British Showgirls Uncovered
Updated: Sep 18, 2022
Extended Version : Tales from British Showgirls from a Bygone Era
Readers Digest UK
Author: Hillary Sukhonos
Disclaimer: This original version by the author is published with permission from Readers Digest UK to complement the release of the print version. It contains a deep dive into early 20th century British cabaret and several more quotes and stories from first hand sources and showgirls. Read the editors version dated September 2022 and digital release in October 2022. (Link coming soon). Gracious thank you to Eva Mackevic.
A Brief Retelling of 20th Century British Cabaret with Tales from Showgirls
Cabaret is a little controversial. In fact, it was designed that way. Whether by flouting censorship laws or flaunting liberties, cabaret stirs the pot. And as history will tell, women pioneered some of the most influential cabaret concepts. Such as Austrian writer and impresario, Frida Strindburg, who opened Cave of the Golden Calf in 1912. It was the first European style cabaret to open in London, and promptly declared its intentions to the press,
Our aims have the simplicity of a need:
We want a place given up
to gaiety, to a gaiety stimulating
thought, rather than crushing it.
Located underground near Regent Street, Cave of the Golden Calf attracted the upper crust of artists, outcasts, and thinkers. This was akin to Le Chat Noir in Paris, whose bohemian artists kicked off modern cabaret in 1881. Both venues offered drinks and entertainment in a dimly lit, richly decorated room meant to stimulate creativity. Frida went bankrupt in 1914, the Golden Calf closed, but London nightlife was forever changed.
Cabaret became a new element in Britain's live entertainment landscape. At the time, variety shows reigned supreme, chorus lines like the Tiller Girls swept Europe and America, and Gaiety Burlesques (light hearted plays starring women) were the talk of the town. In fact, Laura Henderson, the future owner of the Windmill Theatre, attended Gaiety Burlesques with her husband and wrote,
“I, like most girls of that period, had been taught to regard legs as something you might perhaps meet in your bath, but never elsewhere, and my horror at the legs - rows and rows of them - I shall never forget.”
The cabaret would eventually seduce her. Years later, after the death of her husband and only son in WWI, Mrs. Henderson would have a dramatic change of heart and buy the Windmill Theatre. Under her leadership, the Windmill popularised nudity in live theater throughout the Blitz.
First, the definition of cabaret.
It is generally agreed the recipe of a cabaret must include some sort of entertainment in front of patrons who can drink alcohol and eat.
Cabaret is porous. It came of age parallel to dance halls, chorus line, kick lines, can-can, and dinner shows. It reinvents itself with new trends, cultural influence, politics and technology. And, keeping with the great theater tradition, theatre directors stole from each other. An example would be how the Tiller Girls style was absorbed into cabaret and can-cans.
John Tiller of Manchester founded his line in 1889 and consequently developed a new dance style called precision dance. The Tiller Girl official website proudly claims,
“He went on to perfect a high kicking dance for Les Folies-Bergère, using eight girls, called the Pony Trot that would be the start of all modern kick routines.”
The Tiller Girls toured overseas to New York City’s Ziegfeld Follies in 1900. Their kick line style is still copied and performed to this day by the Radio City Rockettes at Lincoln Centre.
Around the same period the can-can dance achieved popularity in English music halls, where it was adopted by chorus line girls. Choreographed routines mixed kick-line and cancan movements. These routines were coped, shared and repeated by various troupes. This style was dubbed "French Cancan" and was imported back into France in the 1920s for the benefit of tourists where it exploded into worldwide popularity. The French cancan could be seen as far as the Yukon, Alaska, Shanghai, and Australia.
Meanwhile, underground cabaret seeded into countries which were grappling with political and social strife. Germany debuted its first cabaret in1901, which became known for gallows humour, a trait immortalised in Bob Fosse's 1972 film Cabaret. By1911 cabaret landed in North America where it promptly ignored segregation laws. Chicago, New York, and New Orleans hosted ‘black and tan’ clubs where jazz and mixed race couples mingled.
Early cabaret embraced civil rights, womens rights, and the sexual revolution.
The showgirl was born from this cocktail of liberation and taboo, half chorus girl and half cancan dancer.
The final ingredient is the spiciest. The showgirl borrowed a feather out of the hats of actresses, art models, exotic dancers and courtesans, who all shared one common experience: posing nude or dancing topless at some point in their careers. Cabaret audiences could not resist this ultimate 'wow-factor'. Not only were the acts amazing, the sets fantastical, the singers uproarious, the fashion wild, but the women were now not only beautiful but topless!
