It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to knock on the door of a West End theatre and ask for an audition. Even more so when you’re a 14-year-old schoolgirl! Armed only with a bucketload of swagger and a red hat set at a jaunty angle, Jill Millard Shapiro walked up to one of the most legendary theatres in Soho and had an interview that would change her life.
Jill was just fourteen when she knocked on the door of the Windmill Theatre, her heart set upon becoming a Windmill Girl.
The year was 1958 and The Windmill Theatre in Great Windmill Street was a celebrated hotbed of British talent, launching the careers of Peter Sellers and Bruce Forsyth. But it was perhaps most famous for its wartime activities. By 1940, as a blacked-out London faced the full onslaught of the Blitz, 41 theatres in the West End dimmed their lights, then closed. Only the Windmill remained open, determined that war-weary civilians and servicemen should find joy and entertainment despite – or maybe because of – the constant fear of death. It earned itself the immortal slogan ‘We Never Closed’ (sometimes referred to by cheeky journalists as ‘We Never Clothed’) and high-kicked its way into the history books.
For a young schoolgirl in the drab post-war years of London, a place of bombsites and fogs, Soho was the epitome of glamour, and the Windmill Theatre it’s glittering heart.
‘The enormity of what I was doing didn’t hit me at the time,’ says Jill when I go to meet her on a bright and breezy March day. We meet at a Soho hotel opposite the stage door where Jill made her first tentative steps into show business.
‘This used to be a filthy back alley back in the 50s,’ she laughs as we walk along it in the direction of the theatre. Jill brings her friend Joan, also a former Windmill Girl. They are both immaculately turned out grandmothers, and their poise and deportment seem incongruous amongst the herds of media types who scuttle along, bent double over their mobile phones. ‘It’s so different now,’ remarks Jill, gazing at the stage door, which is now the entrance to a media company.
Joan, Kate and Jill. The author is lacking the poise and deportment of her interviewees.
Today, another cocktail bar in the making, but in the 1950s this was a little shop where Joan and Jill went on emergency dashes for more make-up.
The little shop opposite the stage door where the Windmill girls used to go to buy Pan Stick and carmine lipstick is now closed, under development. The deli where they went for the best salt-beef sandwiches outside of Whitechapel is a bar. And The Windmill Theatre itself? Jill shudders. ‘After the Windmill closed it had various different incarnations, at one time it was a TV studio. Then it became a cheap lap dancing club. See how they stuck nasty black cladding over the beautiful arched doorway. But look,’ she says, ‘my little cherub is still there.’
The Windmill Theatre today. A shadow of it’s former self…
Peeping with a mischievous grin over the top of the cladding is the face of a slightly impish, carved stone cherub. The face feels symbolic of the era Jill and Joan worked there. They both insist that although the theatre was best known for its nude tableaux vivants, or living statues, who famously posed motionless on pedestals, it was naughty but nice, an altogether more innocent time.
The Lord Chamberlain had decreed that nudes be allowed on stage – provided they did not move. This was strictly adhered to, otherwise the Windmill would have lost its theatre licence and been shut down.
The cheeky cherub who kept a watchful eye over the Windmill Girls.
‘After I knocked on the door, I was shown up to see the manager, Vivian Van Damm, or as he was known The Old Man,’ recalls Jill. ‘I remember running up flight after flight of stone steps, past a flurry of frilled and feathered Windmill Girls, impossibly glamorous with their carmined lips.’
A photo from Life magazine, 1942. Centre is the Windmill’s No1 Glamour girl, Margaret McGrath.
‘What did it smell like?’ I ask. ‘Perfume, sweat and greasepaint,’ she replies. ‘But it was the noise that was most overwhelming. The sound of tap shoes up and down the stairs, the humming of several old Singer sewing machines from the wardrobe department, composers in the music room, and the clatter and chatter of the canteen. Over it all, a tannoy relayed the sound of the show. It was very noisy!’
Once inside The Old Man’s room, Jill found herself under the hawk-like gaze of Van Damm
Vivian Van Damm, a shrewd businessman and father figure to many of the girls.
