Jill Millard Shapiro recalls some backstage moments
as one of
Above - A portrait of Jill Millard by Edgar Brind in 1963 which
was an official Windmill publicity picture
Vivian Van Damm was a man who did not waste words. His speech was slow and deliberate. He asked me two questions, Can you dance and can you sing? I answered yes to both. He paused for a moment, looked me straight in the eyes and said, I like you. I'm going to take a chance on you. That moment defined who I would be for the rest of my life.
It was the Spring of 1958. Vivian van Damm signed my contract and told me I would start rehearsals the following week. My heart sank. I can't, I'm still at school, I confessed. I thought he would be angry with me for wasting his time but he wasn't. He looked bemused. This was not the first and probably wouldn't be the last time this had happened to him. The film star, Jean Kent, had 'misled' him about her age when she auditioned for the Windmill. Jean Kent got away with it. I didn't. Van Damm sent me home, but he sent me home with a contract and a promise to return.
Right - A frail looking Vivian Van Damm with his daughter Sheila Van Damm in 1960 - With kind permission Topham Picturepoint.
I hadn't set out to go to the Windmill that day. I was only fourteen, still at convent school, and in a feeble attempt at sophistication was wearing a little red hat set at what I considered to be a chic and jaunty angle. But, while making my way towards Piccadilly Circus from the 2i's Coffee Bar on Old Compton Street (where I had briefly met a Windmill Girl called Perrin Lewis) I found myself on Archer Street in front of the Windmill Theatre Stage Door. What made me enter it and ask for an audition I will never know but enter I did and Ben Fuller, the stage doorman, telephoned upstairs to Van Damm's office.
You're lucky, Ben said to me. The Old Man is in today and he says he'll see you.(Vivian Van Damm was affectionately known as V.D. or The Old Man.)
It was there in that cramped little space between the stage door and the doorman's office that I first smelled the Windmill Theatre, a sickly but not unpleasant mixture of greasepaint, perfume and sweat. And the noise! The current show was relayed throughout the building by tannoy. There were tap dancers in the rehearsal rooms, sewing machines whirring in the wardrobe, composers in the music room and chatter and clatter in the canteen.
The enormity of what I was doing hadn't hit me. Even when a flurry of frilled and feathered Windmill Girls with carmine lips appeared on the stone stairs, waiting to enter the stage by the prompt wings, it didn't hit me. Even when someone (Beryl Catlin I think) came for me and took me up flight after flight of stairs to what Van Damm's daughter, Sheila, called her father's eyrie it didn't sink in. It finally hit me like a lightening bolt when I started rehearsals and had to face one of the Windmill's greatest luminaries, Keith Lester.
Left - The 17 year old Jill Millard featuring in the March 17th 1961 edition of 'What's On' magazine - Courtesy Jill Millard Shapiro.
Keith Lester was a leading British male ballet dancer, choreographer and teacher who had trained in the Diaghilev tradition of Russian classical ballet and partnered some of the greatest ballerinas of the 1920s and 30s. Now he was trying to make my body and my legs do things that my body and my legs had never done before. He terrified me. He puffed out his chest, flared his nostrils and shouted at me until one of the girls whispered in my ear, Don't let him make you cry. You mustn't let him get the better of you. Another girl said, If he didn't think you were worth it he wouldn't bother with you. Suddenly the penny dropped. Keith Lester was teaching me.
Right - Keith Lester on the Windmill stage with Joy Hunt - Courtesy
Jill Millard Shapiro.
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 principal fan dancer. Staying within this law required considerable skill on her part, as she had to remain covered while manipulating the huge ostrich feather fans.
Left - Jill Millard in a Jungle Scene choreographed by Keith Lester - Courtesy Jill Millard Shapiro.
In theory the Lord Chamberlain could have had the fan dance removed from the show if during one of the surprise visits from his Assistants the principal dancer showed more than the law permitted. In reality this was unlikely to happen because the wonderful pinstriped, bowler-hatted gentlemen from the Lord Chamberlain's office always tipped us off by telephoning first from St James's Palace to announce their imminent arrival.