The first large scale topless cabaret premiered at the Gaite theatre of Paris in 1920. Though it ruffled a few feathers, the French public generally celebrated topless revues. Picture 1920s Folies Bergere, overflowing with decadent decor and dazzling showgirls. There were certain British showgirls dancing abroad in Paris at the time, but the best homegrown version in England would be the Windmill Theatre in Piccadilly, which opened in 1931.
The theatre owner, Laura Henderson, famously negotiated with the Lord Chamberlain to loosen centuries old censorship laws in order for women to perform nude on stage. Some 200 years prior to the Windmill, in 1696, the Lord Chamberlain decreed that play owners be “very careful in correcting all obscenities and other scandalous matters.”
With the Lord Chamberlain permission, Windmill theatre manager, Vivian Van Damm, wasted no time introducing his tableaux vivants. Inspired by the Folies Bergère, nude or draped women were surrounded by fantastical moving sets while dancers whirled and wafted large feather fans. The feather fans slyly concealed or revealed their nudity. This eventually created the “fan dance” still performed in contemporary showgirl revues today.
Laura Hendersons reign lasted until her death shortly before V day in 1944. Sharing feminine beauty with young men going off to war was her endearing sentiment. Her argument that female nudes onstage are no more offensive than nude statues in parks and museums is her legacy. But she wasn’t the only British woman pioneering a legacy in cabaret.
In Paris 1932, an Irish-born dancer named Margaret “Bluebell” Kelly had been making a name for herself. At 23 years old, she had already performed throughout the UK and Europe and founded her own troupe called the Bluebell Girls.
Bluebell Girls, like the Tiller Girls, began as a team of smiling beauties performing precision dance technique in fantastical costumes. Known professionally as Miss Bluebell on account of her clear blue eyes, Margaret Kelly set a new precedent in cabaret by requiring a height of more than 1m75. Pre-WWII, the tall and leggy Bluebell Girls dazzled audiences at the Folies Bergere and Casino de Paris under the biggest headliners of the day, Mistinguette and Josephine Baker.
A program of the 1935 Folies Bergère show, Femmes et Folie, read, ‘Danses anglaises réglées par MISS BLUEBELL.’.
She preferred British dancers for their height, charm, and sterling work ethic. Over the next 90 years Bluebell would gainfully employ 14,000 artists and offer a passport into luxury entertainment like no one before her.
“If people knew the history of Margaret Kelly…” reflects Jane Sansby, the current Ballet Mistress at the Lido de Paris, where the Bluebell Girl is headquarted. “I was inspired by Miss Bluebells story when I was 12 years old. The BBC did a great special on her.”
The BBC special dives into Miss Bluebells fortitude during the occupation of Paris in World War II. The story goes, while running small performances in Paris, Miss Bluebell was invited to the office of Colonel Feldman. He offered her an opportunity to entertain German troops abroad. Handsome pay and ample rations were promised, yet Bluebell would not compromise her allegiance to her countrymen. Miss Bluebell replied to the colonels offer in this way, as recorded by her official biographer, George Perry in the book Bluebell,
“...I have a British passport, and I am a British subject. I have many relatives who are soldiers and are fighting against you Germans. You must understand why I cannot for a moment contemplate entertaining your troops!”
The colonel ended the interview, but the thick folder on his desk with her name on it remained. Shortly after, her husband would be captured by the Nazis on account of his Jewish heritage. Bluebell would face interrogations and ultimately succeed in finding ways to hide her husband until the war's end.
Miss Bluebells integrity during the war ensured her good reputation during the post-war boom when she was offered a post at the Lido de Paris. In 1948, the Lido was a new venture and under Miss Bluebells it became synonymous with the best of French entertainment. A French newspaper, Le Monde reviewed their show in1954,
I don't think there is currently a more "impressed" and charmed public than that of the Lido. The new revue [Désirs] is a concentrate of audacity and good taste. - Christine de Rivoyre
The show was a topless revue. By 1954 Miss Bluebell reintroduced the topless line of girls called ‘nudes’, reviving the pre-war elegance of her earlier career. It was all considered very glamorous. Celebrities began to flock to see the Bluebell Girls.
“I was there in 1958, you know. People used to ring up from Tokyo and Sydney to the Stardust Hotel saying they’d stay only if they were guaranteed tickets to the Lido show.” recounts Rowena Harker Leder MBE, now 85 years old. She was one of the lucky few British dancers be chosen to open a Lido revue on the Las Vegas strip. With help from Donn Ardan, the producer credited with creating the glitzy Las Vegas showgirl image, Rowena served as the archetype for this reinvented showgirl.
