Home Page
The Music Hall and Theatre History Website

Home - Index - New - Maps - Contact



 

The Evening News of October 1st 1964 reports on the closure of the Windmill Theatre

See the first page of this article here

50 Years On

 

Click to return to Special Feature's Front Page

It Was The Big Break For Many

By Leslie Thomas

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.It was the only theatre in the world where they had to bolt the first six rows of seats to the floor - every morning.

The Windmill, the stage where shape meant everything, in fact, the first theatre-in-the-round, is to draw its curtains for good and become a cinema.

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.

Those six rows right in front of the footlights were the most ill-treated pieces of theatrical furniture in London.

The rush for them was one of the most stirring sights of the war years. A handyman had to go around with a spanner every morning to tighten up the bolts that held them to the floor.

BEAUTY

Jimmy Edwards, once resident comedian, used to watch the race with consuming interest and call three cheers for the winner.

The theatre's passing will be regretted by many. Beauty has been its by-word ever since Vivian Van Damm persuaded a statuesque girl called Helena Taylor to become the first girl to stand on its stage with nothing on.

Yet strangely, the successes that have stemmed from the "Mill," as they called it, have been almost without exception - men.

Keneth More, who was a stage hand there before he became the comedian, Harry Secombe, Eric Barker, Tony Hancock, Alfred Marks, Jimmy Edwards, and many others, all became renowned stars.

Only Jean Kent and a few more have come from the ranks of the chorus to attain really big success.

THAT MOTTO

And there was a motto: "We Never Closed" - once interpreted by a showgirl with a lisp as "We never clothed." But it just was not true.

The Windmill, in common with all London theatres was shut down for three weeks at the beginning of the war by the government who feared that a crowded West End would encourage German air attacks.

But rehearsal and auditions went on, and throughout the most dreadful days and nights of the blitz the show continued. Sometimes they had more bombs around them than audience.

Its heydays were during those war years when servicemen came in by the hundred to forget the unhappy world outside.

Only one man ever actually got on to that stage.

STEPPING-STONE

He rushed up and jumped the footlights while a number called "The Innocence of Youth" was going on, and tried to get to an 18-year-old blonde who was reclining in the altogether.

The girl, true to her code, did not move, and the athlete was grabbed by the stage manager and put out by the side door.

Neither the girls nor the men who worked for Vivian Van Damm, and later his daughter, Sheila, at the Windmill ever made a fortune out of it, but it was an acknowledged stepping-stone to higher things.

Bruce Forsyth once said that there was no better training for a would-be funny man than to face a different audience three times a day. And, what's more, an audience that had come along to see the girls!

Alfred Marks had his spot in the Revudeville production changed, because he realised he was getting a hostile audience reception from the male audience.

At one point, he had to sit on stage where he had a better view than anyone in the audience. Consciously or not, the audience reacted to this and when he began to tell jokes immediately afterwards, they didn't bother to laugh. So his solo spot was transferred to another part of the show - and success!

Tony Hancock, and his partner in those days Derek Scott, turned up at the Windmill after the war because no other theatre in London would even give them a hearing. They got £20 for a double act.

Bruce Forsyth nearly did not get in at all. They took him on as an afterthought during the war and gave him £10 a week. Three days later his call-up papers arrived.

The Windmill has been a cinema before. It opened in 1930 - apparently with some foreboding - with a play called "Inquest," then it almost immediately became a cinema.

In 1932 the owner, Mrs. Laura Henderson, who once blithely took the Lord Chamberlain into the girls' dressing room - while they were dressing - introduced a non-stop revue, the first in this country.

Her general manager was Vivian Van Damm who in 1936 took over the production and the Windmill began to make money. Mrs. Henderson died in 1944 and left the theatre to Mr. Van Damm.

MANY MEMORIES

He rarely made a mistake, although he did fire Jean Kent for "lack of personality."

They had a bomb right next to the theatre during the blitz. It killed an electrician and seriously wounded one of the girls. At that performance only two members of the audience left the theatre.

The memories are many. There will never be another Windmill.

IT STARTED WITH THE SACK - TERRY SCOTT

Harry Secombe got his first chance at the Windmill after being demobilised in 1946. He had a shaving act and it meant six shows a day - imitating different men shaving.

Terry Scott said to-day: "I had a very sad time at the Windmill. It was my first job and when I faced the audience in a new stage jacket it was murder. Between shows I dashed out to buy six cartons of milk.

