Words Kirk Truman
“We never closed… We never clothed.”
Today this staple of performance goes by the name of The Windmill International, though some years ago its Windmill title was synonymous with its ‘keep calm and carry on’ nature and Revudeville ways. Once upon a time, as Britain entered into the midst of war, skimpy see-through outfits and suspender belts thrived in one particular Soho-based theatre. At The Windmill Theatre, as a front-row seat would to be vacated, men stuck at the back of the theatre would rush forward over the stalls in a frantic bid to get close to the scantily clad performers and quietly escape the terrors of the chaos around them.
The once renowned Windmill Theatre in Great Windmill Street was for some years both a variety and revue theatre. The venue takes its name from a windmill that stood on the street from during the reign of King Charles II until the late 18th century. Having originally opened as a cinema in 1909, The Palais de Luxe, where early silent films were shown, in 1930 wealthy and eccentric widow Laura Henderson bought the Palais de Luxe building with other intentions in mind.
Hiring architect Howard Jones, the interior was soon remodelled into a small one-tier, 320-seat theatre. Renamed the Windmill, it opened as a playhouse in June 1931. Unprofitable, its existence as a theatre was short-lived. Henderson soon hired a new theatre manager namely Vivian Van Damm with whom she produced Revudeville, a continuous variety that ran from 2:30pm until 11pm. Putting on shows with dancers, singers, showgirls and specialty numbers, the first Revudeville act opened in February 1932. However, the theatre still continued to be unprofitable all in all causing significant loses during the theatre’s first few years under Henderson’s guise.
Incorporating glamorous nude females on stage into the shows, Van Damm had finally found his breakthrough, inspired by the likes of Folies Bergère and Moulin Rouge in Paris. These shows however did not come without difficulty or complication. Due to the restrictions at the time on theatrical performances in London, the display of nudity in motion was illegal. The shows went on to feature motionless nudes, or ‘living statues’, which at the time could not be credibly regarded as morally objectionable, or as it went: ‘if you move, it’s rude.’
Other local theatres such as The Piccadilly soon copied the theatre as The Windmill’s shows became a huge commercial success and the Windmill girls took their show on tour to other London provincial theatres and music halls. Van Damm then produced a series of nude tableaux vivants which were based around themes such as Annie Oakley, mermaids, Native Americans, and Britannia. Later, movement finally was introduced in the acts, in the form of the fan dance: this involved a naked dancing girl’s body concealed by fans held by herself and four female attendants. This was to be another crafty way in which the spirit of the law was evaded, satisfying the demands of the audience by moving the props rather than the girls.
The theatre went by the famous motto of ‘We Never Closed’ which has often been humorously modified to ‘We Never Clothed’. This acted as a reference to the fact that the theatre remained open thought the duration of the 2nd World War. Performances were to continue throughout the war even at the very height of the Blitz with cast members, showgirls and crew moving into the safety of the theatre’s two basement levels during some of the worst air attacks on the city.
Many of the patrons of the theatre were families and troops, as well as celebrities who visited as Henderson’s personal guests, including Princesses Helena Victoria and Marie Louise, granddaughters of Queen Victoria. For a period, on the opening night of every new show at the theatre, the Royal Box was reserved for the Hon. George Lansbury (a member of His Majesty’s Government).
Aged 82, Henderson died in November 1944. In her will, she left the Windmill to Van Damm. During his time at the theatre, the venue was home to many famous variety artists including Freddie Eldrett, with a number of well-known comedians and actors having their first real success on the Windmill’s stage: Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers, Bruce Forsyth and the unforgettable Tommy Cooper. Van Damm went on to run the theatre until his death in 1960, leaving it to his daughter, Sheila Van Damm. She struggled to keep the theatre afloat with the Soho neighbourhood having become a much seedier place, and a wealth of competitors on her doorstep. Having run for over 30 years, the Revudeville shows finally came to close in 1964 amid competition from private members’ strip clubs.
Changing hands, the theatre went on to have a stint as a cinema incorporating a casino for roughly 10 years. Closing in 1974, the cinema’s lease was bought the same year by the late Paul Raymond who returned the venue to its seedier roots. Raymond’s first production at the venue was Let’s Get Laid starring Fiona Richmond and John Inman. Much in keeping with Raymond’s reputation, this no doubt would’ve sat well with Henderson and Van Damm.