brothers appeared with Cab Calloway singing
"The Jumpin' Jive" in "Stormy Weather," once again amazing audiences around the nation with their remarkable talent:

In early July 1980, I began work as entertainment coordinator for the Mayor's Office of Special Events in Chicago. Jane Byrne was Mayor, Chicago's first and only female to hold that post. She wanted our office to produce a variety of festivals and other events that would rock the city. We did.

Two Senior Citizens Picnics were scheduled for later that month, one in Marquette Park on the southwest side, the other in Lincoln Park on the north side. Knowing how seniors loved to dance when they were young in the 1930's and 1940's (and some still did!), I brought in the Nicholas Brothers from Los Angeles to entertain at both festivals, which were scheduled a week apart.

Harold and Fayard Nicholas were then in their sixties. I backed the Nicholas Brothers with Roger Pemberton and His Orchestra, comprised of the finest jazz and studio musicians in Chicago. They played big band jazz on Monday nights at Wise Fools Pub on Lincoln Avenue in the same way that Thad Jones and Mel Lewis played one night a week in Greenwich Village in New York City. Both bands loved playing big band jazz. The Nicholas Brothers brought their own arrangements, which the band loved playing.

My mother, then 64 years old, attended the festival in Lincoln Park with some of her friends. They lived nearby in a seniors building. The Nicholas Brothers, who were about the same age as the seniors, gave terrific performances both times. Local TV stations covered both picnics and the Nicholas Brothers.

I tear up when I think about how good the Nicholas Brothers were at those festivals. So was the band, which obviously enjoyed a chance to back this great dance team.

This is one moment in time I will cherish in my book of memories forever.

Harold Nicolas died in 2000; Fayard in 2006. I will never forget them....

George Spink
Moderator - The Palomar
Los Angeles, California
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