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The Windmill Girls

  September 27, 2016  

On March 12, direct from London’s West End, comes the new hit musical MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS. Based on a true story about the Windmill Theatre, MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS is about the world of theatre, its performers and the tenacity of those behind the scenes to keep the show going despite the odds. Meet two Windmill Girls - JILL MILLARD SHAPIRO & JOAN BRAVERY.

JILL MILLARD SHAPIRO

Born 1938
Windmill Girl 1958-1963

It was the spring of 1958 when on impulse and backed by the confidence of youth I walked into the Windmill Theatre stage door.

I was only fourteen, fourteen and a half actually, still at Convent school, and in a feeble attempt at sophistication, I was wearing a little red hat set at what I considered to be a chic and jaunty angle. What made me enter the Windmill Theatre's stage door and ask for an audition I will never know but enter I did and Ben Fuller, the stage doorkeeper, telephoned upstairs to impresario Vivian Van Damm's office. “You're lucky,” Ben said to me “the Old Man is in today and he says he'll see you.” Van Damm was affectionately known as The Old Man or VD. Once when questioned about the unflattering soubriquet VD he promptly replied “Honi soit que mal y pense”.

The first thing I noticed when I entered the Windmill stage door was a sickly but not unpleasant smell. It was a mixture of greasepaint, perfume and sweat. There was a cacophony of sounds even less melodious than an orchestra tuning up. The show was being transmitted throughout the theatre by tannoy and every now and then the rasping voice of the stage manager would interrupt to call the next act to the stage. The shrill ring of the old Bakelite telephone in Ben's office, tap shoes on stone stairs, the scratchy tannoy...you could hear the audience laugh if the comic was good....then suddenly a flurry of frilled and feathered Windmill girls with carmine lips appeared on the stone stairs that led from the girls' dressing rooms to the prompt side.  These  naughty but nice girls were admired and respected and as Richard Dimbleby observed in a BBC TV Panorama programme, The Windmill Girls had a certain cachet. They were special. They were The Windmill Girls. They were one of the most famous and exclusive groups in 20th Century entertainment history and I was about to join them.

A former Windmill girl called Beryl Catlin was Van Damm's assistant. She led me up about 100 stone stairs, ushered me into VD's office...the sanctum sanctorum...then left closing the door behind her. Vivian Van Damm sat behind his desk and I stood in front of it. There was an aquarium with frantic little fish darting about and a bird in a cage scraping its beak on a cuttlefish bone. Next to the desk was an oxygen mask and cylinders. I later learnt that Van Damm was a chronic asthmatic. I tried not to let the fish tank distract me. Van Damm 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.

Vivian Van Damm signed my contract and suddenly my heart sank. I had acted on impulse and now I had a contract that I couldn't fulfil. I was a schoolgirl, a convent schoolgirl more familiar with the  Latin liturgies of the Catholic Church than the Lalique ladies of the Windmill's nude tableaux. Also I was under age, too young to be on the stage of The Windmill Theatre. But the man who made stars liked me and sent me home with a contract. I promised him I would return and I did.

Vivian Van Damm had taken a chance on me and I was determined not to let him down. I wasn't surprised by the discipline of a West End theatre but the enormity of it all finally sunk in when the Windmill's ballet master and choreographer Keith Lester, who had partnered some of the greatest ballerinas of his day told me I was going to be the principal fan dancer in the next show. The Windmill was a theatre and was governed by very strict theatre licensing laws. Before the abolition of censorship in 1968 our scripts, publicity photographs and all performances were scrutinised by the Lord Chamberlain's office at St James's Palace. The Lord Chamberlain (a member of the Royal Household) had absolute power over everything that appeared on our stage. Nudes were not allowed to move. It worked on the principle that if it moves it's rude. The only nude the censorship law permitted to move on the Windmill stage was the principal fan dancer. Staying within this law required considerable strength and skill on her part as she had to remain covered while manipulating the huge and heavy ostrich feather fans during a choreographed performance where timing, and trust in the four girls who covered her when her fans were raised, was everything. It was a serious responsibility because 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 revealed a little more than the law permitted. In reality this was unlikely to happen because the wonderful bowler-hatted gentlemen from the Lord Chamberlain's office forewarned us by telephoning first from St James's Palace to announce their imminent arrival.

I did become one of the Windmill's principal fan dancers and performed many other leading parts during the years I was there.

Vivian Van Damm died on the 14th of December 1960. The next morning his daughter Sheila Van Damm pinned a message on the notice board. It said that VD's last wish was that the show should go on exactly as normal. No-one should behave differently in any way. The note concluded...

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. -Sheila   

In the 37th and final Windmill Souvenir publication 1963-1964 my portrait is captioned ...Jill Millard came to the Windmill five years ago. What it failed to say is that Vivian Van Damm took a chance on me and I loved every minute of it! Thank you Vivian Van Damm.

If a time-lapse camera had been focused on the Windmill Theatre stage door from 1932 to 1964 it would have captured the love and the laughter, the tears and despair. Demobbed young comedians

out on their ear after a failed audition had heard Van Damm shout the chilling word “Next!”. and others who went in that door terrified and came out clutching that most important piece of theatrical paper...a contract. And the Windmill girls who bothered to stop on the pavement in the drizzling London rain to sign a photograph for a sailor or smile at a stage door Johnny who had seen the show and was besotted.

The time-lapse camera would have captured me in 1958 as a fourteen year old girl in a little red hat who thought she was sophisticated going in through the stage door and, five years later, a twenty year old woman who knew she could command a stage coming out of it.

On the 31st of October 1964 after a 32 year run the curtain fell after the final performance of Revudeville and the Windmill Theatre stage door locked shut behind its keeper. The theatre that 'never closed' had done just that, leaving behind one of British entertainment’s most enduring legends. The Windmill Girls.  I am proud to have been one of them.

© Jill Millard Shapiro 2015 

JOAN BRAVERY

Born 1938
Windmill Girl 1959-1961

In 1959, at barely half an inch over five foot tall, gamine Joan Bravery's hopes of becoming a Windmill girl were dashed before she had a chance to audition. She was rejected on sight by Vivian Van Damm's producer Anne Mitelle as being “too short”. Despite Joan's RAD (Royal Academy of Dance) qualifications and her love of ballet the tiny dancer was unceremoniously dismissed and exited through the stage door into the London rain.

But something about her had caught the eagle eye of the Windmill's legendary ballet master Keith Lester. Was it her stance? The way she walked? So obviously a dancer. Or her pretty face? No one could miss the striking similarity to Hollywood's Shirley Maclaine.

A week later Joan was recalled by Van Damm's daughter Sheila who hired her on the spot and Keith took her under his wing. Joan was his protégée. She was cast in the pas de deux but confessed to Lester that she had injured her foot and feared it was not strong enough for her to execute his exacting choreography. Unbeknown to anyone, Keith Lester worked privately with Joan in the Windmill's empty rehearsal room, where, she later recalled, he danced with her, partnered her, as if he was was once again partnering Karsavina, Spessivtseva or Markova as he had done years before.

Vivian Van Damm also had his eye on Joan resulting in one amusing incident. Van Damm would sometimes venture down to the girls dressing rooms and usually they knew he was approaching because the aroma of a good cigar preceded him. Personal jewellery was not allowed on stage and one day Joan was in her dressing room stark naked when Van Damm brazenly walked in unannounced...without his cigar. “Joan,” he said “were you wearing earrings on stage in the fan dance?” “Earrings?” she replied indignantly facing him hands on hips “Mr Van Damm, as you can see I am not wearing anything at all!” 

MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS is part of the 2016/17 Main Subscription Season.

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