“I was in the first (Bluebell) show that ever left Europe to go to America, which never happened before.” Exuding elegance and confidence, Rowena describes a vivid picture of the early days in Las Vegas,
“There were tumbleweeds flying down the strip and so few cars. We were 28 girls and when we arrived in Las Vegas it was absolutely wonderful because they treated us like royalty. And our accents, they loved our accents of course; Also, we were nearly all 6 feet tall. I detail all of it in my book.”
Rowena put pen to paper during the 2020 pandemic isolation period and produced a lively book called, Love and Laughter Around the World. In it, she tells fabulous stories about opening the first Donn Arden productions in Las Vegas and travels to Lebanon with Doris Girls during a time of opulence in Beirut. Rowena went on to receive an MBE from the queen at Buckingham Palace for her work as the Artistic Director of the Grassington Festival.
Certainly, showgirls are vibrant and attractive women, but their beguiling physique threatens to eclipse what really matters: creativity and verve.
“Showgirl is a quality that one carries throughout life. The carriage of the body and how I present myself has taken me through several chapters of my life and will continue to be my defining quality.”
Says Rachel Williams, who continues to perform into her fifth decade with Welsh Stars. A self described Welsh-Londoner, Rachel grew up performing in church before discovering the Lido de Paris in 1987, where the Bluebell Girls danced. “They were like angels who had come down from somewhere - like goddesses!” exclaims Rachel Williams recalling her first impression of a Bluebell Girl. The day after seeing the show, she strode down the long corridor of the theatre and asked for an audition. Rachel premiered as a Bluebell Girl on her 20th birthday, beginning an esteemed international career. She left the Lido de Paris, to become principle dancer at the Moulin Rouge, then a character role in Cats on the West End. She leapt over the pond to perform a sister-act in Las Vegas followed by her solo show in Los Angeles. Since returning to England after decades aboard, Rachel continues to inspire audiences as a solo performer.
Jane Sansby, Rowena Harker Leder MBE, and Rachel Williams are post-WWII British showgirls who became leaders in their field. Just like Miss Bluebell. After 28 year career at the Lido de Paris, Jane Sansby, the Ballet Mistress, pinpoints what defines a modern showgirl,
“I have had dancers trained at the Royal Ballet and West End Theatre dancers. What do all the dancers have in common? Determination, professionalism and great quality dance training. The question really is, what type of lifestyle did the dancers want to live?”
High profile events and celebrities are consistent throughout the decades. The21st century showgirl lifestyle includes a week-end gala at Cannes Film Festival, standing side by side with Leonardo Dicaprio. In Rowena’s era, it had been Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.
What About Present Day British Showgirls?
While glamour and beauty never go out of style, the showgirl in cabaret may.
There are no longer extravagant topless cabaret revues in Great Britain. The era has ended. The Windmill, having been eclipsed by private strip clubs, closed in 1964. Although it reopened in 2021 as a modern nightclub called The Windmill Soho, it is without the topless element. Despite joyful reception from audiences, tenacity from the girls, and fierce loyalty from their theatre directors, a taboo persists over topless cabaret in the UK.
Certainly the UK has a robust performing arts sector to say the least. There are several lively cabarets keeping the flame alive; Miss Riot Club, The London Cabaret and Thursford Christmas Spectacle come to mind. Plus plenty event companies that hire tall dancers gig to gig. Cruise ships and entertainment parks continue to produce cabarets that launch careers into the West End and now Netflix. And yet, none seem to touch the glamour of what has been.
“We may be a dying breed.” laments Rowena, who feels that popular entertainment today lacks a certain sophistication.
As for Miss Bluebell's international legacy, it has been sold off and dismantled this year by the largest hotel chain in Europe, Accor Hotels. Ending Miss Bluebells 76 year legacy. The announcement made headlines around the world.
“What happened to the Lido de Paris was a shock to the entertainment world.” Jane Sansby remarks. “I can only thank the worldwide Kelly Boys and Bluebells who supported us during this."
“For me,” says Charlotte Jourdan, a young cabaret artist from a small village between Leeds and York,
“A showgirl is elegant, beautiful, intelligent, talented, graceful, driven, and will bedazzle you with her smile.”
