New Fund Is Created for Ailing Tap Legend

By LOLA OGUNNAIKE
Published: December 10, 2005

Decades ago, the Nicholas Brothers - Fayard and his younger brother, Harold - dazzled fans around the globe with their stellar tap dancing and impeccable showmanship. Today, Fayard Nicholas lies in a hospital bed in California, recuperating from a stroke last month that left the entire left side of his body paralyzed.

News of Mr. Nicholas's poor health saddened the tap community. So did the news that Mr. Nicholas, 91, was too destitute to pay his rent and mounting medical bills. Rusty Frank, a Los Angeles-based dance instructor who is a friend of Mr. Nicholas and his wife, Katherine Hopkins-Nicholas, was so moved that she is spearheading a fund-raising drive to ensure that the veteran hoofer never has to worry about money again.

In less than three weeks, Ms. Frank, who began collecting money just days after Mr. Nicholas suffered his stroke on Nov. 22, has raised more than $14,000. "Everybody has been so appalled that this man could slip through the cracks," she said. Hugh Hefner, the Playboy mogul, donated a large sum, Ms. Frank said, and checks have poured in from around the world. "Germany, Switzerland, Australia - you name it," she said. "The response has been fast and great. It's spread like wildfire."

Naturally, some have wondered how Mr. Nicholas, the father of two, landed in such a precarious position. After he and Harold tapped their way through legendary Harlem hot spots like the Cotton Club, they appeared in dozens of Hollywood features, including "Stormy Weather," "Down Argentine Way" and "Tin Pan Alley," and quickly became household names. They wowed audiences with their gravity-defying performances: splits, back flips, cartwheels and feet that moved faster than a game of three-card monte. Yet, though they were well known, the men could never be considered rich. "Residuals didn't start until 1963," Ms. Frank said, "and they were done with films by then."

Jason Samuels Smith, a co-founder and director of the Los Angeles Tap Festival, said: "Unfortunately, it's not just Fayard who is suffering. A number of these older tap legends are struggling, and we need to help them. We cannot wait till these people are dead before we let them know how much we appreciate them."

Even in their 70's, the Nicholas Brothers continued tapping to pay their bills, appearing at festivals and dance symposiums. Over the course of their career, they received Kennedy Center honors and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and Fayard won a Tony for choreography for "Black and Blue." After Harold's death in 2000, solo opportunities for Fayard became increasingly scarce, and he soon fell on hard times. His wife, in her 50's, is unable to work because she must care for him. He had just finished recovering from colon surgery when he suffered his most recent stroke. (He had another in 1997.)

Today, Mr. Nicholas and his wife live modestly in a one-bedroom apartment. Their bills total $3,300 a month, Ms. Frank said. "Social Security and pension covers about $1,000 of that," she said. Donations may be made through www.rustyfrank.com/fayardnicholas.asp.

Mr. Smith said he was planning a benefit of his own for Mr. Nicholas. "We should be waiting hand and foot on someone like this," he said. "He should be sitting on a throne in a mansion somewhere saying, 'You over there, get me my tap shoes.' "