A luminary with a far gentler approach than Keith Lester was dancer and choreographer John Law. John took me aside one day. You can sing, he said, as if it had come as a surprise to him. Without hesitation he put me on stage in a duet with one of the Windmill boys. It was a rock n' roll number, Hey, Good Lookin'. Fifty years later I can still remember the lyrics. It was John Law who taught me how to project my voice and told me to practice at home in front of the bathroom mirror. It was John Law who taught me stage craft.
John started as a juvenile at the Windmill in Laura Henderson's time. Other notable Windmill boys included Bruce Forsyth, Angus Lennie, who played The Mole in the film The Great Escape, and William Graham, child star of the Just William films in the 1940s. Secretly I was a little bit in love with William Graham.
Left - A Rare colour transparency of a live performance at the Windmill Theatre, with Jill Millard and Ken Roland on stage during the 29th Anniversary performance in February 1961 - Courtesy Jill Millard Shapiro.
The resident comedians in my day were Arthur English, Bill Pertwee, Jimmy Edmundson and Rex Jameson a.k.a the inimitable Mrs Shufflewick. The comics' and the Windmill Boys' dressing rooms were at the very top of the building and the Windmill Girls' dressing rooms at the very bottom below ground level. This, we believed, was Van Damm's way of keeping us apart. Fraternisation was frowned upon. The Windmill was like a family and Van Damm its fussy father. He wanted his girls to make good marriages. Humble hoofers were not what he had in mind.
Fortunately The Old man never found out about my stolen kisses on the stairs between dressing rooms. Despite Van Damm's rules (and his many meddling attempts to break up any serious romances) true love did blossom at the Windmill resulting in several marriages:
Eric Barker to Pearl Hackney, Barry Martin to Maureen O'Dea, Bruce Forsyth to Penny Calvert and John Law to Margaret Cooper who was Windmill Girl of the Year 1950 and one of the best high kicking can-can girls of her day.
Above - Jill Millard as 'ALADDIN' in the pantomime finale of Revudeville 317 at Christmas 1960 - Courtesy Jill Millard Shapiro.
Apart from the usual Stage Door Johnnies I had one special admirer. It was the winter of 1960 and the 317th edition of Revudeville when the lovable Lord Charles joined the show.
Left - Ventriloquist Ray Alan with Lord Charles at the Windmill Theatre in 1960 - Courtesy Jill Millard Shapiro.
Lord Charles was a lecherous, slightly inebriated, monocled aristocratic dummy who in the skilled hands of ventriloquist Ray Alan became disconcertingly real. From the stage Lord Charles's wooden head swiveled to face me as I waited in the wings to make my entrance as Aladdin. It leered at me then swiveled back to face Ray, remarking, I say, by jove! She's a lovely little thing! That was the closest Id come to being fancied by a Lord.
Right - Windmill Girl of the year 1963. Lucy Winters with the Emile Littler Trophy surrounded by Windmill Girls Marion West, Jill Millard, Tania Preston, Vera Florey, Pat Patterson and Elizabeth Hill. This picture appeared in the 37th Windmill Souvenir and the Daily Express and then went into national papers all over the world - Courtesy Jill Millard Shapiro.
It was during this 317th edition that Vivian Van Damm died. Below is an extract from the message Sheila Van Damm pinned on the Windmill notice board. It was dated the 15th December 1960.
V.D. passed away peacefully last night. He had been very, very seriously ill these past few weeks and all of us who knew the nature of his illness are now so happy he is at peace. I am with you here all today and the show will go on exactly as usual. No one is to behave differently in any way. This was V.D's last wish. There will be no mourning. You can show your love and respect in the way which would have made him happy: Go out on that stage and give it all you have got.
Above - The Stage Newspaper reports on the memorial service for Vivian Van Damm in its 5th of January 1961 edition
We girls were strangely quiet in the dressing rooms as we applied the Leichner greasepaint to our faces in preparation for first house. I remembered the last time I had seen VD. I had been summoned up to his office for no apparent reason. It was the second time he had sent for me. The first was when the Windmill's publicity machine had rolled into action and my photographs began appearing in the press with headlines such as Convent Girl in Windmill Show.
Above - The Pacific Island scene from Revudeville No.334 in 1963. Centre stage are Jill Millard and Anthony Bryant. On the left: Eileen Wooding, Tania Preston, Dean Threadwell and Barry Kennedy. On the right: Sadie Comben, Marion West and Sylvia Lavis kneeling - Courtesy Jill Millard Shapiro.
