Windmill Theatre known for nude showgirls seeks new start as theatre
New life for Britain’s most famous strip club? Windmill Theatre known for its nude showgirls and which remained open at the height of the Blitz seeks fresh start as Soho theatre venue three years after losing its sex club licence
- The Windmill Theatre brought nude performers to Britain for the first time
- It remained open during the Second World War, even at the height of the Blitz
- Became a variety show venue before being turned into a lap-dancing club
- Newly renovated, its current owners hope to reopen the Windmill as a theatre
Legendary strip club the Windmill Theatre, which introduced nude showgirls to Britain, hopes to reopen its doors as a theatre venue, it has been revealed.
Founded in 1930 by eccentric socialite Laura Henderson, the Windmill Theatre became known for its motto: ‘We never closed!’ after it remained defiantly open throughout the Second World War, even at the height of the Blitz.
Mrs Henderson, who was played by Dame Judi Dench in a 2005 biopic, stayed on the right side of decency laws by showcasing her naked starlets as living statues’ who stood still – it was considered more decent – while others, fully clothed, stood and sang around them. The Windmill girls became known the world over.
Over time the Windmill evolved into a variety show venue, giving countless future stars the chance to try out their comedy routines, including Harry Secombe, Bruce Forysth, Peter Sellers and Tony Hancock – although the girls remained the biggest draw.
The show must go on! Founded in 1930, the Windmill Theatre became known for its motto: ‘We never closed!’ after remaining defiantly open throughout the Second World War. Pictured, women perform a routine in gas masks in a 1940 performance at the club
World famous: Owner Laura Henderson showcased her naked starlets as still ‘living statues’, and the Windmill girls became known the world over. Pictured, performer Christine Welsford
Fallen on hard times: The Windmill Theatre in 2011 (left) and in 2018. In 2018 it lost its sex club licence after dancers were found to be flouting the ‘no touching’ rule with punters
Pioneer: Mrs Henderson, who was played by Dame Judi Dench in Mrs Henderson Presents (pictured), stayed on the right side of decency laws by showcasing her naked starlets as living statues’ who stood still while others, fully clothed, stood and sang around them
By the 1990s, the Windmill had become a lap dance venue, which it remained until 2018 when it was stripped of its Sexual Entertainment Venue (SEV) licence.
A women’s rights group hired private investigators to snoop in the club’s VIP room and dancers were found to be in breach of the ‘no touching’ rules.
Now its new owners, Immerse London Ltd, hope to recapture the Windmill’s glory days as a performance venue.
The company has spent £7million transforming the ‘seedy and dilapidated’ lap-dancing venue into a 250-seat main auditorium and 100-capacity theatre lounge.
It has applied to Westminster City Council for a change in its current licence top allow an increase of patrons from the current 150 and to continue to allow the lounge to remain open until 5am.
The application will be discussed by the council on Thursday but there have been objections by the police and owners of nearby theatres, who fear it will add to the congestion, crime and noise of an already crowded area.
Main attraction: Windmill Girls Lesley Wade, Maureen O’Dea and Lee Pearson drinking tea on the sunny rooftop of the Windmill Theatre in July 1952
Centre of attention: Derek Kinne, 23, shows a group of Windmill Girls his George Cross in 1954. Left-right: Jackie Joy, Annette Phillips, Maureen O’Dea, Linda Gray and Judy Bruce
Showgirls: Ascending the stairs at the Windmill Theatre for a performance. Date unknown
Documents submitted alongside the application reveal plans to put on ‘regular, high-end, themed dinner shows’ with live music from in-house bands and a menu curated by award-winning chef Tom Sellers.
They also reveal an intention to assemble an all-star celebrity committee with big names including Alan Carr, Brooklyn Beckham and Taron Egerton.
The first venue on the site, in the heart of Soho, was silent cinema Palais de Luxe, which opened its doors in 1909.
It was taken over by Laura Henderson, a widow who inherited a fortune after the death of her wealthy husband, and her business partner and producer Vivian Van Damm, a theatre impresario inspired by the Moulin Rouge in Paris.
Together they opened a 320-seat theatre in its place.
Mrs Henderson, whose story has been turned into a Hollywood film and a stage musical, persuaded Lord Cromer, the lord chamberlain, that naked women who remained motionless as ‘statues’ were not obscene.
Tableaux: Ballon dancers Beryl Catlin and Susan Denny take centre stage in the Grecian Scene
Radiant: Dancer Rosemary Phillips relaxes backstage at the Windmill Theatre in 1956
Jimmy Edwards, comedian with two of the windmill girls in dressing room in 1947
They were not allowed to move, because this would have been a breach of licensing regulations at the time over naked performances.
Instead they were carefully positioned in still tableaux with themes like the military, or mermaids.
Mrs Henderson also had sad personal reasons for putting nudes on stage. Her only son Alec had been killed, aged 21, during the First World War. After his death she found a picture postcard of a naked woman in his possessions.
She realised he had died never having seen a woman’s body in the flesh and didn’t want to think of any young soldiers dying without having that experience.
After Henderson died in 1944, the Windmill continued to be operated by manager Van Damm and was home to comedians including Tony Hancock, Forsyth and Tommy Cooper.
Three years ago the Windmill finally closed its doors as a strip club after dancers were caught openly flouting ‘no touching’ rules with punters.
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