The Magic of The Windmill Man

At Christmas, traditional pantomime ruled theatres nationwide, but some interesting and curious Christmas fairy plays also emerged after the turn of the century including such delights as Peter Pan, Where the Rainbow Ends, The Blue Bird and Make Believe. Another big success was the charming production of The Windmill Man which at its heart was a quaint moral tale condeming selfishness. Produced by the actor Bert Coote it was given its first performance on 26th December 1921 at the Victoria Palace Theatre.

Programme cover for the popular Christmas Play The Windmill Man
Programme cover for the popular Christmas Play The Windmill Man

Bert Coote had made a name for himself as a clever character comedian. He was born in 1868, the son of Rob Coote a composer and his brother Charles Coote was also connected with the dramatic profession. Bert made his first appearance on the stage at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in December 1873 as one of the Babes in The Babes in the Wood. As a child actor he appeared in numerous pantomimes in Exeter, Bath, York and Leeds and was a childhood friend of Lewis Carroll. Later, he appeared in other productions in London and the regions. He spent sometime in the USA where he made a name for himself in vaudeville before returning to London and appeared in the successful League of Notions (1921) with the Dolly Sisters.

The story of The Windmill Man written by Frederick Bowyer was about how naughty children who maltreat their toys, animals and the helpless, despite their royal rank, incur the displeasure of the toy fairies and receive a just punishment. It expressed the very essence of Christmas and taught a noble lesson in a simple, unobtrusive manner. Full of quaint conceits and touches of fancy, Boyer hit upon a moral story that could never grow old and managed it so effectively that one reviewer said that ‘one frequently applauds with a lump in one’s throat.’

Advert for The Windmill Man, the popular Christmas Play
Advert for The Windmill Man, the popular Christmas Play

Frederick Bowyer had been a prolific writer of popular music hall songs including There Never Never Were Such Times (1888), The Guards (Naional song) (1890), I know all about it Now (1893), The Skipper of the Lifeboat (1893), The Thirteen Club (1894) and The Gentleman from London (1894). Before the Windmill Man he had also written King Kookoo, a Christmas play presented at Britannia Theatre, Hoxton in 1884.

A scene from the popular Christmas Play The Windmill Man
A scene from the popular Christmas Play The Windmill Man

The story of the The Windmill Man involves the departure of The King and Queen of Imagiland leaving their two mischievous children in the charge of the Royal Tutor and Governess. The naughty children drowned their dolls and a box of toy soldiers. They caught gold and silver fishes and left them to die on the lawn. They hit their dog and stole the crutches from a poor cripple boy. Then the Windmill Man (played annually by Oswald Waller), a kind of Pied Piper, arrived and gave windmills to all the children. If they had good thoughts the sails would go round. But the sails didn’t move for the royal children. The Windmill Man was in fact sent from Toyland to punish children who ill-used their toys and lured the royal children through the door of his magic windmill to Toyland. It was a frightening place with big trees that had rolling eyes and clutching arms. They saw the gold and silver fish that they had caught in their own lake, fishing in the magic pool and catching all the dolls that they had drowned and bringing them to the surface singing and dancing. The Windmill Man arrived and sent them to the toy fort as prisoners to be tried for their crimes by a jury of dolls and were found guilty but the cripple boy and his sister pleaded for their lives. Left weary, ragged and starving, they were guided back to their palace. The Windmill Man convinced of their repentance restored them to their parents and told them how the visit to toyland had changed the children from being wicked to kind and charitable to everybody – animals and toys alike.

A scene from the popular Christmas Play The Windmill Man
A scene from the popular Christmas Play The Windmill Man

Throughout proceedings the Mad Gardener (played by Bert Coote from season two) flitted in an out with his quaint droll personality, grotesque appearance and whimsical charm. He was a sheer delight with his song ‘The Crazy Garden’ and a joy for children’s eyes and ears.

Each year the company consisted of about fifty children trained by Italia Conti who also orchestrated all the dances. All the costumes and scenary were designed by Dolly Tree, who was just embarking on her career as a theatrical dress designer. From available photographs, the sets appeared simple, yet evocative frames for the unfolding magical fantasy. The costumes were equally effective in their simplicity. The ballet of flowers comprised the spirit of the leaves, green fly, rose queen, butterfly, love-in-the-mist and rose buds. At the Magic pool ‘all blue and green under the shimmering moon’ there were a gold and silver fish, a frog, dragon fly, firefly and spider along with a range of dolls including the Japanese doll, sailor dolls, wooden dolls, Parisian dolls and golliwogs. There was also Spot the dog, toy soldiers, fairies, elves, footmen and other palace servants and the King and Queen.

A scene from the popular Christmas Play The Windmill Man
A scene from the popular Christmas Play The Windmill Man

The show was revived each year at the Palace Theatre for nine seasons and in December 1931 it was staged at the Scala Theatre and then returned to the Palace. The play was also presented in some provincial theatres including the Shakespeare Theatre, Liverpool (1927), the Palace Theatre Hull 1928 and South Africa in 1922.

Toward the end of the 1920s Frederick Bowyer’s original script was adapted by Audley Hay Johnston and issued as a chidren’s book in 1930 which was repeatedly reprinted through the 30s.

How sad that such a wonderful experience is not available for children today to learn and enjoy!

 Take a look at the fully illustrated biography about Dolly Tree (Dolly Tree: A Dream of Beauty). A long lost artistic genius of the Jazz Age, Dolly Tree was famous on both sides of the Atlantic, for her extravagant creations for the stage, cabaret, couture and film in the 1920s and 1930s. This illustrated biography, with over 600 images, captures her unique talent and achievements as a dress designer, including her Hollywood career at MGM.

 Dolly Tree: A Dream of Beauty

Will be published 26th September 2017 in hardback and paperback.

Both versions contain over 600 photographs and is A4 – it is a big coffee table book.

The Hardback has 400 pages all in full colour — it is the deluxe package with an RRP of £75.

The paperback has 340 pages and is in black and white with 11 colour sections containing 44 pages and an RRP of £30.

 

View the digital sampler

 

VIEW the Press Release for Dolly Tree: A Dream of Beauty here

 

All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent

Sources:

The Era, The Stage, The Stage Year Book.
Programmes for the Windmill Man.
The Windmill Man by Audley Hay Johnston.

Notes:

Bert Coote toured with the Trix Sisters in Tricks (1925), entered films in 1930 appearing in Greek Street (1930), Such is the Law (1930), Bracelets (1931) and Two Hearts in Waltz Time (1934) with Carl Brisson and Frances Day. He died in 1936.

 

One Response to “The Magic of The Windmill Man”

  1. Karen Gillen says:

    British/Australian actor Googie Withers had her first professional engagement in 1929, aged 12, as a dancer in the chorus of The Windmill Man, at Victoria Palace Theatre, London. She played a toy soldier, a rabbit and a fairy.

    Source: ‘Double Act: The remarkable lives and careers of Googie Withers and John McCallum’, by Brian McFarlane. Monash University Publishing, Melbourne. 2015 (forthcoming).

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