‘He wasn’t a man who wasted words,’ Jill recalls. ‘“Can you sing and can you dance?” he asked me. ‘I’d worn out my mother’s parquet flooring practising my steps, so I answered yes. He paused, looked me in the eye and said: “I like you. I’m going to take a chance on you.” When he produced a contract, I had to confess that I was still at school. He sent me home with the contract and a promise to return.’
And return she did. For another five years.
‘It was gruelling. We performed six shows a day, six days a week. The revue featured non-stop shows from midday until 11pm. There were two revolving companies, so one day we would rehearse, the next day perform.
‘Soon after I started, The Windmill’s press office leaked my arrival to the press. “Convent Girl in Windmill Show!” screamed the headlines, and I was summoned to the Old Man’s office. Van Damm had received a letter of complaint from the Mother Superior of my old convent school. The sisterhood of St Mary’s no longer wished to be associated with me. He was furious. “They are ashamed of you, but they should be proud of you. I am.” With that he dismissed me and continued to issue press releases to the newspapers proclaiming: “It’s a far cry from her Woodford Convent School days…”’
Van Damm was nothing if not a canny marketing man. It was he who dreamt up the concept of continuous revue, mixing a recipe of magicians, comedians and ballet with beautiful dancing girls and nudes. And he who came up with the immortal slogan ‘We Never Closed’.
‘I was a Windmill Girl, which meant I had to dance and perform better than anyone else out there,’ she says. ‘I was trained by Keith Lester, a leading ballet dancer who had trained in the Diaghilev tradition of Russian classical ballet and partnered some of the greatest ballerinas of the 1920s and 30s. But by 1958, was trying to get my legs to do things they had never done before! He terrified me. He puffed out his chest, flared his nostrils and shouted at me.’
Jill playing the part of Aladdin in a musical revue at the Windmill and inset, with her dear friend Bruce Forsyth.
Keith had created the Windmill’s famous fan dances in the 1940s. The only nude the censorship law permitted to move on the Windmill stage was the principle fan dancer. Staying within the law required considerable skill on the part of the dancer, as she had to remain covered while manipulating the huge ostrich feather fans.
‘Have you tried lifting one of those?’ Jill asks me. ‘They’re heavy!’ It wasn’t much better if you were one of the nude living statues who posed as part of the tableaux. The ‘revuedebelles’ as they were known not only had to have a flawless body, they also had to stand with one arm held aloft and frozen for 12 minutes, multiple times a night.
‘How did they do it?’ I ask.
‘Theatrical discipline and stamina. The statue effect was achieved by subtle stage lighting. The pose was never head on but faced towards the wings. The pose did not face the audience! When the curtain came down between scenes, the stage hands stepped onto the stage with the girl’s dressing robe and handed it to her while looking away. It was respect for the girl and Van Damm was very strict about.’
‘How did they achieve the look of a marble statue?’ I ask, for the photos of the revuedebelles look like they are covered in chiffon or gauze.
‘Make-up, careful posing and they always made sure to shave their midlands,’ she adds with a wink.
“If It Moves, It’s Rude.”
Jill’s training was hard, but at least had the bonus of being in peacetime. I can’t imagine how much stagecraft, grit and bravery it must have taken to perform with bombs raining down around you.
The safest place to sleep during the Blitz, underground in the dressing rooms.
Amazingly, the theatre never took a direct hit, despite London being bombarded nightly for eight months. But a V1 rocket did explode in a hotel nearby, showering the stage in rubble and shaking the foundations of the little theatre. One of the nudes gave Hitler a two-fingered salute, possibly the only time the Lord Chamberlain would not have minded.
‘One of the most famous Blitz Windmill Girls was a blue-eyed, blonde, husky-voiced woman called Maggie McGrath. We met later in life and became good friends,’ says Jill. ‘Boy, was she a force to be reckoned with.’
