The Windmill Theatre, 17 - 19 Great Windmill Street, W.1
Formerly - The Palais de Luxe Cinema / Later - Windmill International
Above - The Windmill Theatre in December 2006 - Photo M.L.
The Windmill Theatre, on Great Windmill Street, London originally opened as a small playhouse on the 15th of June 1931 with the Michael Barringer play 'Inquest!' The opening date is sometimes credited as being the 19th of June 1931 but that was in fact the date of the first matinee.
Right - A programme for 'Inquest!' the first production at the newly opened Windmill Theatre in June 1931. Click for details.
The name for the Theatre came from the fact that there had once been a Windmill standing on the same site when the area was still just farmland known at the time as Windmill Fields. The Windmill itself remained until the later part of the eighteenth century.
The Windmill Theatre was actually a reconstruction of an earlier Cinema on the same site which had been built in 1909 and opened as the Palais de Luxe on the 20th of December that year, see photograph below. The Palais de Luxe, with a capacity of around 600, was one of the first purpose built Cinemas in the West End and was designed to show the early silent films but by the 1920s it had gained in stature when it become Britain's first art house Cinema.
The Cinema's fortunes came to an end by the turn of the decade however, when it found itself unable to compete with the new super cinemas being built all over London.
Left - The Palais de Luxe Cinema, Windmill Street, in 1923 - From 'Picture Play Magazine' November 1923. This photograph was taken before the Cinema was restructured and reopened as the Windmill Theatre in 1931.
In 1930 Laura Henderson bought the Palais de Luxe and formed a new Company, the Windmill Theatre Co, Ltd., with Bernard Isaac and J. F. Watts Phillips. Laura Henderson had the Cinema almost completely rebuilt as a Theatre.
The architect for the conversion of the Palais de Luxe into the Windmill Theatre was F. Edward Jones who remodeled the exterior of the building in the style of a windmill, and completely restructured the interior.
The new Windmill Theatre's auditorium, which is shown in the photograph below, was built on two levels, stalls and one circle, and the Theatre had a capacity of 322 on its opening in 1931.
The Windmill Theatre's capacity was somewhat smaller than the earlier Palais de Luxe Cinema but this was because the architect had had to fit a stage and working fly tower into the space formerly occupied by just the Cinema's auditorium.
Above - The auditorium of the Windmill Theatre in its original
1930s guise as a playhouse - Courtesy the Jill
The Windmill Theatre opened on the 15th of June 1931 with the Michael Barringer play 'Inquest!' with Mary Glynne, Hilda Trevelyan and Herbert Lomas in the cast. Geofry Norman was the stage director and the stage manager was Henry Thomas. The Theatre was licensed by the Lord Chamberlain to J. F.Watts-Phillips. The play was not the success that was hoped for though and it only ran for sixteen weeks. Following this Films were shown again in the Theatre including 'The Blue Angel' and 'Sous Les Toits de Paris'.
Right - A Ticket stub for the Windmill Theatre dated 1st August 1931 - Courtesy Maurice Poole. - This is a pre Revudeville Windmill Theatre ticket and would have been for the play "Inquest" which ran at the Windmill for 16 weeks from the 15th of June 1931.
By December 1931 Laura Henderson announced that the Windmill was to have a change of policy and that her manager Vivian Van Damm was to use the Theatre as a variety house with non stop performances in a bid to help the failing variety profession which was under strain from the new 'talky' films around the Country.
The first performance was held on the 3rd of February 1932, probably for the press, but on the 4th of February 1932 the Windmill Theatre reopened its doors to the public proper with Van Damm's new non stop variety shows, aptly named 'Revudeville.'
Left - The Windmill Theatre during its Revudeville period in a photograph taken in 1958 - Courtesy Gerry Atkins.
