Friday, June 07, 2013

Remembering Revudeville at the Windmill Theatre

Another Woodies outing yesterday - this time to Westminster Reference Library for a talk entitled Remembering Revudeville at the Windmill Theatre, accompanied by a film about the establishment featuring Kenneth More made in 1969, together with reminiscences from several of the original Windmill girls, now mostly in their seventies. It was the proud boast of the famous Soho
Windmill that 'we never closed' during the Second World War and it maintained the morale of Londoners with its Revudeville shows, featuring a line up of good looking (and well brought up) young ladies, some of whom would pose nude whilst ensuring that they did not move.
With censorship by the Lord Chamberlain's office a constant threat, the rule was 'if it moves it's rude', which made these 'tableaux vivants' extremely tame by today's standards. Nevertheless there was nothing else like the Windmill at the time and the place was very popular. It was set up in 1932 when Mrs Laura Henderson (portrayed by Judi Dench in the movie Mrs Henderson Presents) appointed Vivian Van Damm as general manager. He developed the Revudeville shows, which also provided a springboard for many comedians who had to fill the gaps when the showgirls were off stage. These included Bruce Forsyth, Barry Cryer, Nicholas Parsons, Tony Hancock, Arthur Haynes and Peter Sellers among others. The shows ran all day and the theatre became a haven for the dirty mack brigade, who would leap over seats (the 'Windmill steeplechase') to grab any seats near the stage that became vacant.
In the late fifties the Windmill found itself in competition with the new wave of Soho strip clubs, which were able to claim that 'they're naked, and they dance'. Vivian Van Damm died and his daughter, the rally driver Sheila Van Damm, took over, but she was fighting a losing battle to keep this anacronistic place going. She bowed to the inevitable and sold the theatre in 1964 to a cinema chain.
In the early sixties as a teenager I occasionally frequented some of the Soho establishments of the time, including the Windmill on one occasion. Compared to the newer strip clubs like the Fiesta on Old Compton Street and the Sunset Strip on Dean Street, not to mention the more expensive Raymond Revuebar, the Windmill was old fashioned and decidedly non-erotic. Soho was full of strip clubs at the time with girls performing at up to six different clubs every two hours. It was common to see them dashing from club to club hastily adjusting their clothing in order to make it to the next club on their rota.
Despite its inevitable decline, the Windmill still has an important place in Soho's history and even today it is still operating, albeit as a theatre restaurant with what I imagine is a rather more sleazy and explicit floor show.


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