Windmill Theatre
Address Great Windmill Street
Borough City of Westminster
Capacity 320
Type Variety and Nude Revue
Opened 22 June 1931 - 31 October 1964

The Windmill Theatre, later the Windmill Club, was a variety and revue theatre in Great Windmill Street, London. The theatre was famous for its nude tableaux vivants. Great Windmill Street took its name from a windmill that stood there from the reign of King Charles II until the late 18th century. In 1910 a cinema, the Palais de Luxe, opened on the site. It stood on the corner of a block of buildings that included the Apollo Theatre and the Lyric Theatre, where Archer Street joined Great Windmill Street, just off Shaftesbury Avenue. The Palais de Luxe was one of the first places where early silent films were shown. However as larger cinemas were opened in the West End, business slowed and the Palais de Luxe was forced to close.

Mrs. Henderson PresentsEdit

In 1931, Laura Henderson bought the Palais de Luxe building and hired Howard Jones, an architect, to remodel the interior to a tiny, one-tier theatre. It was renamed as The Windmill. It opened on June 22, 1931, as a playhouse with a new play by Michael Barrington called Inquest. Its run as a theatre was short as it was not profitable and it soon returned to screening films, such as The Blue Angel starring Marlene Dietrich. Henderson hired a new theatre manager, Vivian van Damm, who came up with the idea of producing the Revudeville — a programme of continuous, non-stop variety that ran from 2.30pm until 11pm. They began to put on shows with singers, dancers, showgirls and specialty numbers. The first Revuedeville act opened on February 3, 1932, featuring 18 unknown acts. However, the Windmill was still sustaining a loss. The theatre had lost £20,000 in the first few years of its opening. Van Damm introduced shows that featured singing, dancing, sketches and comics and glamorous nude females on stage, inspired by the Folies Bergères and Moulin Rouge in Paris. This coup was made possible by convincing the Lord Chamberlain who had the role of censor for all theatrical performances in London that the display of nudity in theatres was not obscene: since the authorities could not credibly hold nude statues to be morally objectionable, the theatre presented its nudes — the legendary "Windmill girls" — in motionless poses as living statues or tableaux vivants. Van Damm produced a series of nude tableaux vivants based around themes such as Annie Oakley, Mermaids, Red Indians and Britannia. Later, movement was introduced in the form of the fan dance, where a naked dancing girl's body was concealed by fans held by herself and two female attendants. At the end of the act the girl would stand stock still, her attendants would remove the concealing fans and reveal her nudity. The girl would then hold the pose for about ten seconds before the close of the performance. Another way the spirit of the law was evaded, enabling the girl to move, and thus satisfying the demands of the audience, was by moving the props rather than the girls. Ruses such as a technically motionless nude girl holding on to a spinning rope were used. Since the rope was moving rather than the girl, authorities allowed it, even though the girl's body was displayed in motion (Weightman 1992: 88-90). The Windmill's shows became a huge commercial success and the Windmill girls took their show on tour to other London and provincial theatres and music halls. Piccadilly Theatre and Pavilion Theatre copied the format and ran non-stop shows, diminishing the Windmill's attendance.

"We Never Closed"Edit

The theatre's famous motto "We Never Closed" (often humorously modified to "We Never Clothed") was a reference to the fact that the theatre was never closed, apart from the compulsory closure that affected all theatres for 12 days (September 4–16) in 1939. The Windmill remained open throughout the Second World War, entertaining Londoners right through The Blitz. The showgirls, cast members and crew moved into the safety of the theatre's two underground floors during some of the worst air attacks of the Blitz, from September 7, 1940 to May 11, 1941.

Many of the Windmill's patrons were families and troops as well as celebrities who came as Henderson's guests. These high society guests included Princesses Helena Victoria and Marie Louise (the daughter and granddaughter of Queen Victoria). The theatre ran into the occasional problem with male patrons, but theatre security guards were always on the lookout for improper behaviour. One of the more comical off-stage acts was the spectacle of the "Windmill Steeplechase" where, at the end of a show, patrons from the back rows would make a dash over the top of the seats to grab the front rows.

The Windmill was home to many famous variety artists including Freddie Eldrett and numerous famous comedians and actors had their first real success there, including Jimmy Edwards, Tony Hancock, Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers and Barry Cryer. A number of the most celebrated photographic pin-up models of the 1950s and early 1960s also did a stint as "Windmill Girls", including Pamela Green and June Palmer.

End of an eraEdit

When Henderson died in 1944, at age 82, she left the Windmill to Van Damm, who continued with the legacy of their work. Van Damm ran the theatre until his death in December 1960. He left the theatre to his daughter, Sheila van Damm. She struggled to keep it going but by this time, London's Soho neighborhood had become a seedier place. The Soho neighborhood of the 1930s and 1940s was a respectable place filled with shops and family restaurants. The Windmill officially closed on October 31, 1964 as it was unable to compete with strip joints and massage parlors. The last Revudeville show was seen in 1964.

The theatre then changed hands, became a cinema and casino, and was for a time a private club. In February 1974, the venue was bought by nightclub and erotica entrepreneur, Paul Raymond. Raymond made it a home for nude shows "à la Revuedeville but without the comic element." For a time in the 1980s, Raymond re-introduced burlesque when he renamed the Windmill La Vie en Rose. Today an erotic lap-dancing club occupies the building that once housed the Windmill Theatre.

Film depictions Edit

There have been four films about or featuring The Windmill. In 1945, Tonight and Every Night starring Rita Hayworth was made in Technicolor, based on Leslie Storm's Broadway play Heart of the City. Although the theatre in the film is called "The Music Box" it is a thinly-disguised Windmill — American GIs in war-torn London, the theatre is hit by bombs in the Blitz. The film does not feature a Vivian van Damm character, so he hated it. However the theatre is run by May Tolliver, played by Florence Bates — who could be construed as being Mrs Henderson. There is no hint in this film that the theatre featured nudes.

The second film was Murder at the Windmill, a 1949 low-budget exploitation film little more than an excuse to feature the Windmill boys and girls performing intercut with a plot about the murder of an attendee. Van Damm auditioned to play himself but was considered "too wooden". Marked early appearances for Diana Decker, Jon Pertwee and Jimmy Edwards. It was the first film for producer Danny Angel who was married to one of van Damm's daughters.

The third film was even more exploitative. Secrets of a Windmill Girl featured the first appearance of Pauline Collins, Martin Jarvis and Dana Gillespie.

A 2005 "dramedy" film about the theatre, starring Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins, called Mrs. Henderson Presents was critically acclaimed but was not a strong commercial success.

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