Right - The 1934 Revudeville Souvenir Programme Cover - Courtesy Maurice Poole, who writes:- 'Of all the Windmill Theatre souvenir programmes I feel that this 1934 edition is the finest. Other programmes were more elaborate with cut out covers and felt type covers but I love the tableaux photographs in this programme.' - Click to see more of this Programme.
"THE WINDMILL SAILS"
Above - The Windmill Theatre during its Revudeville period in 1957 - Courtesy Maurice Poole
'I am enchanted to write the News Item this week for two reasons, firstly that I may say all I think of my lovely Company, and, secondly, that 1 can have a talk with the numerous and delightful patrons whom I so often see but seldom have an opportunity of meeting. Some come and speak to me and introduce themselves, which so delights me that I am in hopes, after reading this, that more will do so - for I owe them a great debt of gratitude for their constant sympathy with, and appreciation of our efforts.
You know I re-built the inside of this theatre entirely in 1931, and started with an excellent Play "INQUEST" in 1932 (SIC) - at least all the critics said it was excellent, but it failed to please, and I lost more than I care to confess.
So I thought if I lose all this over a good play, what am I going to lose over a bad? I must change my policy and then Mr. Van Damn who, as you know, is an expert in films, came along, and I said "I will run films!" But not even his genius could make it a success! Then a Mr. Samett sent me a proposition which I at once took to Mr. Van Damm. He thought there was a great deal in it. I said: " What should I lose if it failed? " He said : " Anything up to £10,000 !" Fortunately I was in a sporting mood and said "What fun ! " And so Non-Stop Variety was born - I confess rather a feeble infant to begin with, but how it grew! No less than eight theatres copied me!
Right - Two of the Windmill Girls, Vicki Emra and Beryl Catlin, take a break on the roof of the Windmill Theatre - Courtesy Jill Millard Shapiro.
Then my talented and charming Producer came, and you know the success we have achieved ever since, and the numerous artistes I have been so glad to help when Variety seemed dead.
It is rather amusing to me to be running a Variety show, and I'll tell you why. I was never allowed inside a theatre at all till I was married, consequently I had no idea of what it was like. My husband, who adored the Gaiety and Nellie Farren and Fred Lester, etc., took me as my first effort to a Gaiety Burlesque. I, like most girls of that period, had been taught to regard legs as something you might perhaps meet in your bath, but never elsewhere, and my horror at the legs - rows and rows of them - I shall never forget. It's true they were in tights, but they were undoubtedly legs. I had the shock of a lifetime, but was just bearing up when the Principal came on with an enormous diamond star just in the middle of her thigh. This was more than I could bear, and I implored my husband to take me out, but he, being a wise man, said "Don't be an idiot," and we remained.
My education was then made in various music halls on condition I remained behind the curtain in a box and never was seen or saw too much. In those days it was considered terribly improper for a married woman to be seen at a music hall, and I think my mother would have passed away had I confessed to her the depths to which her beautifully brought-up daughter had sunk. In those days Variety flourished, but I never enjoyed it as they had a few brilliant stars with the rest of the turns usually deplorable. I find my present company all stars, and I never know a dull moment - isn't that lovely?
Left - Click to see all the Windmill Theatre Revudeville Souvenir Programmes.
And you know, I've never had any performers that are not British - I'm sternly British myself and too patriotic to wish to see British talent replaced by foreign - admirable as the foreigners undoubtedly are. You can imagine it is not always easy, and I do admire the patience and skill which my dear Producer and Manager show as they hear turn after turn at auditions. But I rejoice to think what a lot of talent there is in England and what a lucky woman I am to be employing 130 people in my tiny theatre...
Above - Keith Lester, Jill Anstey, and Jane Blayne rehearse a number for a Windmill Theatre production in this Keystone Press Photograph - Courtesy Maurice Poole.
Above - Johnny Gale, the Windmill's Stage Manager, and cast rehearsing a production at the Windmill Theatre in this Keystone Press Photograph - Courtesy Maurice Poole.
