This talented group of Canadian soldiers entertained the troops in the trenches from 1917 to 1918, and went on to enjoy national and international success as a highly popular vaudeville act until 1932.
Part one: the Canadian army third division concert party, 1917 - 1919
The Dumbells, a group of Canadian soldiers turned singers, rose from humble beginnings on a makeshift stage of packing boxes in First World War France to become the toast of the nation for over a decade. They became arguably the most famous of the Canadian Army "concert parties," those entertainment units that were devoted to building the morale of the troops on the front lines.
The Dumbells were synonymous with the name Plunkett their creator and leader, Captain Merton (Mert) Plunkett, and his brother, Corporal Al Plunkett, who sang and acted with the group from its inception. It was Mert Plunkett, whose captaincy was an honorary one with the YMCA, who was the organizing force some said the genius behind the troupe. He began by putting on amateur, impromptu camp shows at Canadian Army encampments in France on behalf of the YMCA, and then proposed to his commander that certain talented men be seconded from their various units to form an entertainment unit, the purpose of which would be to boost the morale of the fighting men. Major-General L.J. Lipsett, commander of the Canadian Army's Third Division, understood that an army's morale is as important as its equipment and rations, and quickly gave permission. His instructions to Plunkett were simple: "Be ready to put on a show any place, any time." (The Legionary, January 1965)
Memories have faded over the years, but among the names recalled as having been among the original Dumbells, in addition to the Plunkett brothers, are Sergeant Ted Charter, the pianist Corporal Ivor (Jack) Ayre, Corporal Leonard Young, and Privates Ross Hamilton, Allan Murray, Bill Tennent, Bert Langley, Elmer Belding, and Frank (Jerry) Brayford.
Thus, some time in the summer of 1917, the Dumbells (the Canadian Army Third Division Concert Party) became a formalized, full-time endeavour. They took their name from the Third Division's insignia: crossed red dumb-bells, signifying strength. Although formally part of the regular army, their activities were entirely funded and organized by the YMCA.
Mert Plunkett modeled the Dumbells on the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry Comedy Company, which had been spreading the concert party concept across Canadian units in France since June 1916. (Some of the Dumbells, such as Leonard Young, at various times were actually attached to the Princess Pat's troupe.) The Princess Pats, the Dumbells, and 30 other such troupes in France proved to be a potent factor in maintaining troop morale.
It is no longer clear exactly when and where the Dumbells put on their first show. Original member Allan Murray, in a 1965 magazine article, recalled they put on a show for General Currie when he took command of the Canadian Corps, and a second show at Gouy-Servins, France, in the Passchendaele sector. Other accounts suggest that they put on their first show in August 1917 at Vimy Ridge, but the Gouy-Servins show is generally regarded as the first.
Ironically, the soldier audience did not look forward to the first show, and at first actually threw things at the stage. But female impersonator Ross Hamilton ("Marjorie") gave them their first glimpse of a lady - even though not a real one - in months, singing "Hello My Dearie" in a falsetto soprano voice, and quickly won them over. Al Plunkett, costumed in top hat and silk tailcoat, was also successful with his rendition of the popular American song "Those Wild Wild Women Are Making a Wild Man of Me."
These historic early shows consisted of comedy sketches, songs, and dance numbers, all performed by the amateur soldier-singers themselves. From the outset they knew that to win their audience, who had been living in tough battlefield conditions for months, they would have to keep the fare light and happy, so the music they chose was a mix of popular ballads, hits, and comic songs. They wrote humorous skits on everyday events in the soldiers' lives, poking fun at military discipline and the hardships of trench warfare. The orderly room, sick parade, muddy trenches, and the Commanding Officer's headquarters - no subject was immune from the Dumbells' saucy interpretation. Among their most popular repertoire were First World War hit songs such as "Mademoiselle from Armentières," "Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag," and "It's a Long Way to Tipperary." Al Plunkett performed some of the skits in blackface makeup (which was commonplace in minstrel shows from the 1820s through to the mid-1900s). The Dumbells also performed Canadian patriotic songs such as "It's Canada (The Land for Me)." For musical accompaniment, they had a regular pianist, Jack Ayre. Often the group would also be backed by a regimental band. It was Ayre who composed the group's theme song, "The Dumbell Rag". Often Canadian soldiers would whistle this tune while marching from the performance to the front lines.
The Dumbells performed wherever the troops were. This meant they were constantly on the move across France, wherever Canadian forces were fighting, including the front lines and trenches. Among the properties and equipment they transported with them was their battered upright piano. Several strong soldiers would be assigned to tote the piano to the stage. The troupe members did everything from building a temporary stage, to unpacking and hanging the curtains (the Princess Pat's Comedy Company used curtains of burlap), making costumes, and installing makeshift footlights.
