MEMORIES OF THE WINDMILL: THE ORIGINAL WINDMILL GIRLS
Nudity? Let's strike…
Doris Barry (Windmill Girl, 1932)
When Doris Barry was chosen as a Windmill Girl from a chorus line of girls, she envisaged staying for just one month. She stayed on for eight years until the Blitz in 1940. Van Damm called her 'his sixth pony' - the small dancers were the ponies and the rest were the showgirls. She quickly became a 'soubrette' a young lead whose acts included dancing, comic sketches and drama parts.
Doris remembers Mrs Henderson as being "a remarkable lady who gave all her time to the theatre, Van Damm and us. She was like a mother to us all. She was always round the dressing rooms looking after our welfare and had a good relationship with the cast. Van Damm was equally as caring and took a great deal of interest in his dancers and provided strict chaperons."
Doris was one of the dancers who went on strike the moment the naked tableaux became introduced. Van Damm persuaded them that they would look as artistic as the paintings in the National Gallery - and they did!
Doris left to manage her sister, the renowned Dame Alicia Markova, at The Ballet Russe across the United States. Her particular flair for talent finding led to her coveted present position as Director of the London Studio Centre where she has discovered many well-known actors and celebrities.
Linda Carroll (Windmill Girl, 1942)
Linda Carroll appeared in revues and sketches at the Palace Theatre before joining the Windmill Girls in the spring of 1942. Within a few months she was offered the principal role of Cinderella alongside Fay Compton at the Stoll Theatre. Throughout her time in the pantomime, Van Damm paid a retainer fee for her to come back in a celebrity spot. She finally left the Windmill Girls to get married and Mrs Henderson bought her wedding dress.
Linda explains that "the whole cast were in awe of Mrs Henderson" and describes Van Damm as "a wonderful man to work for who was very caring and kind to the cast and artists. It was the best training I have ever had and a memorable experience."
Maureen Clayton (Windmill Girl)
Maureen auditioned as a Windmill Girl at the age of 17. Her parents considered her too young and she re-auditioned at 22 years. She stayed for five years and dearly regretted not joining on the first occasion.
She recalls her time at the Windmill as a very happy time and good experience. She was deeply impressed how Van Damm would vet everyone that walked through the Stage Door. Her parents attended every Dress Rehearsal and she would wave at them from the stage. "Don't look at your parents!" Van Damm would shout. She also remembers occasions when she wanted a salary rise. Van Damm would question, "Do you think you are worth it?" She was successful if she came back immediately with a positive answer.
When Maureen left to get married, Van Damm bought her wedding dress. She gave up her career to start a family.
Charmian Innes (Windmill Girl, 1931)
Charmian Innes was chosen as a Windmill Girl in 1931 at the tender age of 15. She lasted one edition and was sacked by Van Damm for being overweight. Van Damm retorted that she "did not quite fit the line". A much slimmer Charmian auditioned again in 1939; Van Damm employed her once again, and she remained at the Windmill until 1942. After appearing in various touring shows across the UK, she once again returned for two years in 1943.
It was Charmian who recalled Mrs Henderson's nursed secret. Van Damm himself explained it to her. "He said: 'She had a tragic secret. She lost her own son in the 1914 war and would never talk about it. I think she saw an image of her boy in every other young man'."
Charmian went on to work in broadcasting and theatre and appeared in Cole Porter's 'Let's Face It' at London's Hippodrome Theatre.
Jean Kent (Windmill Chorus Girl, 1934)
Jean Kent became one of the ten Windmill chorus girls back in 1934 aged 15. Van Damm sacked her after 15 months to accommodate his girlfriend. The 'clothed' chorus girls sang and danced four numbers for five shows a day, six days a week, for the wage of precisely £2 per week.
Jean remembers Mrs Henderson as having "immaculate hair, probably a wig, who used to bring along a teddy bear which she danced on the box ledge whilst watching the show".
After leaving the Windmill, Jean appeared in cabaret and revues in London's West End and across the regions.
Margaret Law (Windmill Girl, 1948)
Margaret Law joined the Windmill Girls in 1948 where she remained for 10 years. Her husband, John, dancer and choreographer for the company, also stayed for 10 years.
Margaret's specialty was being a can-can dancer; she "wobbled too much to be a muse!" She was also one of the fan dance girls. Amongst her fond memories of Mrs Henderson was that "everyday Mrs Henderson came in to see the boys armed with sweeties. She made us all feel like a family. Her generosity was overwhelming and she left £10 to everyone still at the theatre when she died."