...It is wonderful - and so encouraging - the interest everybody has taken in my adventure. I am President of four branches of "The Women's Guild of Empire," and whenever I speak in Yorkshire, South Wales, East Ham or Battersea, my women (usually audiences of over 100) are most desirous to hear all about the Windmill. They read everything published about it in the newspapers, and whenever they have a "beano" to London, part of their programme is to visit the Windmill where they are a perfectly splendid audience and laugh at every joke - almost before the comedian makes it! I spoke last year in a suburb of London to the Soroptimists, and about a month afterwards I received a letter from one of them saying they were starting a Club, and might they call it the Windmill as they had so enjoyed an evening there. Wasn't that charming? They visit it often, and yesterday I had a letter from Australia saying the writer had just seen my photograph and a description of the Windmill in an Australian paper. Well, all this delightful encouragement makes me a very happy woman - happy particularly in having such lovely people to work for me, such splendid team work - I can imagine no better, and I love all my Company dearly, from the Manager to the Call Boy - and my audiences too, and I thank them all with my love and deep gratitude.'
The above text in quotes was written by Laura Henderson and is from the souvenir programme No. 34 - Courtesy Maurice Poole.
Right - An open letter from Laura Henderson, printed in the Windmill Theatre No.20 Programme, celebrating the first year of Revudeville at the Theatre - Courtesy Maurice Poole.
Above - In 1940 Kenneth Bandy, who was the House Manager at the Windmill Theatre at the time, set about photographing some of the scenes from the Revudeville shows at the Windmill Theatre on to 35mm colour slides. These slides now belong to Maurice Poole who has had them restored and digitised by David Rose and has kindly sent them in for inclusion on the site. There are 256 of these slides and all you need to do to see them all is to click the image above.
Revudeville was an immediate success and people flocked to the Theatre to see the new innovative productions which were performed from 2.30 in the afternoon right up until 11 in the evening.
Despite the success however, it was over a year before the Theatre began to recoup some of the money spent on the rebuilding, indeed in the first year the Company lost £20,000, a considerable sum in the early 1930s.
Right - The movie star George Raft sitting with Windmill Girl Jill Anstey on the dressing room stairs at the Windmill Theatre in 1948. Raft was taking a break in London before heading for North Africa to make a Foreign Legion film. The back of the photo carries a note saying 'Touring London he absorbed the atmosphere that has made him what he is.' - Photo Courtesy Jill Millard Shapiro.
Left - An article on the Windmill Theatre from the Speedway Gazette in 1948 - Click to read this article.
Of course, as is well known today, the success of Revudeville was not really down to the non stop variety at all, or even the scores of comedians and other acts who performed for the mostly distracted male audience, many of whom would go on to become household names in the future, but because of the Windmill Girls themselves, who would appear in nude tableaux throughout the performances, even though they would have to remain absolutely still for the entire time because of licensing restrictions. Should they have moved a muscle then the Theatre would have been closed down.
Above - A collage showing the Windmill Theatre staff in 1957 - From a Windmill Souvenir Programme - Courtesy Jill Millard Shapiro
The success of 'Revudeville' at the Windmill encouraged Laura Henderson to try out these Revues in other Theatres. In 1932 the Lyric Hammersmith staged a production of Revudeville, and in February 1937 the Piccadilly Theatre began showing 'Revudeville Pot-Pourri' for a short time. A notice in the Xmas Revudeville programme no.18 reads:
'Owing to the remarkable demand by provincial Theatres for Revudeville to be staged in their separate towns, Mrs. Laura Henderson has decided to embark on another project, and for the purpose has taken the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith for one month at which to start a No. 1 Touring Company of Revudeville...
Left - A Programme for the Windmill Theatre's Revudeville, here being staged at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith during the management of Nigel Playfair in 1932 - Courtesy Maurice Poole.