Maggie would often repeat the famous escapade where she and another Windmill Girl rescued six terrified, panicking horses from a burning stables during a raid, rounded them up and led them to safety through the middle of Piccadilly Circus whilst singing I’ve Got Sixpence. When they weren’t dodging bombs, the Windmill Girls were out on the road, performing to troops in aircraft hangars, drill halls and canteens. Maggie remembered performing in the open on a table at one outpost with headlights of army lorries as improvised spotlights.
A parody of a Churchill quote is attributed to an unknown officer at RAF Hornchurch, who quipped: ‘Never was so much shown by so few to so many,’ following a 1942 performance by the Windmill Girls. Little wonder the girls had such an army of devoted fans. During the war, queues of servicemen stretched back to Shaftesbury Avenue and nightly, the seats were packed with Allied soldiers from around the world.
During the war, the Windmill was the No.1 hot-spot.
One wonders how many of these men saw out the war alive.
‘It’s terribly sad,’ says Jill. ‘There was one young soldier who had fallen in love with one of the Windmill Girls. He waited every night in the café over the road. After D-Day, he was never seen again.’
It was a desire for young men to get the opportunity to see a woman naked that brought about the formation of the theatre in the first place. The Windmill was owned by an eccentric, iron-willed and wealthy widow by the name of Mrs Laura Henderson, who had a stormy working relationship with her manager Vivian Van Damm. Mrs Henderson enjoyed going around London in her chauffeur-driven, canary-yellow Rolls Royce, or looping the loop in her aeroplane. But behind the dynamic and forceful personality lay a secret sorrow.
‘Mrs Henderson lost her only son in The Great War,’ Jill explains. ‘After his death, she discovered a French postcard of a naked woman among his belongings and realised he had probably gone to his death without ever seeing a naked woman in the flesh.’
Maybe she saw the face of her son in every soldier who passed through her doors during the Second World War? She was certainly a woman ahead of her time. It’s a little-known fact – and not touched upon in the film Mrs Henderson Presents, in which Judi Dench plays her – that in real life, she raised money to set up a string of contraception clinics across the country to support her friend Marie Stopes, as well as employing unmarried mothers to ensure they had a roof over their head and money. This remarkable woman never got to see VE Day. She died in 1944, aged 81.
The great lady herself, Mrs Laura Henderson (centre) played by Judy Dench in the film, Mrs Henderson presents. She would give gifts of caviar and carnations to her ‘lovelies’.
The Windmill was synonymous with wartime glamour and was the place to go for servicemen on leave. Servicemen were treated to a free concert when the war ended.
After nearly three hours of chatting about the past glories of this unique theatre, I realise, with a jolt, the time. Jill and Joan are such raconteurs that I was utterly transported to the 20th century and reluctantly drag myself back to 2019. We stand outside the entrance to the boarded-up theatre and I feel a pang not to have shared in their visceral memories myself. Oh, to have heard the clatter of hooves as Maggie steered horses along the cobbled back streets of Soho against the flash of fire and crump of bombs; the applause and laughter echoing from the little theatre; to have had the opportunity to listen in on the conversation of the queuing servicemen, many of whom never survived the war.
But I can’t. Instead, all I can do is write about it. So that’s what I’m doing. Secrets of the Lavender Girls, out in 2020, features Patsy Jacks, a young girl who spurns her stifling Stratford home in search of freedom and adventures Up West.
Jill and Joan bid me a fragrant farewell and go to Chinatown in search of lunch. They bump into old friend, ‘Soho George’, and Jill sends me this photo.
Jill and her friend, sharp-dresser, Soho George. Look at those shoes!
‘We ended up doing a sort of camp tango in Gerrard Street to the amusement of some American tourists,’ she says. ‘George describes himself as an old man held together with Poligrip and rubber bands. We always bump into someone we know in Soho.’
It’s reassuring to hear that at least some things don’t change.
Joan (left) and Jill (right) outside what was the old stage door of The Windmill on Archer Street in Soho. Sixty-one years after she first knocked on the door as a 14-year-old covent schoolgirl looking for freedom and adventure, Jill has no regrets. ‘They were the happiest days of my life.’
Jill has written a wonderful book, ‘Remembering Revudeville – A Souvenir of the Windmill Theatre’ available on Amazon.