When Margaret left the Windmill Theatre to start a family, Sheila Van Damm asked her husband to run the theatre but he moved on to start his own business.
Margaret is now 'Head Girl' who still organises get-togethers with all the ex Windmill Girls.
Paulette Lester (Windmill Girl, 1930)
Now at the grand age of 92 years, Paulette still holds fond memories of Laura Henderson and Van Damm. Back in 1930, aged 16 years, she joined the Windmill Theatre as the leading lady with eight chorus girls.
Her strongest memory is the hard work. In 1930 the Windmill was open as a cabaret floor and cinema. During the day, five shows were slotted between the screenings with six shows on a Sunday. Rehearsals for new productions took place every fortnight.
Mrs Henderson treated her like a 'lovely aunt' who frequently sneaked into the theatre incognito to check up on her staff and watch the show from a box. She remembers how thrilled she became when Mrs Henderson gave her a handbag to mark their friendship.
Paulette only stayed at the Windmill for a year and joined other productions touring the UK and Holland. She returned two years later to see Van Damm. She remembers how upset he was when the non-stop revue was introducing nude - though static - girls and told Paulette: 'I don't like it!"
Peggy Martin (Windmill Girl, 1944)
Peggy Martin tired of touring the UK with various repertory companies. Whilst appearing at the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford, she became lured by London and sent her photo to the Windmill. After her audition Van Damm suggested she saw the show before deciding to join. Peggy joined in 1944 until 1948 and returned again in 1952 for a further three years.
Some of her most vivid memories of her time at the Windmill included sleeping in the dressing room after a bad war raid followed by brunch at the famous Lyons Corner House. Also she recalls how difficult it was to stay still tableaux at the time the nearby Regent Palace was bombed! None of the dancers were given the chance to celebrate on VJ Night as Van Damm protectively booked them into the Grosvenor Hotel in Victoria straight after the show.
She remembers Mrs Henderson being very well known in society and the night she brought Queen Wilemina of Holland to the performance. She describes Mrs Henderson as being a diminutive woman, always impeccably dressed who would always be accompanied by her dog, Gilpin.
Jobyna Millhouse (Windmill Girl, 1950)
Jobyna trained as a dancer at the Wessex School of Dancing in Boscombe. She was chosen as a Windmill Girl in 1950.
She was an energetic dancer whose roles included tambourine, tap and point work. One year Van Damm presented her with the silver cup, a trophy given to the hardest working dancer. Jobyna remembers Van Damm as being 'quite frightening at the beginning'. He was a very good entrepreneur who knew how to pick the right dancers. He was a very well educated man who watched over his dancers and would sort out any and all problems.
Jobyna met her dancer husband, Peter Ricardo, at the Windmill Theatre. When they left in 1955, they formed a double act 'Ricardo and Jobyna', appearing at Ciro's Nightclub and other sophisticated London clubs.
Moira Murphy (Windmill Girl, 1949)
Moira Murphy was barely 15 years old when she auditioned to join the Windmill Girls in 1949. Van Damm insisted that she should see the show first for approval. Moira was a very skinny can-can, muse and fan dance girl who earned £8 per week.
She recalls Van Damm always walking straight into their dressing rooms without warning. One could never hear his step but the girls could always smell his cigar. Moira has very happy memories of her time when they all had lots of fans and admirers and she regularly dined at the Ritz, aged 15.
Van Damm would fly the dancers on holiday from Gatwick to France in his plane named 'Windmill Girl'. Moira remembers how he insisted that the girls bring their own sandwiches to his house in Amering, Sussex, for photo shoots in swimwear on the freezing beach once a year. This, of course, could only fall on a Sunday, their day off.
Moira left in 1952 to work at the Lido, Paris, and went on to teach modern dance and tap in the United States.
Angela Osborne (Windmill Girl, 1951)
Angela Osborne trained as a ballet dancer at the Elmhurst Ballet School before joining the Windmill Theatre in 1951. She never knew Mrs Henderson but has fond memories of Van Damm. "He was a wonderful man with a dry sense of humour. He always had a twinkle in his eye and ran the establishment like a girl's finishing school."
Angela was too small to be naked tableaux and concentrated on her modern, ballet and tap dancing. Van Damm sent her off for Spanish dancing lessons and she regularly appeared in the fan dance.
In 1959, Angela joined the Benny Hill Show. For the last 25 years she had been vision mixer for the top comedy BBC shows.
