The Berry Brothers

Legends!

Berry Brothers, dancers, consisted of Ananias “Nyas” Berry (18 Aug. 1913-5 Oct. 1951) and James Berry (c. 1915-28 Jan. 1969), both born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Warren Berry (25 Dec. 1922-10 Aug. 1996), born in Denver, Colorado, the sons of Ananias Berry and Redna Berry, whose occupations are unknown.

In 1919, Nyas and James first began performing together, touring the church circuit in Chicago as elocutionists reciting poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar. After the family moved to Denver, the two elder brothers branched out and began playing carnivals. Their father, a very religious man, had forbidden them to dance, but Nyas had memorized dances he had seen other performers do, and had built upon them himself. He persuaded his father to let him enter an amateur dance contest, in which he floored the audience. The theater manager offered Nyas $75 a week; the elder Ananias insisted that Nyas and James continue as a team.

They then put together an act based on the widely acclaimed Bert Williams and George Walker, the most famous African-American show business performance team of their time. Nyas and James named their act “The Miniature Williams and Walker.” In the mid-1920s the Berry family moved to Hollywood, California, where James danced at parties given by silent film stars such as Mary Pickford and Clara Bow. They also appeared in Our Gang comedies. Toward the end of the decade they opened as a duo, “the Berry Brothers,” with the already legendary Duke Ellington at Harlem’s Cotton Club. Although the famous nightclub would remain their home base for the next four and a half years, they toured and performed in other groundbreaking shows. In 1929 they traveled to London and were featured performers in Lew Leslie‘s popular and highly acclaimed all-African-American revue Blackbirds of 1928. They were the first African-American act at the Copacabana in 1929. They appeared in “Rhythmania” at the Cotton Club and “Rhapsody In Black” in 1931. When Radio City Music Hall had its grand opening on 27 December 1932, the Berry Brothers were on the bill.

In 1934 Nyas Berry left the act and married Valaida Snow, a popular African-American entertainer. It was during this time that Warren Berry, the youngest brother, was pulled out of school and formal dance classes and drafted into the act. James Berry taught his younger brother every move of the Berry Brothers’ act, and soon this new duo was performing steadily. When Nyas’s marriage dissolved, he talked his brothers into forming a Berry Brothers act with three Berrys. Nyas also persuaded them to move back to Hollywood. The Berry Brothers enjoyed tremendous success in their newly formed trio and appeared extensively throughout the United States on stage, in clubs, and in film, as well as throughout Europe. The brothers possessed three distinct personalities and styles: Nyas was the king of the strut, James was the comedian and singer, and Warren was the solid dancer/acrobat. Their act remained virtually unchanged for over twenty years. In addition to their work in the 1941 musical film Lady Be Good, the Berrys also appeared in Panama Hattie (1942), Boarding House Blues (1948), and You’re My Everything (1949). Their club engagements over the years included the Apollo Theatre, the Zanzibar Café, and the Savoy Ballroom in New York, the Moulin Rouge in Paris, and the Rio Cabana in Chicago.

In 1938, at the downtown Cotton Club, a legendary competition took place between the Berry Brothers and the Nicholas Brothers, another great dance act. The Berrys devised a memorable finish in which Nyas and James ran up side stairways onto an elevated balcony and took a flying leap twelve feet out and over the heads of the entire Cab Calloway orchestra, while Warren, on the stage below, completed a flip-flop twist. On the last note of the music, all three landed simultaneously in splits. “People talked about that for a long time!” recalled Warren Berry (Frank, 1990/1995).

The secret of the Berry Brothers’ success was timing, precision, and dynamics. They were masters of the “freeze and melt,” the sparkling contrasts between posed immobility and sudden flashing action. The act that the three brothers perfected stayed their act for over twenty years. This repetition was common throughout vaudeville, when acts toured the country year after year. During that time, audiences wanted to see exactly the same familiar act with no changes. When the Berry Brothers contemplated using a new song or creating a new dance routine, the bookers dissuaded them. Resigned, the Berry Brothers kept their act intact until Nyas’s death of heart failure at the age of thirty-nine, in New York. Warren and James performed together and then as solo acts individually for a time. But then Warren’s hip injury that he had suffered as a teen finally disabled him. In 1969 James Berry died in New York of complications of arteriosclerosis. Warren worked for over fifteen years as a film editor for Screen Gems in New York City. During his last years he worked in Los Angeles on several unpublished scripts; he died in Los Angeles.

The Berry Brothers are remembered as one of the greatest dance acts in the history of the American stage and cinema in the twentieth century. At a time when tap dancers were “a dime a dozen,” these brothers combined their talents to form a unique act that remains unsurpassed. Ironically, they never wore taps on their shoes because the work that they did with the canes and acrobatics required leather-soled shoes for safety. Their mixture of the Cakewalk’s Strut, tap dancing, thrilling acrobatics, and amazing cane work was a winning and lasting formula.

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