The True King of Tap

Leo Manzari, Maurice Hines, and John Manzari in .

Leo Manzari, Maurice Hines, and John Manzari in “Tappin' Thru Life.” | CAROL ROSEGG

BY DAVID NOH| There was no show more entertaining than “Tappin’ Thru Life,” starring the phenomenal triple threat talent Maurice Hines, who, at 72, just blew me away with his inexhaustible energy, showmanship, and elegance (in some fabulous Armani). Backed by the wonderful all-girl Diva Jazz Orchestra and featuring three dazzling, gorgeous, and excruciatingly young tap dancers, the Manzari Brothers and Luke Spring, it was a musical journey through his incredible life, from the beginnings at the Apollo Theater, where he and his brother, the late Gregory Hines, tap danced their way into the hearts of Harlem and big-time TV and Las Vegas audiences.

I’ve always loved this warm and winning man, running into him often back in the day at the Christopher Street subway stop, and was so looking forward to our interview. The day before it happened, his show’s closing that Sunday was announced, but always the trouper, he decided to carry on, regardless, and we had a delish dish sesh in his dressing room before his Friday night show.

I commiserated with him over the bad news, and he said, “Unfortunately, we just couldn’t get over that hump after the big snowstorm. Our show didn’t have a big advance — people started coming, but it was too late. The Shuberts booked the theater and they never wait [chuckles].

Maurice Hines, happily carrying on both family and classic showbiz tradition

“But I’m loving every last minute of it, and yesterday, I had one of the greatest audiences of my life. There were little kids in there, and at the end I came out of the theater and half the audience was out there and they all applauded. This woman stops me near the elevator and she’s crying, ‘This is what we want our children to see, this kind of show business. I’m not putting down the rappers of today or Beyoncé. But this is what made it possible for them, and you are channeling the old performers from the past.’

“It’s so unreal to me: we got fantastic reviews, everything was perfect. But in order for a show to continue, you have sell a certain amount of tickets and it didn’t happen. The church ladies were coming, but they don’t go nowhere until it’s warm. They want to wear their hats and shoes! But when some do come, they just overwhelm me. My producer, Leonard Soloway, a legend in the business with his own caricature at Sardi’s, said to me, ‘Maurice, I can’t stop watching the show myself, and when you go down to shake the hands of the first row, the women kiss your hand, which I have never seen before!’ It’s thrilling and, after all these years in the business, just in time.”

In the show, Hines pays heartfelt, lengthy tribute to his mother.

“Yes, the show’s success is really a testament to her and I sing the last song for her. She really kept us straight when we had rough times, and I don’t know if my brother Gregory and I would have survived, because my father was a street guy. He liked to knock people out and she had to tame him and help us through all of it.”

This description of his father was definitely at odds with the genial paterfamilias known to me, from childhood shows like “Ed Sullivan,” when the boys Maurice and Gregory appeared with him in the act Hines, Hines & Dad.

“Oh yes! We once saw him knock a guy out at the Audubon Ballroom, where he was a bouncer. We looked at him differently after that and when we got home, we said, ‘Daddy, what did that guy say to you that you hit him like that?’ ‘Oh, I didn’t like the way he said hello to me.’ Now that’s a rough man, and my mother would just laugh and say, ‘That’s your father!’

“He never physically punished us; my mother was more the disciplinarian. He worked nights. But all he’d have to do was walk into the room and look at us. But they let us be kids. Sure we could do wrong, but they guided us and were great parents.

“It was thrilling to be at the unveiling of my caricature at Sardi’s yesterday. They put my picture right next to Gregory’s, which would have made my mother very happy, as she always wanted Gregory and I to be close together. When she was very ill, I used to visit her here, grabbing time off from the show I was doing in Vegas, as she couldn’t travel.

“Yes, I had a 10-year riff with Gregory, but we promised our mother we wouldn’t tell anybody about it. It wasn’t about our careers, it was a family thing. Everybody wants to say it was because Gregory became a big star. But that wasn’t true — we always wanted the best for each other, even when we weren’t speaking. My mother always said, ‘Never discuss family business.’ It was just a personal thing, but we promised her.”

For all of his ineffable gregariousness, Hines is not one to make the celebrity party scene, and we talked about how Paul McCartney was not allowed into Flo’rida’s Grammy party, wondering why he even wanted to be there, in the first place.

