‘The Windmill Story’: The Autobiographies of Vivian & Sheila Van Damm

Resources:

Van Damm, V. (1955) Tonight & Every Night: The Windmill Story. London: Stanley Paul

Van Damm, S. (1967) We Never Closed: The Windmill Story. London: Robert Hale

Van Damm, S. (1957) No Excuses. London: The Camelot Press

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*Photographs of the Camera Club at work in the Windmill, in Tonight & Every Night. For more information on the Camera Club and the Windmill, see ‘Blonde & Brunette (1941):The Camera Club, Art Nudes & the Windmill‘*

These three books are the memoirs of both Vivian & his daughter Sheila Van Damm & as such they offer some fascinating insights into the Windmill & Windmill life. Not surprisingly though, as official ‘Windmill stor[ies]’ they also present a very well-developed and potentially subjective account of the theatre and the myth that surrounds it.

Also not surprisingly, Sheila’s book (one of two books she wrote, the other being called No Excuses) builds upon stories told by her father in his memoirs and further develops mythology around her father too, but both texts are nevertheless interesting for the way in which the narrative is told as such as what is told. For example, in the opening chapter of Tonight and Every Night Vivian Van Damm is open that there may be some element of profit but that there is also a sense of duty around Revudeville, that:

This is the right time to put on the record the Windmill stories as a tribute to the many hundreds of artists who have appeared on its stage, including the thirty recognised stage, screen and radio stars who were discovered at the Windmill, & owe their fame primarily to their appearance in Revudeville.

In this opening chapter Van Damm’s preoccupation with framing the narrative around the Windmill, ‘put[ting] on the record’ the facts as he sees them, as the owner of the theatre is apparent. So later in the book, Van Damm discusses in detail, how irked he was by Hollywood appropriating the Windmill, according to Van Damm without involving the Windmill (see ‘Transatlantic [Mis]interpretation & Appropriation: Tonight & Every Night (1943)‘)

Elsewhere readers are repeatedly offered the opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the Windmill & to hear the real story behind the famous myth. For example, the dust jacket of Sheila’s first book No Excuses furtively promises readers that:

‘The Windmill, now celebrating its twenty-sixth year, is not without its thrilling side too. In No Excuses she takes you behind the scenes & shows you what this kind of show business is like.’

& the dust jacket for We Never Closed asks:

‘But was the Windmill during those eventful thirty-two years really a gold mine? Were its nude tableaus and fan dances really so shocking? And what were the people like who took part in the extraordinary venture?’

Whilst the Windmill wasn’t a burlesque house, the Van Damms certainly mastered the art of the tease.

To return to the main #TheyNeverClothed exhibition catalogue page click here.