By Debra Cash
Only medical skill, the support of friends and family and perhaps the prayers of his fans can help Fayard Nicholas recover from the stroke the gentlemanly 91-year old African-American dancer suffered on November 22, 2005. But those of us who thrilled to the virtuoso tap dancing of the Nicholas Brothers in the “Stormy Weather,” “Down Argentine Way” and other Hollywood musicals can make a difference by pulling out our wallets.
When I interviewed Fayard as part of the Portsmouth (NH) Percussive Music Festival in 2003, he shared an anecdote about how he once was refused admittance to the segregated film studio commissary. David Selznick got on the phone and told the maitre d’ to let him in and serve him anything he pleased — his art, alongside that of his younger brother Harold and the directors who showcased his dancing — had paid for the studio.
At the Cotton Club and in Hollywood, the Nicholas Brothers were headliners. Yet unfortunately, stars in the cement on Hollywood Boulevard and 1992 Kennedy Center honors don’t pay the bills. It’s hard to imagine such a great artist as Fayard Nicholas being at risk of having his electricity and water shut off. But that is exactly what happened this winter.
The person who kept the wolf from Fayard Nicholas’ door is a California lindy hop and tap dancer named Rusty Frank. When she was an eleven-year-old tomboy, Frank was a tap student of Fayard’s wife, Katherine. Recognizing the Nicholas’ plight, she started an emergency relief fund — complete with Pay Pal options for one-time or ongoing gifts of support. (Those in a position to make substantial contributions should get in touch with her directly through the website.) The website includes a link to a wonderful little video tribute that shows Fayard as a swell-looking teen dancing and singing with his mischievous little brother.
Clearly Fayard and Katherine have an angel of an advocate in Frank, but when I reached her by phone right after New Year’s she was eager to explain that what has happened to her friends is symptomatic of a larger problem: the fact that most performers, especially dancers, live marginal lives and that in this country, getting old and frail is very, very expensive.
“What’s happened to him only came to light because of the desperation of the situation,” she explained. Many of the tap dancers she knows, she says have “way too much pride to say anything about [financial difficulties], it’s a code of honor. Tap dancers [during the 1930s and 40s] were working from job to job, but they weren’t working every single day.” In researching her book, “TAP! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and Their Stories 1900–1955,” Frank discovered that the difference between a secure old age and one lived on the edge of poverty boiled down to one thing: whether the entertainer had bought a house. For people who came up in vaudeville, or who got used to apartment living, the decision not to buy during their peak earning years meant that they had to find a continuing stream of income to support housing costs in their old age.
Tap dancers have had it particularly hard. The market for tap dried up in the 1950s. Most of the masters went to work with other, unrelated jobs. Even those who didn’t, like Harold and Fayard, found that television created new difficulties: where an act honed in the theatre could support a lifetime of nightclub gigs, national television exposure demanded new acts every season.
The Nicholas Brothers continued working in Europe during tap’s dry spell and then were honored participants in the tap revival festivals of the 1970s and 80s. Harold died in 2000. Fayard continued to appear at festivals, taught master classes, and sold inexpensive autographed photos of himself. (On the wall of my study is one such signed photo of the Nicholas Brothers jumping in a wide side split, in front of the Chatanooga Choo Choo.) But the Nicholas Brothers did not earn residuals from their films. According to Frank, those rights were only guaranteed by union contracts signed after 1963.
Fayard’s son Tony, who works for the city of Los Angeles as a manager of a community youth program, told me this week “I’m 50 years old and I’ve never heard my dad say anything negative about anyone. He is truly one of the good guys in show business, always willing to do a benefit, always available to give autographs, take pictures, and people love him for that.” Rusty Frank concurred. “In my personal experience with him the yes comes out of his mouth before he hears the end of the question.”
When we spoke by phone, Tony Nicholas was arranging to have his father moved from an interim rehabilitation hospital to the Motion Picture & Television Fund, which provides nursing care and housing to members of the industry. In some ways, Nicholas is very lucky. Because he was not “merely” a dancer, but also sang and acted in films, he is eligible for a number of union-funded services and a small pension that supplements his social security. The Actors Fund donating $500 month towards his living expenses with that sum matched by the Frank Nelson Sick & Benefit Fund of AFTRA. But piecing together all these resources has not been easy.
As Frank described, the Nicholas’ ongoing expenses come to around $3,300 a month. (This is not the Hollywood high life.) The family is expecting to have to pay for specialists not covered by Fayard’s health insurance. Katherine Hopkins Nicholas, who is many decades younger than her husband, has not been able to work during his recent illness.
The good news is that the response to Frank’s call for help for Fayard has been outstanding. As of New Year’s, the emergency fund had raised around $35,000: enough to retire his outstanding debt. Choreographer and dancer Debbie Allen hosted a tap jam benefit at her studio in Los Angeles. The Nicholas family has received stacks of letters from all over the world. Donations have been sent by colleagues and friends but also by bedridden kids enthralled by old movies and from survivors of hurricane Katrina saying they wished they could do more.
How is the patient doing? When his college-age granddaughters Nicole and Cathy made a Christmas visit to his hospital room and tapped the old Nicholas Brother routine called “Lucky Numbers” their dad Tony said that “you could tell he could hear the taps, he was moving his head” although his eyes stayed closed. And recently he opened his eyes and told Katherine “I love you too.”
Consider your check a long overdue thank-you note.