The handsome Ananias “Nyas” Berry (1912 – 1951), of the famous dancing Berry Brothers. He was extremely talented and precocious child star accustomed to public adoration. He traveled extensively at very early ages throughout the black theater circuit and abroad, and had a domineering father who held him under contract well into adulthood.
In the 1920′s Ananias “Nyas” Berry married a much older diva Valaida Snow in Harlem before leaving for Paris. In Paris, when Nyas and his brother James were the youngest cast members in Lew Leslie‘s Blackbirds of 1929. By 1931, the married couple were working the same stage in another Leslie-produced show, Rhapsody In Black.
In a matter of a few years, Valaida and Nyas were touring Europe as the stars of yet another Lew Leslie production, Blackbirds of 1935. Once back home, there were reports that Nyas, now in his early 20′s, had fallen in love with a chorus girl closer to his own age. There were also rumors that he was seeing Duke Ellington’s star vocalist, and Ivie Anderson behind her back.
He also fell back in step with his brother James, and with the addition of their younger brother Warren, the Berry Brothers were back in business as a trio. The Berry Brothers were described as an African-American “exotic, acrobatic soft shoe dance” trio. Officially, the trio was composed of Ananias (Nyas, “King of the Strut”), James and Warren Berry. In 1938, at the Cotton Club there was a face-off dance competition between the Nicholas Brothers and the Berry Brothers. It has become a legendary confrontation, a sort of dance-fight for supremacy. By some accounts the Berry Brothers were more athletic but the Nicholas brothers were better overall performers – better at pleasing the crowd.
At an appearance at the downtown Cotton Club, the Berry’s devised a memorable finish that would oddly become more associated with the Nicholas Brothers in the latter film, Stormy Weather. Fayard and Harold Nicholas worked the crowd to a frenzy with their tap acrobatics and great polish. More a “flash” act, the Berry Brothers knew how to thrill them as well. However, at the last-minute, Nyas and and James started to run up the side stairways onto an elevated balcony over the heads of the Cab Calloway orchestra. They took a flying leap, twelve feet out onto the stage below where Warren was still dancing. Warren completed a backwards, flip-flop twist and in perfect synchronicity they landed simultaneously in splits.
In top hats and tails, the Berry Brothers were the picture of elegance and are remembered as one of the greatest acts of stage and screen. Their brilliance is forever on display in such 40′s musicals as Lady Be Good and Panama Hattie with Lena Horne.
As the oldest, Nyas Berry was the heart and soul of the Berry Brothers. He spent some time in WWII, but injury and fast living – the level of which is said to rival his ex-wife’s eventually slowed him down. In 1951, the very married Nyas Berry died at the home of a girlfriend, dancer Bertie Pilgrim, after attending a baseball game between the Giants and the Yankees. He had a heart attack in the shower. He was just 39 years old.
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