Charlotte heard about the Lido in 2011 from another English girl, auditioned, and soon found herself sharing the stage with 60 world-class artists. She continues, “It was quite daunting because everyone is so beautiful and tall. It was one of the most beautiful shows I’ve ever seen.”
Charlotte, 33 years old, is one of few dancers in her generation who performed in both European and American extravaganzas; Jubilee, at Bally’s Las Vegas and Paris Merveilles, at the Lido de Paris. She had the honor of dancing in the final shows of both these great revues. Charlotte is concerned that British artists have lost access to the high level and stable career opportunities that existed abroad in cabaret. Charlotte explains the worrying trend, “The showgirl is a rare species that is fast going extinct due to the closures of the Las Vegas shows and now the Lido in Paris in France.”
The Paradox of Performing in Cabaret : Personal Delight Versus Public Scorn
The oldest surviving Windmill Girl Margaret McGrath said in a 2016 interview, “The war years at the Windmill were the best of my life - and boy have I had a life! If I could have that time again I'd do it like a shot. It was a privilege to be there."
The testimonies of former showgirls are alight with positivity. The women on stage and behind the curtain fought and won liberties to express themselves as they see fit in the theater. However, liberties won doesn't mean approval. An incident recounted in the autobiography of Windmill dancer Jill Millard Shapiro, who danced under Van Damm in1958, depicts the fierce loyalty of her Director against the endless public scorn,
“Van Damm had received a letter of complaint from the Mother Superior of my old convent school. The letter had angered him. I could almost see Mother Superior's point, but Van Damm was having none of it. ‘They are ashamed of you,’ he said, ‘but they should be proud of you. I am.’”
Audiences erupt into either great fanfare or great protest when the body is put on stage for purposes of delight and celebration.
No matter how elegant the venue, expensive the costume, or education level of the woman, baring breasts continues to create a fuss. Showgirls could be viewed more akin to the Venus de Milo, if that is, the Venus were allowed a few more feathers and rhinestones. Rowena Harker Leder MBE, attests,
“I don’t ever remember thinking that all the men were being turned on in the show - our costumes were so stunning. I was wearing costumes worth thousands! Our shows were visually inventive and so elegant.”
If one does points the finger at nudity for the downfall of recent shows, then take heart because it will only be a passing phase. There has always been critics, even in the birth city of modern cabaret. History reveals its pattern with this tale:
It's 1865 and you are stood in front of the Paris Opera, marveling at its golden statues. The Minister of Fine Arts of Paris has commissioned a promising young sculptor to create the ode to the spirit of dance on the façade of the Paris Opera. The young master depicts the spirit of dance as a young man surrounded by liberated nude women prancing with gaiety and sensuality. Cue the critics.
French press, Le Figaro referred to them as the ‘immodest circus of ladies' while another publication, Le Siècle, dubbed them “drunk mænads”. Within hours of the statue La Danse unveiling, it was defaced with black ink during the night. The offenders were never caught.
A photo taken in 2022 of Charlotte Jourdan placed next to La Danse, made in1865, both figures captured in a jubilant pose.
Alas, Paris, the city of light (and naked women), is not immune to its own critics. Western societies, including that of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic descent, follow similar patterns. After much debate in England, the Theatres Act 1968 passed and officially abolished the censorship of the stage. The act repealed the Lord Chamberlain's power to refuse a license to a play of any kind. Nudity in theatre began to appear widely, to the horror of conservative groups.
Ultimately, it will be up to British audiences to decide to celebrate showgirls again.
It also remains to be seen if a new leader in British cabaret will emerge. Will anyone be as bold as their predecessors?
These rocky times notoriously lead to great innovation in entertainment. For now it is important to keep the memory of the Great British Showgirls alive. Take heart in the words from Jane Sansby,
"I think the memory will stay and the history of the Bluebell girls will never be forgotten. It is unforgettable.”
Read more showgirl stories at www.birdintheworld.com by author, Hillary Sukhonos. Hillary is a former Bluebell and American ballet dancer now capturing stories from her life in Paris.
Resources for Readers:
Rachel Williams talks and performances: http://www.welshstars.co.uk/rachel-williams-bluebell
Rowen Leder Harker book: https://www.rowenaharkerleder.co.uk/
Charlotte Jourdan’s podcast interview with Bluebells Forever Podcast: https://soundcloud.com/sheri-lewis-2/ep-128-one-of-the-last-bluebells
Bluebells Forever Podcast Patreon to support the collection of stories: https://www.patreon.com/bluebellsforeverpod