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Glamorous gals! Windmill Theatre performers reunion in Soho

Former 'nude stars' of celebrated playhouse recall fond memories

14 July, 2017 — By Alina Polianskaya

Back row from left: Cheryl Sherlock, Barry Cryer, Sylvia Lavis, Terri Keighly, Joan Bravery, Ken Roland, Lynne Brenner, Norma Heyman and Googie Cooney; sitting: Graham Hoadly, Jill Millard Shapiro and Nicholas Emery, son of Dick Emery [Photo: Aimee Neat]

A GLAMOROUS group of elderly ladies enjoyed a reunion at Ham Yard Hotel to relive tales about when they were Windmill Girls.

In a story that inspired the film and play Mrs Henderson Presents, they were the nude stars of Soho’s Windmill Theatre at a time when strict censorship rules barred naked movement.

The theatre got around the “if it moves, it’s rude” regulations by hiring women as living statues – or “tableaux vivants”.

Speaking at the reunion last Thursday, Windmill Girl Jill Shapiro said: “We did six shows a day and rehearsed on our day off. But we loved it, we would honestly have done it for nothing. It was a fun, happy theatre, the management were very good. People were taken care of.

“We were Windmill Girls. It is a fame of its own because the Windmill was the first theatre to have nudes on stage in London. But they were static nudes, no moving about. It’s professional theatre, you are all doing the same thing. You are at the back of the stage on a pedestal, so it really wasn’t anything that you thought: Oh my God, what am I doing? We were all very young. I was 15 when I started.”

The theatre also staged variety shows, but it was common knowledge that it was mainly the Windmill Girls that everyone came to see. The Windmill Girls and friends now meet every year, along with some of the performers who launched their careers at the Windmill, such as Barry Cryer.

Terri Keighly, another Windmill Girl who used to perform the fan dance routine, said of her time at the theatre: “I loved it, it was like a family.”

Recalling what it was like performing with no clothes on, she said: “It didn’t bother me, it was like going to a nudist beach.”

During her time there, Ms Keighly also learned to fly and earned her pilot’s licence while she was working at the Windmill, and then went on to be an air hostess. “When I learned to fly, my lessons cost £2 an hour,” she added.

Also at the reunion was Lynne Mitelle Brenner, the niece of Anne Mitelle, who became the general director of the Windmill Theatre. Lynne was a schoolgirl at the time, attending Soho Parish School, which back then was called St James’ & St Peter’s School. She often used to pop down and have tea at the Windmill’s canteen, watching the girls rehearse from the wings.

“I remember all the sparkly dresses,” she said. “I often used to go home with lots of sequins.” She remembered Soho at the time: “It was a magical, cosmopolitan mix. In my school we had every ethnicity, colour, creed.”

Ms Shapiro, who worked there from 1958 to 1963, compiled a book, Remembering Revudeville 1932-1964, about the Windmill Girls on the 50th anniversary of the theatre’s closure. It had opened in 1931 after being taken over by Laura Henderson with Vivian Van Damm as the theatre manager.

Ms Shapiro added: “We still love Soho. I’m a bit concerned about all the development, but we are a different generation, I suppose we have got to accept a lot of change. And, for example, Ham Yard here is stunning. All it was was a grotty alley, it was a horrible place. We used to come out of our stage door down there and look down here at all the slimy green walls where the rain dripped off the broken gutters, and the funny old doorways harbouring God knows who.

“So quite honestly, to see all this is beautiful. But don’t let it lose its character. Save Soho.”

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