"Returning to the theatre I met Mr. Van Damm who said: 'I don't think we'll bother. Go up and get your money.' "So there I was back home with my jacket, my milk and the sack.

Jimmy Edwards was canvassing when he was told the news to-day. He said: "Good Lord. How sad."

Arthur Haynes said that he first played the Windmill soon after becoming a solo artist, "and I died on my feet."
I played the Windmill again three years later when I knew a lot more. Mr. Van Damm was so pleased with my work this time that he said: 'You can stay for 11 years if you want to.'"

Dave King: "I was heart broken when I was turned down an audition there around 1953. It was almost as though my career was finished before it had even started."

Freddie Eldrett, at 18 one of the youngest entertainers in the show, phoned his mother with the news. Mrs. Eldrett said later: "He was very upset. He looked on the Windmill as a stepping stone to the big time."

The Evening News, October the 1st 1964.

 

A Farewell Toast to the Windmill Theatre - Image From 'We Never Closed' 1967 - Courtesy Maurice Poole.

Above - A Farewell Toast to the Windmill Theatre - Image From 'We Never Closed' 1967 - Courtesy Maurice Poole - Left to right are Dick Emery, Harry Secombe, Bill Kerr, Sheila van Damm, Arthur Haynes, Des O'Connor [top of head] and Michael Bentine.

Farewell Toast

We Never ClosedLondon: Sheila Van Damm, owner of London's "We Never Closed" Windmill Theatre is toasted in Champagne by some of the now-famous stars who graduated at the Theatre. (Left to Right) : Dick Emery; Harry Secombe; Bill Kerr; Arthur Haynes and Michael Bentine at last night's final performance at the World-famous Theatre.

The Theatre, famous for its Windmill Girls and Non-Stop Revues for the past 32 years, is to become a Cinema. Tomorrow, the Windmill, home of the Wartime boast "We Never Closed," reopens as a Cinema. 1st November 1964.

Text and image from Shelia Van Damm's 'We Never Closed" Published by Robert Hale in 1967 - Courtesy Maurice Poole.

 

ON THIS DAY FIFTY YEARS AGO

31st October 1964 - 31st October 2014

Remembering the Windmill 50 Years On - Barry Cryer, Terry keighley, Barbara Lamarr, Sylvia Lavis, Eileen Wooding, Sir Bruce Forsyth, Jill Millard Shapiro, Wanda Lamarr (behind), Joan Bravery, Sadie Comben, Jean Mara, Rodney McDonald, Margaret Cooper, Mandy Mayer, and Googie Cooney gather in front of the Windmill Theatre to mark the 50th anniversary of the closure of the Windmill and the launch of Jill Millard Shapiro's new book on the Theatre.

Above - Remembering the Windmill 50 Years On - Barry Cryer, Terry keighley, Barbara Lamarr, Sylvia Lavis, Eileen Wooding, Sir Bruce Forsyth, Jill Millard Shapiro, Wanda Lamarr (behind), Joan Bravery, Sadie Comben, Jean Mara, Rodney McDonald, Margaret Cooper, Mandy Mayer, and Googie Cooney gather in front of the Windmill Theatre to mark the 50th anniversary of the closure of the Windmill and the launch of Jill Millard Shapiro's new book on the Theatre.

Barry Cryer, Jill Millard Shapiro and Sir Bruce Forsyth outside the Windmill Theatre in 2014.The 31st of October 2014 saw the end of a year of celebrations commemorating the closure of the iconic Windmill Theatre fifty years on, and the launch of the definitive book Remembering Revudeville 1932 -1964 a Souvenir of the Windmill Theatre by Jill Millard Shapiro (shown below left).

Remembering Revudeville 1932 - 1964 by Jill Millard Shapiro -  Click to buy this book at Amazon.co.ukSir Bruce Forsyth and comedian Barry Cryer joined Jill and other former Windmill performers at the book launch in Great Windmill Street.

Right - Barry Cryer, Jill Millard Shapiro and Sir Bruce Forsyth outside the Windmill Theatre in 2014.

“We've had a lot of parties and popped a lot of champagne this year.” said Jill, “Those of us who are still alive and kicking are proud to have played a part in the iconic piece of theatre history that was the wonderful little Windmill Theatre.”

The above text and images for the 50th anniversary of the closure of the Windmill Theatre is Courtesy Obscuriosity Press.

Return To the Front Page of this Feature on the Windmill Theatre

 

You may find the following pages from this site of interest: