Famous for its proud boast that, out of the forty-two London theatres open during the Second World War, it alone ‘Never Closed,’ even as bombs rained down on the city during the Blitz, the Windmill Theatre is one of the most renowned landmarks in Soho and has hosted performances by some of Britain’s best-loved entertainers. It began as the Palais de Luxe cinema in 1909, but as grander picture houses cropped up across London, it struggled to attract sufficient audiences and eventually shut its doors.
Nevertheless, the building caught the eye of Laura Henderson, an affluent and well-connected widow who saw its potential and purchased it in 1930. Following extensive renovations, the Windmill reopened in 1931. Yet like its predecessor, it failed to achieve notable success as a cinema. After employing Vivian Van Damm, a shrewd and experienced theatre manager, he decided that instead, the Windmill should show live acts, which he called ‘Revudeville.’
Inspired by the likes of the Moulin Rouge and the Ziegfeld Follies, and including female nudity as a part of the acts; Van Damm managed to attract unprecedented numbers of spectators. At that time, the Lord Chamberlain had the authority to decide what could be shown in theatres, thus, with the generally accepted understanding that ‘if it moves, it’s rude,’ but knowing that nude statues were permitted, Van Damm ensured that the girls on stage, who were commonly referred to as ‘Windmill girls,’ and with an average age of 19, remained absolutely motionless, and could not even smile, posing as tableaux vivants based upon various exotic and fantastical themes.
One-time Windmill girl, Jill Shapiro, remembered that ‘We used to do six shows a day and some men would sit there all day and all night. If a seat became available near the front of the stalls it would prompt the steeplechase and, as a result, we had to bolt the seats back to the floor every day.’
Above: Windmill girls backstage (1930-35)
By the end of the decade, the Windmill’s status soared, but wartime was the theatre’s truly golden period. In September 1940, when London’s theatres were brought to a standstill by the Luftwaffe, the Windmill remained defiant, quickly putting up a banner to stating that it had not done and had no intention of closing. Due to the fact that part of the theatre was underground, a majority of the performers chose to sleep in their dressing rooms instead of in air-raid shelters.
A popular haunt for swathes of young servicemen and American G.I.s, the Windmill girls also became a firm favourite with the press, with their photographs used as an example of the resilience and charm of British women in the face of war. In 1944, Henderson died at the age of 82, leaving the theatre to Van Damm.
After the war, a greater variety of acts were introduced, with many comedians, such as Benny Hill, Peter Sellers and Alfred Marks appearing on stage. However, the tended to find that the overwhelmingly male audiences were largely unenthusiastic, having come to see the Windmill girls. Tony Hancock recalled how he was often asked, ‘My dear chap, I did enjoy your act…could you possibly arrange an introduction to the third girl from the left?’
Above: Windmill girls at the seaside (1947)
As laws and attitudes towards pornography had become increasingly liberal as the 1950s progressed, this relaxation was to prove detrimental to the Windmill’s endurance. The appearance of strip clubs in Soho in the late 1950s resulted in the area earning a somewhat seedy reputation and these more daring establishments drawing custom away. Van Damm died in 1960, and without him, the Windmill floundered with his daughter as its new proprietor.
Above: Soho striptease clubs (1958)
On 31st October 1964, the Windmill Theatre finally closed and reverted back into a cinema. It became the Windmill Theatre again after it was bought by Paul Raymond in 1974, and live nude shows were reintroduced. Several other incarnations were La Vie en Rose Bar from 1982 until 1986, when it was renamed Paramount City.
Since 1994, it has been known as The Windmill International, hosting table-dancing and erotic shows. Though the winsome Windmill girls and their coquettish poses looks positively tame in comparison, as Phillip Hodson, a fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy has suggested, ‘The nudes on stage at the Windmill were the first stage of an unbending of the stiff upper lip.’