A few days ago I met a real life Windmill Girl.
I came across Jill Millard Shapiro first through her rather wonderful book Remembering Revudeville: A Souvenir of the Windmill Theatre, and then through social media. We got talking and she very kindly suggested I we have a face-to-face chat.
Jill was a performer at the Windmill theatre from 1959 to December of 1963 when she left to have her first child so she is a well-placed, as well as eloquent and engaging spokeswoman and expert-in-chief for the theatre that she called home for a short but clearly formative period of what turns out to have been a very eventful life.
For those of you who are familiar with my work and interests, you’ll already know about my ongoing work on the Windmill Girls – the women who danced, sang and posed at Soho’s bijoux variety theatre between 1932 And 1964. If you’re not familiar, I’d advise you visit blog post Windmill Girls Project for a bit of background information.
I know I’ve been very lucky to actually meet someone who had worked at the Windmill, a real person, rather than a hypothetical ‘Windmill Girl.’ I love learning about history through materials, traces and a process of investigation but to be able to actually ask directly about day-to-day life at the theatre was great. It was so exciting to be able to find out where I might have in advertently misinterpreted the resources, or where my assumptions based around the available evidence were actually correct.
Jill was extremely generous with her time, very detailed and considered in her responses and was also an extremely engaging speaker, as you’ll hear, when I release the podcast. As I think comes across in our conversation, she takes her duty as ambassador for that little theatre and its unique community very seriously.
She was every ounce the glamourpuss I had anticipated but like every good Windmill Girl, for all that glamour she was still very level-headed and incredibly personable. I am not going to lie, when she suggested we take to her rather beautiful back garden, both armed with a pair of ostrich feather fans to pose for a photograph, it made my week.
As Jill mentions in our chat, the way Windmill Girls held their fans was different to the way burlesque performers now tend to use fans in their routines. I’m not going to lie, this was harder than the way I am used to holding fans, having fan danced for a number of years when I was younger. This, combined with my injured shoulder meant that my posing skills certainly were not of the standard that Jill’s were. When the fan that was supposed to cover my body drooped, she joked, ‘You’d get the sack. If you were nude you’d be flashing yourself!’
During our time together we talked about the Windmill ‘family’, about Jill’s day-to-day experience as a Windmill Girl, there’s mention of her old colleague and friend, Bruce Forsythe, who worked at the Windmill for a while and recently passed away, about her work as a Windmill Ambassador and with the Museum of Soho, about the common misconception that the Windmill offered striptease when in fact they offered variety with nudes and about feminism, or at least the feminist reappraisal, of the Windmill.
I’m very much looking forward to sharing this conversation with you.
Jill (left) enthusiastically participating in a Pathe newsreel