...This has been produced entirely by Miss Eva Bradfield, who has been responsible for all the productions in the Windmill Theatre for the last seven months, and we can promise all patrons of this theatre who care to take a journey down to Hammersmith, an entertainment on considerably larger lines than that attempted here, and one which will be outstanding in every respect.'
Right - In February 1937 The Windmill Theatre Revudeville programmes were carrying this add for the Revudeville Pot-Pourri at the Piccadilly Theatre - Courtesy Maurice Poole.
The above mentioned Tour began on the 26th of December 1932 and ran for just 4 weeks, and the Piccadilly Theatre production was staged in February 1937. Neither of these ventures were particularly successful however, despite the continued success at the Windmill. Vivian Van Damm wrote an article about this tour in a Windmill Theatre programme of 1932 which reads:
'I am receiving many letters from patrons all over the Country begging me to change my programme weekly of fortnightly, and much as I should love to be able to please all and sundry who make this request, I would ask you to realise what it means to put on an absolute and complete change of programme every three weeks, including as it does four new production numbers which take considerable time to devise and rehearse, and in addition a minimum of 67 new dresses have to be made for each show.
Left - Revudeville and Vulgarity - An Article by Vivian Van Damm - From a Windmill Theatre Programme of 1932. - Click to Read.
It certainly would be a marvelous thing for us if we could please everybody in this respect, but unfortunately at the moment that is not possible. One day however, judging by the way in which Revudeville is forging ahead in the esteem of the British public, I may be in a position to give you very good news regarding a further scheme, and whilst I am on this subject, I should like to take this opportunity of informing you that a complete new version of Revudeville, which is eventually going on tour, is being rehearsed and will be put on at the Lyric, Hammersmith (the house which Sir Nigel Playfair made so famous with "The Beggar's Opera") commencing on Monday, Dec. 26th, for four weeks only.
Right - A souvenir programme celebrating 25 years of Revudeville at the Windmill Theatre on Monday February 4th 1957 - Courtesy Maurice Poole.
This production will be on the same lines as the present show we give here but with entirely different numbers and if you and your friends happen to be in that neighbourhood and want to have an hour or so of delightful entertainment, I can do no better than recommend you look to the Lyric, Hammersmith and see what we can do when we go out for a big show. The Lyric, of course, is a much larger theatre than the Windmill, and the show will naturally be on a bigger scale.' Text in quotes by Vivian Van Damm - From a Windmill Theatre Programme of 1932 - Courtesy Maurice Poole.
"Please understand there is no depression in this
It may interest you all to know that in this building 67 new dresses on an average are made for each show, and you can imagine to-day what a task that means. You see in the good old days of peace, such as it was, we at least were always able to get the materials we wanted in considerable quantities, but to-day Mr. Roper sometimes has to spend three days looking for a piece of material that in the past he could have ordered over the telephone in as many minutes.
Of course the general running of a theatre in these times is becoming more and more complicated, and it is very gratifying to receive so many congratulatory remarks upon the clothes and the general turn out of the show in view of the enormous amount of extra work that is being caused through circumstances over which we have no control.
As I see it, the time may come when we shall have to get down to sacking, coloured and painted up, representing more the type of show that would have been presented in the Dark Ages, but I can assure you that so long as it is possible to buy materials, this theatre will continue to bear the Trade Mark of the best-dressed show in London.
As you all know, and can see by the advertisements of theatres running in the daily papers, things in the entertainment world are improving quite steadily as compared with what they were three or four months ago, when many people expressed the opinion that they didn't see how it would be possible for us to continue.
Well, for the time being thank God that phase has passed. It might possibly recur, but if it does it is well for you all to realise that the slogan of Mrs. Laura Henderson, who owns this theatre is : "The Show must go on," so have no doubt that the flag of REVUDEVILLE will be waving right through the darkest days as it has done in the past. - Vivian Van Damn.'
The above text in quotes was first published in the 136th Revudeville Programme, 1940 - Courtesy Maurice Poole.