“It amazes me and my longtime friends how much show business has changed. Today if I was at an airport and Ella Fitzgerald and Kim Kardashian were also there, I know I would see the paparazzi push Ella out of the way to get to Kim. And that’s the sad part of our business, what it’s evolved into.

“I used to get invited to all that, but I didn’t go then. Gregory used to say, ‘Maurice don’t go to none of that stuff.’ Spike Lee wanted to invite me some place and I respect it, but I’m not part of that, and am very happy in the world I have created in show biz.”

I have adored Hines’ work since seeing him in the lavish, aborted disaster “The Cotton Club,” opposite Gregory, with the two of them playing onscreen brothers. I told him how much more I admired his light-as-a-feather tapping, with gracefully elegant hand gestures, than his late brother’s more decidedly macho approach, close to the floor, with loosely hanging arms.

Hines cited the legendary Nicholas Brothers as inspirations for both of them. “Yes, my style came from my idol, Fayard Nicholas, while Gregory was into Harold because Harold was into the floor. Besides tap dancing, I took classes in ballet, jazz, and other forms of dance, and when I choreograph I put all that in.

“This man just wrote a book about tap dancers and although he never interviewed me, he lied about me, saying that I was afraid of the audience. I was shocked because if anything, Gregory would say, ‘Listen, when we are out there, I don’t have to worry about nothing. Maurice goes after the audience, so I can just lay back and be funny.’ This writer also said something very unnecessary, that I was very effeminate when I danced! He wrote a nice profile of me for the New York Times, but when I read his lies, I threw his book away.”

Hines has never been very vocal about being gay but “I did talk about it in Metro Weekly in Washington. I always enjoyed being gay from the minute I realized I was, which was very early on. And it was no problem in my family. One of my cousins was gay and he came out after he got married and had a baby. He said, ‘I did what they said I should do.’ Well, Maurice ain’t doing that!

“I love being gay, always have, with fantastic friends and wonderful lovers. I really did have them and now I’m involved with a high-end businessman who is wonderful, but he’s very private because he lives in another world. I never really had any problems being gay. I went into showbiz where there are gay people all around. I’m just a happy guy.” (A photo glimpsed of said lover, on Hines’ dressing room table, obviously Latin and eminently woof-able, would be reason enough for anyone to smile.)

Although Hines, at 72, seems to be finally coming into his own, it can’t have been easy for someone as multi-talented as he to be bypassed all these years by real stardom.

“When my mother was really ill, she told me, ‘You know, son, your career’s going to take a little longer, because you’re a little too political. You don’t play the game.’ Gregory played the game, did what he needed to do and he realized at the end that the game didn’t matter when he couldn’t get a job. He could not get a job. My brother! I was astounded when my cousin told me this, because he was one of the most talented people I ever saw in my life.

“I’m so very proud of this show, though. Debbie Allen, who was my Miss Adelaide when I did ‘Guys and Dolls,’ came to see the show the other day. We screamed and kissed and she said, ‘Maurice, it’s a perfect show, with tears and laughter, you tap and then you’re mentoring. And then you’re funny like Richard Pryor! What the hell is that?’ When I told her the show was closing, she got very upset, but said, ‘I know [Off] Broadway. I understand.’”

There’s good news, however, in that the show is only closing here, but definitely not dying.

“We’re going to London and my producer told me, ‘Once we bring you there, they will never let you go!’ And we’re also going to tour America. Of course, I’m keeping my all-girl band! They’re wonderful and we are giving them all a chance, because that’s what we were taught by Nat King Cole and Harry Belafonte, at the Apollo, to be generous to your fellow performers.

“The stars today don’t seem to be giving it up to their fellow performers. They’re too busy putting each other down, so competitive and so much money involved. But I will never change. They asked me if wanted to keep the band and I said that’s a given, a no brainer. They asked, ‘Will they hold an audience?’ ‘Don’t worry about it, especially when they hear that drum solo.”

In his show, Hines tantalized with anecdotes of the glory days of the Las Vegas strip, which was fabulous, but definitely painfully segregated.

“When we performed with Judy Garland, we never met her until she walked onstage and said hello, and we were astounded. It was so interesting that everybody around her would say, ‘Now, be careful because she’s so tiny and she’s used to doing it with only one person, John Bubbles. You haven’t rehearsed with her, so be careful!’

