17-19, Great Windmill Street,W1
|Type||Playhouse, variety and nude revue|
|Opened||22 June 1931|
|Years active||1931 - 1964|
|Rebuilt||1931 F. Edward Jones|
|Closed||31 October 1964|
|Previous names||1909 Palais de Luxe
1974 Windmill Theatre
1984 La Vie en Rose Show Bar
1986 Paramount City
|Current use||The Windmill International. Table dance club|
The Windmill Theatre, later The Windmill International, was a variety and revue theatre in Great Windmill Street, London. The theatre was famous for its nude tableaux vivants. Many prominent British comedians and comedy acts of the 1950s and 1960s started their careers working at this theatre.
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 1909 a cinema, the Palais de Luxe, opened on the site. It stood on the corner of a block of buildings that included the Apollo and Lyric theatres, 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. As larger cinemas were opened in the West End, business slowed and the Palais de Luxe was forced to close.
In 1930, 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 then renamed The Windmill. It opened on 22 June 1931, as a playhouse with a new play by Michael Barringer called Inquest. Its existence as a theatre was short and unprofitable, 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 developed the idea of 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 speciality numbers. The first Revudeville act opened on 3 February 1932, featuring 18 unknown acts. These continued to be unprofitable; in all, the theatre lost £20,000 in the first few years after its opening.
A breakthrough came when Van Damm began to incorporate glamorous nude females on stage, inspired by the Folies Bergères and Moulin Rouge in Paris. This coup was made possible by convincing Lord Cromer, then Lord Chamberlain, in his position as the 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. The ruling:' If you move, it's rude.' 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. The Piccadilly and Pavilion theatres copied the format and ran non-stop shows, reducing the Windmill's attendance.
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 theatre's famous motto "We Never Closed" (often humorously modified to "We Never Clothed") was a reference to the fact that the theatre remained open, apart from the compulsory closure that affected all theatres for 12 days (4-16 September) in 1939. Performances continued throughout the Second World War even at the height of 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, from 7 September 1940 to 11 May 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). For a time, on the opening night of every new Windmill show, the Royal Box was always reserved for the Hon.George Lansbury, a member of His Majesty's Government. The theatre ran into the occasional problem with male patrons, but 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.
When Henderson died in 1944, aged 82, she left the Windmill to Van Damm, who continued with the legacy of their work. During this time, 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, Michael Bentine, George Frederick Martin, Bruce Forsyth, Tommy Cooper 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 Lyn Shaw, June Wilkinson and Lorraine Burnett.
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 neighbourhood had become a seedier place. The Soho neighbourhood of the 1930s and 1940s was a respectable place filled with shops and family restaurants. The Windmill officially closed on 31 October 1964 as it was unable to compete with strip joints and massage parlours. 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 Show Bar. The theatre became a television studio called Paramount City. Today an erotic table-dancing club occupies the building that once housed the Windmill Theatre.
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. This film was released in 1966 and featured some of the former Windmill Theatre dancers.
Everybody's Weekly .21st December,1946."We Never Closed",by Mackenzie Newham.
Picture Post Vo.30 No.9 2nd March,1946."The Windmill Theatre Throws a Party".
Radio Times Vol.134 No.1734.1st February,1957."Twenty-Five Years Non-Stop" by Peter Noble.