Laura Henderson (6 December 1863 – 29 November 1944) rose to prominence in the 1930s when, as a wealthy and eccentric widow, she founded the Windmill Theatre in London's Great Windmill Street, in partnership with Vivian van Damm; they went on to turn it into a British institution, famed for its pioneering tableaux vivants of motionless female nudity and for having "never closed" during the Blitz.
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Laura Henderson was the well-traveled wife of a wealthy jute merchant and lost her only son in 1915, in France, during the First World War. In 1931, she bought the Palais de Luxe building and hired architect Howard Jones to remodel the interior to create a tiny, one-tier theatre, renamed the Windmill. The Windmill Theatre opened on 22 June 1931 as a playhouse, but it was not profitable and soon returned to showing films. Henderson then hired Vivian Van Damm, and they produced Revudeville, a programme of continuous variety with 18 entertainment acts. This also was a commercial failure, so they added the dimension of nudity to emulate the Folies Bergère and the Moulin Rouge in Paris. The key element was Van Damm's exploitation of a legal loophole (or zone of tolerance) that nude statues could not be banned on moral grounds, and this led to the legendary "Windmill Girls" who appeared completely nude but stood completely still, so as to emulate nude statuary.
On her death in 1944, Laura Henderson bequeathed the Windmill to "My Dear Bop", Vivian Van Damm. In his 1952 autobiography, Van Damm described her as "a great strain on one's nerves, patience and tact".
In popular culture
- "Obituary of Laura Henderson". The Times. November 30, 1944.