The Windmill is famous for the fact that it was the only Theatre in London which never closed during the war, except for the twelve compulsory days between the 4th and 16th of September 1939, during the blitz, indeed the poor Windmill cast were often reduced to sleeping in the Theatre during the worst of the attacks.
Left - The Last Souvenir Programme issued by the Windmill Theatre Co., Ltd., in 1964. - Courtesy Maurice Poole.
In 1944 Laura Henderson died but despite this great loss to the Theatre it was soon announced that the policy of non stop Revudeville was to continue under the direction of Vivian Van Damm.
Van Damm continued right up until his own death in 1960 when his daughter Sheila Van Damm took over the reins.
Running a Theatre doesn't just include putting on the shows themselves of course as there are many people involved with the actual logistics of running a Theatre, Backstage and Front of House, and the first person most people see when entering a Theatre is one of the Box Office Staff. One such staff member was Maud Clifford who worked in the Windmill's Box Office during the war and for years after right up until it closed in 1964. Her niece Joyce Christison writes 'I still remember my glamorous Aunt going off to work, as a child she looked like royalty to me in her fur coat and beautiful makeup, she is still going strong in her late eighties. I know she was great friends with many of the showgirls and socialised with them too, she was and still is stunning looking and could have been taken for a showgirl herself. - Joyce Christison, Feb 2016.
The Windmill's success was however not to last forever and on the 31st of October 1964 Revudeville at the Windmill finally came to end, the London 'Evening News' reported the imminent closure in their 1st of October 1964 edition, a reprint of which can be seen here. 50 years later the anniversary of the closure would be celebrated with a new book on the Theatre.
Right - On the 31st of October 1964 the Windmill Theatre shut its doors on Revudeville for the last time. Click here to see the last night programme.
The Windmill Theatre was then bought by the Compton Cinema Group and the building was reconstructed as a cinema and casino.
Above - A UPI Cablephoto from October 1964 on the demise of the Windmill - Courtesy Maurice Poole - Caption Reads:- 'London: Showgirls pat Paterson (L), Mandy Mayer and Alexis Holmes (R) sadly discuss the closing of the famous revue hall, "The Windmill," Slated to become a movie theatre, the showplace will end 33 years of non-stop revues. The Old theatre, which was a treat to GI's during WW II, survived the dark days of the Blitz only to succumb to the heavy competition from the numerous "strip shows" of Soho that are more modern, than the fairly tame Windmill revues.'
Above - A photograph from the last night of the Windmill Theatre on the 31st of October 1964. Shiela Van Damm is shown bringing down the curtain on the Windmill Girls for the last time. On the curtain is the banner 'We Never Closed' and the years 1932 and 1964.
In 1973 a campaign was started in an attempt to convert the building back into a Theatre again and to revive it's earlier Revudeville style of productions but sadly this came to nothing.
The following year, in February 1974, the Theatre was bought by Paul Raymond who announced his intention of making the Windmill a home for nude shows again, but as history has shown, this was to be an entirely different class of entertainment altogether.
Left - A poster for Paul Raymond's 'Let's Get Laid' at the Windmill Theatre - Courtesy Stephen Andrew.
Right - A Programme for "Lets Get Laid"a Paul Raymond production which featured the well know artistes John Inman, Jack Haig, and Fiona Richmond. The programme is dated 2nd September,1974 and the production was directed by Victor Spinetti. - Courtesy Maurice Poole.
Above - The Windmill Theatre in June 1977 - Photo M.L. NB. The CZ Motorcycle parked by The Lyric Theatre hoardings belonged to the late Sir Ralph Richardson who was also an avid BMW Motorcycle owner, he was appearing at the Lyric at the time, in 'The Kingfisher'.
Above - One of the Windmill Girls, Jill Millard, poses outside the Windmill Theatre in 1960 and returns to pose outside the Windmill International 49 years later in October 2009 - Photos Courtesy Jill Millard Shapiro.
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