Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Infatuation Vs Devotion

“The difference between infatuation and devotion is the length of the two” said my partner. We were discussing Mrs. Henderson, a charming movie we had just finished watching. The movie is about an old English widow who buys a run-down theatre and with the help of a veteran manager makes it the best act in the whole of London. The movie is based in the London of 2nd world war.

Maureen, one of the show girls, is disillusioned with love. She is one of the naked girls who are placed in the act in the form of a tableau in order to attract the audience. Since nudity was a subject dealt with prudence, Mrs. Henderson gets permission to show nudity in her shows as long as the girls didn’t move (like the paintings in the museums). It is enchanting to see the different ways in which naked girls acting like statues can be a part of a dance and music show. So, Maureen is glad to be one of the naked goddesses; because now she is someone guys admire from a distance nut no one dares to come near her and thus she is spared the pain of falling in and out of love. Mrs. Henderson starts worrying about her and one day she sees a young soldier looking at Maureen with starry eyes. She introduces the two and convinces Maureen that this could be the right thing.

Later on we see that Maureen falls for the young soldier and then all of a sudden she sends her resignation. When confronted she tells everyone that she is pregnant and the soldier she was going out with has told her that he is going back to his ‘girlfriend’. Maureen is shattered and Mrs. Henderson is befuddled. She considered herself a master in reading human emotions. This is the only sad thing about the movie, otherwise it is a nice one to watch.

A little bit about the Windmill theatre which was the inspiration for this movie -

Films have been made before about the Windmill Theatre and its manager, Vivian Van Damm; among them is TONIGHT AND EVERY NIGHT, shot in Hollywood in 1945 and starring Rita Hayworth as a Windmill girl. But none until now have told the story of the real lynchpin behind the theatre, Laura Henderson, the formidable lady who defied London’s censorship laws to show nudity on the British stage and create a musical institution.

MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS brings together some of Britain’s most remarkable and accomplished talent, including Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins, and two rising stars, the pop singer Will Young and actress Kelly Reilly. It is directed by Stephen Frears, well known for hits such as MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE, THE GRIFTERS and HIGH FIDELITY.


The site in Great Windmill Street in London’s Soho where Laura Henderson was to create her world-famous theatre has had a long and varied past. The street took its name from a real windmill that stood there from the reign of Charles II until the late 18th century. In 1910 a cinema, the Palais de Luxe, was opened on the site. It stood on the corner of a block of buildings that included the Apollo and Lyric theatres, where Archer Street joins Great Windmill Street, just off Shaftesbury Avenue. The cinema was one of the first places where early films were shown, but as larger cinemas were opened in the West End, business slowed and it was forced to close.

In 1931, Laura Henderson bought the disused building and hired the architect, Howard Jones, to remodel the interior as a tiny, one-tier theatre. Named The Windmill, it opened on June 22, 1931, with a new play by Michael Barrington called Inquest. But it was only a minor success as a theatre and returned to screening films, such as The Blue Angel starring Marlene Dietrich.

Soon after Mrs. Henderson’s new manager, Vivian Van Damm, hit upon the idea of producing a non-stop musical revue at The Windmill, work began on putting on the shows with singers, dancers, showgirls and specialty numbers. Revuedeville opened on February 3, 1932, featuring 18 unknown acts, but in the first few years the theatre lost £20,000, a fortune at that time. Eventually it became a commercial success, so much so that nearby Piccadilly and Pavilion theatres copied it and ran non-stop shows too, which took its toll on the Windmill’s ticket sales.

But when Mrs. Henderson and Mr. Van Damm decided to copy the hugely successful Moulin Rouge in Paris and put naked girls on stage, business picked up. Skirting London’s draconian censors by having the girls pose completely motionless on stage, like artwork, Van Damm concocted a series sumptuous nude tableaux vivants based around such themes as Mermaids, Red Indians, Annie Oakley and Britannia.

The Windmill was the only theatre in London which stayed open throughout the War (except for 12 compulsory days from September 4-16, 1939), hence earning its legendary slogan, “We Never Closed.” During some of the worst air attacks of the Blitz, from 7 September 1940 to 11 May 1941, the showgirls and some of its acts moved into the safety of the theatres two underground floors.

Many of the Windmill’s customers were families and troops as well as celebrities, who came as Mrs Henderson’s guests and included Princesses Helena Victoria and Marie Louise (the daughter and granddaughter of Queen Victoria). There would be the occasional problem with male customers, but security were always on the lookout for improper behaviour. More comical was the spectacle of the “Windmill Steeplechase”, where at the end of a show, customers from the back rows would make a mad dash over the top of the seats to nab the front rows.

Though Laura Henderson’s relationship with Van Damm was a stormy one – he had her banned several times from the theatre, only to find her sneaking in disguised as a Chinese mandarin and a polar bear – they bore much affection for each other. When she died in 1944, at age 82, she left the Windmill to Van Damm, who continued their work.

After Laura Henderson’s time, a host of great British comedians began their careers at the Windmill. Among them were Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Michael Bentine, Tony Hancock, Bruce Forsyth and Kenneth More, who did his first Windmill gig in the early 30’s and became the UK’s top box-office star of the 1950s.

Van Damm continued with the theatre until his own death in December 1960, when he left the venue to his daughter, Sheila. She struggled to keep it going but by this time, Soho had become a far seedier place, more akin to its image today. Mrs. Henderson’s Soho of the 1930s and 1940s was a respectable neighborhood of shops and family restaurants, part of a by-gone era. Unable to compete with the strip joints and massage parlours, The Windmill closed on October 31, 1964.

In the mid 1960s, The Windmill was reconstructed as a cinema and casino, and in 1973 a campaign was started to revive "The Old Windmill Days" and reclaim the theatre. But in February 1974, the venue was bought by the nightclub entrepreneur Paul Raymond. He made it a home for nude shows "a la Revuedeville but without the comic element,” although for a period in the 80’s he re-introduced burlesque when he renamed the Windmill ‘La Vie en Rose’.

Today, a lap-dancing club has taken over the building that once was the Windmill Theatre.


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