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Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Abominable Showman, February 19, 2012

The Windmill As it stands today by schau mal einer an, via Google’s Panoramio picture-sharing website

The Theatre of War
As Canadian troops train in combat operations overseas, the Abominable Showman pays tribute to one of the finest wartime theatres ever, The Windmill, where T&A provided Londoners and allied soldiers much-needed relief during World War II
By Richard Burnett
My British father was 10 years old when World War II started, and almost 16 when the war finally ended in 1945. Two years later my dad would serve in the British military as a member of a Sexton tank crew in Germany, from 1947-1949. There he saw the carnage inflicted on Germany by the allies.
But my father had also survived The Blitz, when the Nazis bombed London almost every night between September 7, 1940 and May 10, 1941, killing 20,000 Londoners (as well as another 20,000 Brits living outside the city) and destroying or damaging over one million homes in London alone.
My British grandfather, William Burnett, was a firefighter in London during The Blitz. One day when he came home from a shift he found my father (who was 10 years old at the time) playing with an unexploded German incendiary bomb in the back yard!
The Revue de Ville at The Windmill
during the Blitz
Anyway, 67 years later, in 2007, on my way to visit family in Mauritius, I pit-stopped in London to celebrate my boozy birthday with good London friends, and knew I was in deep trouble when my travel buddy Vinnie and I were several shots into a bottle of absinthe in a nightclub that looked like the alien bar in the original Star Wars movie. 
London – or Londonistan, as I like to call it, since British jihadists were terrorizing the city at the time – is still the pulse of Europe, though I couldn’t find mine when we stumbled from Detroit, the absinthe bar, to the Shadow Lounge on Old Compton Street in Soho, an expensive gay disco where Graham Norton and Rupert Everett like to hang out with the beautiful people. 
That weekend we also caught a performance of the terrific revival of Cabaret at the historic Lyric Theatre in London’s West End on Shaftesbury Avenue, pretty much just around the corner from what I think ranks as one of the greatest wartime theatres on the planet, the old Windmill Theatre on Great Windmill Street, which today is a high-end strip joint – or a gentlemen’s “table-dancing” nightclub, in local parlance.
I spotted the joint as we left the Lyric because I recognized it from the terrific 2005 docudrama Mrs. Henderson Presents, scripted by Bent playwright Martin Sherman and starring the great Shakespearean stage actor Judi Dench in the title role. 
Dench at the 2007 BAFTAs
(Wikipedia)
Dench, incidentally, was in the same class as Vanessa Redgrave at drama school, trained at the Old Vic Theatre in the 1950s, created the role of Sally Bowles in the London premiere of Cabaret, and once famously said, “The best moment of playing [William Shakespeare's] Juliet is the nanosecond when they offer you the part.”
When I told my dad about the Windmill, he replied, “Yes, I went there once during the war.”
In other words, he got into the Windmill as an under-aged young teen to check out a little T&A.
Which makes sense since the old Windmill essentially became an infamous burlesque theatre after Laura Henderson bought the Palais de Luxe building in 1930, hired architect Howard Jones to remodel the interior to a tiny one-tier theatre, and renamed it the Windmill. 
Program from The Windmill’s
famous and infamous Revue de Ville
Henderson’s theatre manager, the famed London impresario Vivian van Damm, came up with the brilliant idea of showcasing glamorous nude females on stage, inspired by the Folies Bergères and Moulin Rouge in Paris. 
Wikipedia explains, “This coup was made possible by convincing Lord Cromer, then Lord Chamberlain, in his position as the censor for all theatrical performances in London, that the display of nudity in theatres was not obscene: since the authorities could not credibly hold nude statues to be morally objectionable, the theatre presented its nudes – the legendary “Windmill Girls”– in motionless poses as living statues or tableaux vivants. The ruling: ‘If you move, it's rude.’”
Interestingly, a quarter-century later, my friend, Montreal theatre legend Louis Negin, became the first actor to ever appear nude on a legitimate British stage, in John Herbert’s Fortune and Men’s Eyes in London’s West End back in 1967.
“In London at that time if you went to see a play with nudity in it, you had to join a [theatre] club which couldn’t be closed down [by the police],” Negin explained to me. “When Lord Chamberlain dissolved that law, Herbert’s Fortune and Men’s Eyes – with its explicit scenes of gay rape in prison – was a huge success with audiences in Canada and the West End.”
Benny Hill getting made up at the Windmill
All that to say, The Windmill shows became a huge commercial success and The Windmill then became the only theatre in London which stayed open throughout World War II, earning its legendary slogan, “We never closed.”
The Windmill provided much-needed respite for Londoners and allied soldiers, and I wish we had an equivalent for our Canadian soldiers serving overseas today. 
While Canada’s combat mission in Kandahar ended in 2011, this past week Canadian soldiers conducted Joint Operations Access Exercise 12-01 with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division (also Marlene’s Dietrich’s favourite soldiers during her wartime tours behind enemy lines during WWII) in North Carolina. Another 1,500 Canadian troops are currently retraining near Yellowknife for the $20-million exercise Arctic Ram, relearning skills neglected during 10 years of desert warfare in case this country ever has to defend its Arctic sovereignty. And this week Canada also secured the Cologne-Bonn airport in Germany as the European hub to support Canadian troops in whatever foreign missions come after the war in Afghanistan.
While the theatre of war keeps changing, it’s still true soldiers and the folks in war-torn cities still need to be entertained, even if only just for a couple of hours. That’s what Laura Henderson understood so well at The Windmill.
When Henderson died on November 29, 1944, at age 82, she left The Windmill to Van Damm, better known by his backstage nickname “VD.”  Van Damm ran the theatre until his death in December 1960. Along the way, innumerable British entertainers got their career starts at The Windmill, including comic Benny Hill.
In its latest incarnation The Windmill International has – appropriately, I think – become a “table-dancing” nightclub. The luxurious venue maintains its original features while keeping in style with the old theatre.
Cutline for program 2012: British historian Maurice Poole gave an illustrated talk on the Windmill Theatre, at the Sanctum Soho Hotel on February 6, 2012. Special guests included Jill Millard Shapiro, a former Windmill girl and the program (pictured) was modeled on an original Windmill Theatre program.

As for Judi Dench, who portrayed Henderson in the Mrs. Henderson Presents biopic, she is currently waging her own war: London’s Daily mail reports this weekend that the 77-year-old Dench is battling to save her eyesight from a disease (called macular degeneration) which can lead to blindness, and that has already left her unable to read scripts. 
“I can’t read scripts anymore because of the trouble with my eyes,” Dench told the Daily Mail, admitting she can’t even see the person opposite her at dinner anymore. “And so somebody comes in and reads them to me, like telling me a story. It’s usually my daughter or my agent or a friend and actually I like that, because I sit there and imagine the story in my mind.”
Clearly Dench still has some fight in her, in her new theatre of war.
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