I am sure many of you will have seen the film Mrs Henderson Presents with Judi Dench. I am a big fan of Judi Dench and her portrayal of the ballsy Laura Henderson really fired my interest in this remarkable woman.
The Palais de Luxe in Great Windmill Street, London was one of the first enterprises to show the early silent films but was forced to close when it started to lose business to the larger cinemas when they started opening in the West End.
Then along came Laura Henderson; it was 1930 and she was 69 years old. A wealthy, eccentric widow and by all accounts a deliciously determined lady who was looking for a project. Embroidery and ladies lunches clearly failed to occupy her mind, so she bought the Palais de Luxe, without too much thought about what she was going to do with it. Mrs Henderson was well-travelled and her late husband had been a jute merchant. She had also tragically lost her only son in 1915 when he was fighting in France during the First World War. He was just 21.
Mrs Henderson hired the architect, Howard Jones, to remodel the interior of the Palais de Luxe into a small 320-seat, one-tier theatre. Mrs Henderson then renamed the building The Windmill and it opened on 22 June 1931 as a playhouse. The first production at The Windmill was a new play called Inquest by Michael Barringer a British writer, screenwriter, and playwright. Barringer had also directed four films early in his career. Innovative, but sadly a bit of a flop.
Mrs Henderson was clearly not a defeatist and she had much more exciting ideas for The Windmill and hired a new theatre manager, Vivian Van Damm.
Van Damm, unfortunately, known as ‘VD’, came from a middle-class London family of Dutch/Jewish origin. He had left school at fourteen to work in a garage but later abandoned the grease monkey trade to manage West End cinemas. Laura Henderson and Vivian Van Damm developed the idea of the Revudeville, a programme of continuous variety that ran from 2.30pm until 11pm. They began to put on shows with singers, dancers, showgirls and specialty numbers. The first Revudeville act opened on 3rd February 1932, featuring 18 unknown acts. Unfortunately, these shows still proved to be unprofitable and the theatre is purported to have lost £20,000 in the first few years after its opening.
Something had to be done, so the Henderson/Van Damm partnership came up with the idea of adding nudity to the show, emulating the Folies Bergère and the Moulin Rouge. There were a few legal issues to contend with but Van Damm found a loophole. Nude statues could not be banned on moral grounds and this led to the birth of the legendary Windmill Girls who appeared completely nude but stood stock still, so as to emulate nude statuary. The girls had to remain motionless and the Lord Chamberlain’s ruling was “If you move, it’s rude”.
Mrs Henderson died in 1944 and left the theatre to Van Damm. The curtain came down at The Windmill for the final time in 1964, 34 years after Laura Henderson decided she wanted a project and what a project it was.