“Everybody was sort of putting her down in a nice way. ‘Don’t let her down! Don’t do that step too big!’ Well, the number starts, and we do this big slide all across the stage and, baby we were on the stage, and Judy was all the way over there, already! She adjusted to us immediately! She was a fierce natural dancer, who could pick up a routine like that! And afterwards, I went to her people and said, ‘Do you do know who you’re representing? This is Judy Garland!’ Because I was angry that they were saying things like that about her.

“With talent like Judy, God just gives it to somebody. Ella [Fitzgerald] couldn’t read music like Sarah Vaughan or Carmen McRae, who could also play the piano. Her pianist, Tommy Flanagan, said, ‘I worked with Sarah, Carmen, Gloria Lynn, and Ella is the genius among them, because she doesn’t know what she’s doing. She just goes and does it, like one night she was singing Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On?” and she went somewhere, musically, which made us think, “No way is she going to find us, she’s so into the song, loving something contemporary which she rarely sings. She’ll have to take a breath, and find us.” Well, she never took a breath. She did something and came down, and we never knew how she did it. I’m a musician, and I don’t know how she did it. But you knew that she’ll never do it again, as she was totally in the moment.’ With Ella, you could say, ‘Can I get an A?’ And she hits a perfect A. Ohmigod, she was so sweet.”

In Vegas, Tallulah Bankhead wanted to meet the Hines Brothers and invited them to her hotel, which was in the definitely segregated part of town. When the hotel wouldn’t permit the boys to swim in her hotel pool, Bankhead threatened to not give her show that night unless they were allowed to. The brothers got to splash happily, but only learned later that the entire pool was drained after they got out. In the show, Hines recounted this tale, following it with an especially poignant rendition of “Smile.”

“I still remember the party she threw for us. We walked into her suite and she was there, so her, ‘Come in, dahlings! I have presents for you! Kiss me, dahlings! Maurice, you like batons! Here’s a silver one with rhinestones.’ She sure knew my number! Gregory wanted drums, so she’d had Ann Sothern’s drummer pick them out for Gregory. It was a wonderful party and she was who she was, take it or leave it. She supposedly had a long affair with Billie Holliday, and blacks loved her because she was truly her own person. Those were great times for us.”

Hines really should write a memoir and said he might some day, “but there’s lots of stuff I can’t tell. Basically, I’m happy. Nothing will get me down. My father told me, ‘There are a lot of bad people, especially in this business, and what you do is duck,’ and that’s what I do. Gregory and I were different in the way we handled people. If something displeased him, he’d quietly say, ‘Gregory Hines is not happy. I tell you what. Until that gets changed, I’ll be in my dressing room and you can call me.’ While I’m like, ‘What?!!!’ But we got the same results.”

The ravishing talent Lonette McKee co-starred with Maurice in “The Cotton Club,” and to illustrate the fickleness of showbiz, I mentioned that when I suggested to the press people on “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” that they reach out to her and invite her to the opening, as she triumphantly originated the role Off-Broadway in the 1980s, they didn’t even know who she was.

“How is she?” Hines asked. “Wonderful actress. I haven’t seen her in a while and would love to! You know, they did that to Gregory, too. When the Gap was doing these dancing commercials with jitterbug numbers and so on, he called them and said, ‘This is Gregory. I’d love to do a tap number commercial, wearing your jeans, or whatever you want to do.’

“They said, ‘Are you as good as Savion Glover?’ He said, ‘Nice talking to you,’ and hung up. Savion was utterly upset when he heard this and said, ‘Without Gregory and Maurice, I ain’t nothing.’ But these kids today don’t know and they don’t wanna know. Judith Jamison always says, ‘They should want to know.’ I tell kids, ‘Now Google Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, my friend Diahann Carroll singing “Some of These Days” on “The Hollywood Palace”’ Baby kick ass! Oh, and Leslie Uggams –– who came opening night and all I could say was ‘What about your skin? It’s flawless!’ She just laughed.”

As part of Film Forum’s enticing retrospective, “It Girls, Flappers, Jazz Babies and Vamps,” on Tuesday, March 15 at 8:20 pm, I will be introducing William Wellman’s pre-Code raunchfest, “Safe in Hell” (1931), starring my late friend Dorothy Mackaill (209 W. Houston St.). One of the most appealing and naturally sexy actresses of the era, who made a smooth silent to sound transition, she plays a call girl on the run for a murder rap. She winds up on a savage island, the only white woman among a crew of scruffy, leering, drunken horn-dog men. In real life, Dorothy wound up on the island of Oahu, the unofficial Queen of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki and a magical, hugely beloved personality.