Susan Angel (Granddaughter, Vivian Van Damm)
Susan remembers the parties for the Windmill Girls at her grandfather, Van Damm's home, named 'Zealandia' in Amering, Sussex. Van Damm would also hold a party for her and her sister, Jane, every year at the Windmill when they would be entertained by the then unknown puppeteer, Harry H. Corbett, and his beloved Sooty.
When Van Damm died in 1960 his daughter, Sheila Van Damm, managed the Windmill Theatre. She did not steer the classic revue house in the same direction but she certainly spent most of her life in the driving seat.
Jane Kerner (Granddaughter Vivian Van Damm)
Susan's sister, Jane Kerner, also remembers the wonderful parties held at the Amering residence. She also recalls meeting Van Damm off the train every Friday and hiding from all the billowing steam.
When Jane won 10 gold fish at the local fair, her grandfather bought a fish tank. Van Damm would arrange for the tank to be cleaned at the same time as his office tank. She remembers creeping up the worn stone back stairs with no banisters to his office, being too young to enter the front of the theatre.
Van Damm had three daughters, all of whom adored him but, Jane recalls, "He treated all his Windmill Girls with huge affection as if they were his own children".
Jane and sister Susan have both followed in the footsteps of their grandfather: each of them runs their own talent agency.
Delores Barron's father, Sid Brandon, started work in the office at the Windmill Theatre when it opened in 1934. One of his proudest moments was to introduce Percy Thrower, the dog imitator, to the show. He left to join a theatrical agency but returned in 1936 as Stage Manager. He left again in the Blitz in 1941 and returned after the war in 1950.
One of Sid's duties was to disrobe the Windmill Girls just before curtain up and cover them after each act. Delores remembers when she was just 9 years old sitting in the small corner in the stage wings most Friday nights changing the numbers of the acts on the board. Every month there was a new show and Delores relished in watching the Sunday night Dress Rehearsals. She even slept one night under the stage before being evacuated to her grandmother's home in the Lake District.
Sid was "quite a character with a terrific personality, especially with women! He was a comic and kept everyone laughing."
When Sid finally left the Windmill Theatre, he toured the UK with "Soldiers In Skirts" for several years. His wife went along … to keep an eye on him.
Lynne Brenner is the niece of Anne Mittel who became General Director of the Windmill Theatre.
Anne Mittel started as the astute Van Damm's Secretary in 1932. She showed such an aptitude for production that she was quickly promoted to his assistant. Her duties were endless. She dealt with all the applications for the auditions, selected new material, instructed script and lyric writers, composers, costume and scenic designers, dress and millinery makers, arranged running order of the show, photo calls, dress rehearsals, printing of programmes right through to preparing scripts - and a different one for the visits by the Lord Chamberlain! Anne was extremely professional and would sit in Van Damm's large office working hand in hand. Van Damm wrote a handwritten note to Anne: 'To Anne, with all my gratitude and thanks for your grand and loyal service over 20 years'.
Anne's brother was Len, the Stage Door Manager, a natural born comedian. Len would provide a much-needed injection of mirth and humanity between the acts after the rather antiseptic displays of female flesh.
Lynne remembers Van Damm, when she was the very young age of 5 years, as a gruff character who never minded her watching the show regularly from the wings. She attended the local Soho Parish School (now known as St. James' & Peters School) and would run across to the theatre in her lunch hours. She still remembers the girls covered in sparkling coloured sequins and Van Damm's huge affection towards his Windmill girls.
Jean Thaxton (Van Damm's Niece)
Vivian Van Damm was Jean Thaxton's uncle. She describes Van Damm as a nice person, attractive, well spoken and very special. Vivian was a middle boy of eight children: five girls and three boys and was christened Vivian 'Talbot' Van Damm.
When Van Damm discovered Jean was pregnant with her first child, he treated her and her husband to a two-week holiday in the South of France - travel courtesy of his plane, 'The Windmill Girl'. She remembers the mischievous Van Damm sending her a telegram. "What fun if your child was born in my office!"
The legendary Kenneth More began his career at the Windmill as an electrician. Jean recalls Kenneth More screwing down the seats at the end of every show after members of the audience had jumped across the seats to get to the front!
Jean sang once at the Windmill Theatre - in rehearsal. Being a very petite girl, Van Damm wanted her to join his dancers but she graduated to be a Doctor. Her daughter now teaches at the Royal Ballet School.
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