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The Buzz, 11-30: Priorities

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

Fayard Nicholas, who with his late brother Harold formed the legendary Nicholas Brothers beginning some 75 years ago, suffered a stroke November 22, initially paralyzing his left side and, as the news spread, revealing that Nicholas, 91, and his wife, Katherine, were already living on the edge and need us to come through where the country and society to which Fayard and his brother have given so much has, in my opinion, failed him so miserably.

Propelled by bodies as feather-light as they were rubber-jointed, the Nicholas Brothers made their New York debut in 1932 at the Cotton Club where, records "The official Nicholas Brothers website," they "astonished their white audiences just as much as the residents of Harlem, slipping into their series of spins, twists, flips, and tap dancing to the jazz tempos of 'Bugle Call Rag.' It was as if Fayard and his still younger brother had gone dance-crazy and acrobatic.... They performed at the Cotton Club for two years, working with the orchestras of Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Jimmy Lunceford. During this time they filmed their first movie short, 'Pie Pie Blackbird,' in 1932, with Hubie Blake and his orchestra." The brothers made their film debut in 1934 in "Kid Millions," also appearing in "The Big Broadcast," and took Broadway in the Ziegfield Follies of 1936, in which, says the website, they "stopped the show so consistently that Fannie Brice, who followed in a skit with Judy Canova, was always forced to fall back regularly on a line at her first opportunity: 'Do you think we can talk now?'" Touring England the same decade and, later, working with Balanchine in the Rogers & Hart musical "Babes in Arms," they would go on to assimilate ballet techniques into their arsenal.

But it was in Andrew L. Stone's 1943 film "Stormy Weather," appearing in an all-star cast headed by Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Lena Horne (and featuring Katherine Dunham) that the Nicholas Brothers would make a specific contribution to their country; the film was meant in part to aid the war recruiting drive in the African-American community.

And yet... and yet.... His country and his society have (in my opinion) failed Fayard Nicholas, at least as far as sustaining him and his wife.

Here are some details on Fayard's current physical and financial state from tapper Rusty Frank:

"Since the death of his younger brother several years ago, Fayard has been receiving fewer and fewer work invitations to appear at festivals and dance events, and thus his income has suffered a severe decline. His beautiful wife of six years, Katherine, has been full-time wife, friend, nurse, cook, and caretaker to Fayard. Katherine has been unable to leave him for work outside of their home because he ha(s) been suffering from fainting spells and other health issues."

Nicholas's Social Security and pension benefits cover the rent on the couple's one-bedroom apartment, Frank explains, "but that's it." For other expenses, they have been depending on the help of friends. When they arrived at St. Joseph's Hospital in Burbank on November 22, Frank says, "they had no money whatsoever left. Friends who were with them gave what they had in their pockets, $10 and $20 bills. But that was it." (For information on public hospitals where sliding scale services may be available in the U.S., dance insider Laura Colby suggests visiting the National Association of Public Hospitals and Health Systems website.)

Frank immediately put out a call for help, about which she had mixed feelings out of deference to the Nicholas couple's pride.

Visiting Nicholas on Sunday, Frank found Nicholas "to be doing really well, considering. He mostly was sleeping (recovering from the ordeal of his stroke), but when he awoke he was coherent and we had short conversations. Speech is labored, but trust me, he is fully there. I told him of all your donations and notes and love. He says "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"

Those donations -- including from readers of this publication responding to our forward to the DI e-mail list of Frank's initial appeal last week -- totalled $1,700 in cash and $110 in Trader Joe's gift cards as of Monday, according to Frank. Katherine Nicholas was "ecstatic," she relates, because now she can pay the bills, "many of them months overdue and in various colors -- pink, etcetera."

While I agree with Rusty that we should be "proud" of the dance world for its immediate response to Nicholas's crisis, I can't understand how a country which can find the means to spend more than $223 billion -- and rising -- on an unnecessary war leaves someone who has given his country and society so much and with such generosity to go wanting. I'm sensitive to the criticism that by making this connection I am shamelessly exploiting one couple's desperate situation to make a political point. But I think it's a relevant one: As regards society's failing Fayard Nicholas, the problem is not one of insufficient money but misguided priorities.

Rusty Frank has set up a special page on her website to make it easy to support Fayard and Katherine Nicholas. You can find it here.

Janine Gastineau contributed the initial and subsequent news tips for this article.

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