Van Damm had received a letter of complaint from the Mother Superior of my old convent school. The letter had angered him. Mother Superior and the sisterhood of Saint Mary's did not wish to be associated with me and demanded that the Windmill stop using the convent in connection with my name for the Theatre's publicity purposes. I could almost see Mother Superior's point, but Van Damm was having none of it. He reacted as if I had been accused of being a Soho harlot.
They are ashamed of you, he said, but they should be proud of you. I am. With that said he dismissed me and continued to issue press releases proclaiming It's a far cry from her Woodford convent schoolgirl days to London's palais de glamour...etc.
The last time I saw Van Damm he looked tired and frail. He sat behind his desk and I stood in front of it much as I had on that very first audition day. I wondered why he wanted to see me but he didn't seem to have a reason. He told me he was pleased with me. I asked him how he was and his reply surprised me. I've been unwell, he said, I pulled a hair out of my nose with tweezers and set up an infection. Let that be a warning to you. Never pull your nose hairs out, it can cause all sorts of problems. I promised him I wouldn't.
Above - "Belles of New Orleans" arranged by John Law at the Windmill Theatre, from Revudeville 313, May 1960. Artistes are Terry Keighley, Jennie Kenna, Bill Ryan, Denise Warren, Jill Millard, Nugent Marshall, Shendah Pearce, Sally Crow, Roy Francis, Megan Lan and Kay Ellis. During the Blitz Nugent Marshall was injured in the bomb blast that killed Windmill electrician Peter Rock and injured Windmill Girl Joan Jay - Courtesy Jill Millard Shapiro.
My first entrance on that 15th day of December 1960 was as Nelly Blye in Frankie and Johnny, an adagio number arranged by John Law. My second was as principal fan dancer in one of Keith Lester's most dramatic fan dances performed with red fans to the music from Bizet's Carmen. My third entrance was as Aladdin in the pantomime finale, also arranged by John Law.
In the 37th and very last Windmill souvenir programme 1963-1964 my portrait has the caption: Jill Millard went to St Mary's Convent Woodford and came to the Windmill five years ago...
What it failed to say is that she loved every minute of it! Thank you Vivian Van Damm.
Above - Girls on the Go... This picture was published in the Daily Mirror Newspaper on Friday the 8th of July 1960. Three Windmill Girls: Terry Keighley in the driving seat, Sally Crow in the check dress and Jill Millard were part of the Windmill Go-Kart team racing at Long Marston for The Daily Mirror Trophy in aid of the Printers' Pension Corporation. The Windmill Girls' team was managed by Rally driver Sheila Van Damm - With kind permission Mirrorpix.
Above - Windmill Girl, 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
The article on this page was exclusively written for www.arthurlloyd.co.uk by Jill Millard Shapiro and is Copyright © Jill Millard Shapiro 2011. Photos are Courtesy Jill Millard Shapiro except where otherwise credited. No part of this article or its accompanying images may be reproduced anywhere without the prior consent of Jill Millard Shapiro and Matthew Lloyd.
A SOUVENIR OF THE WINDMILL THEATRE
On the 31st of October 1964 a very British institution took its final bow. That was the night of the Windmill's farewell performance and when the curtain fell for the last time on London's world famous little theatre, and the stage door locked shut behind its keeper, the Windmill's heart stopped beating. All that was left was the lingering smell of a good cigar, the ghost of a fan dancer, the last faint echoes of laughter and applause, and then darkness. After 32 years the Windmill had breathed its last breath. Or had it? No one could have predicted that half a century later, in the year 2014, the world would still remember with affection the Windmill Theatre with its famous comedians and its legendary Windmill Girls.
Fifty years on, in the public's heart, this particular British institution "Never Closed". This full colour hardback special edition book commemorates the Windmill on the fifty year anniversary of the theatre's closure. With over 600 illustrations (photographs and ephemera), stories and contributions from ex Windmillite Barry Cryer OBE, Windmill girls and boys who danced on through the blitz and many more, this book will remind those who were there of the phenomenon that was the Windmill, and give those who weren't the feeling of having visited the theatre that famously never closed.
Click to buy the book at Amazon.co.uk.
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