At first the Dumbells improvised for sets, props, and costumes. Early shows were lit by footlights made of candles in biscuit tins. Later, they had electric spotlights made from machine-gun parts. They made their wigs of horsehair and rope; beards were of cowhide. As their khaki vaudeville act became a permanent touring fixture, they endeavoured to improve their presentation. They wrote to British actresses to request old costumes for "Marjorie" and the other female characters, and got them. The Dumbells were constantly searching for new material for their shows. Members who went to London on leave brought back the newest music and ideas from London stage shows such as Chu Chin Chow, and added them to the Dumbells' routines.
At first, Captain Plunkett handled other concert parties too, including the Y Emmas and the Maple Leafs, and was often unable to tour with the Dumbells. Sergeant Ted Charter took over as leader during his absence.
The Dumbells often played in the most ramshackle, makeshift, and even dangerous, of circumstances. On one occasion, a live German artillery shell rocketed across their stage, but fortunately did not explode. The sound of gunfire nearby was commonplace. Often, especially at the front, they performed under a marquee tent. Sometimes they got to play in a full-scale theatre, as in October 1917 when they played at the spanking new Pavillion Theatre at the Canadian Corps Training School.
After these early shows, the members of the Dumbells were scheduled to return to their units, but on a recommendation from Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton Gault, General Lipsett indicated he would be pleased if the men could be attached indefinitely to the vital work of building the troops' morale. The members of the Dumbells did not return to the front lines except as entertainers, but did on occasion carry stretchers to help the wounded. Members of other concert parties were not always so lucky. Members of the Princess Pat's Comedy Company, for example, were called back to the lines in June 1917 and several were seriously wounded, including Leonard Young, who lost a leg but returned to work with the Dumbells after convalescing.
Christmas 1917 found the Dumbells playing to wounded soldiers and the medical staff at an army hospital ward in France. They continued to entertain through the German offensive in spring of 1918. They were once again on the point of being returned to active service when General Lipsett sent another message recognizing the importance of the Dumbells' efforts: "Now as never before the troops need entertainment." (The Legionary, 1965) The Dumbells put on shows, day and night, for the fresh Canadian troops being brought in to repel the enemy offensive, always aware that many in their audience would not live to see tomorrow's show.
By July 1, 1918, in response to demands for more and more shows, Mert Plunkett had reorganized the troupe from eight members to 15, many of whom, such as Red Newman of the Y Emmas, were stars with other concert parties. Mert Plunkett arranged for the troupe to present their show in London, England the next month. They played first at the Beaver Hut, the Canadian Army rendezvous centre, then at the Victoria Palace, and culminated with a four-week run at the London Coliseum (the largest vaudeville theatre in London), no small coup for a group of amateur soldier-entertainers. This was the first time the Dumbells received pay as professional entertainers in addition to their army pay. (It should, however, be noted that the Dumbells were not the first Canadian concert party to play London. The Princess Pat's Comedy Company had done so shortly before.)
The Dumbells' run in London was so successful - they were more popular than the famed Russian Ballet under Sergei Diaghilev - that theatre companies offered several of the soldier-singers contracts; but, to a man, they preferred to stay with their unit. The complete group therefore returned to the front, this time the Hindenburg Line, where Canadian troops were fighting. The considerable profits they had made in London financed their shows during the remaining months of the war.
At Armistice, November 11, 1918, the Dumbells underwent a further amalgamation when they were merged with the Princess Pat's Comedy Company into one large company to provide entertainment during the lengthy demobilization. It was at that time that Jack MacLaren and Fred Fenwick joined the Dumbells. Captain Plunkett set the enlarged group to rehearsing a new project, his humorous adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore. They presented the musical at Mons, Belgium, that same month, and also in Brussels for King Albert of Belgium, who presented Captain Plunkett with a medal in recognition of the troupe's charity performances.
The Dumbells continued to play shows as Canadian troops were reorganized and returned to England and Canada. The Army, recognizing the calibre of the Dumbells' individual and collective talents, offered them the opportunity to tour Canada for the Red Cross. Again, the men declined an attractive offer; they had already decided to tour in Canada as professional entertainers, not as soldiers. Finally, in 1919, Al Plunkett, Jack Ayre, Ross Hamilton and Bill Tennent boarded ship for home, and gave one last show during the crossing before their days as an army concert party ended. Mert Plunkett followed in June, and immediately began setting up the Dumbells' national tour which was to bring them even greater success.
The Dumbells' shows provided something for every soldier, from funny skits to sentimental ballads, and a style that ranged from rowdy to suave. Al Plunkett later explained the Dumbells phenomenon: "The cast of Dumbells were not the usual type of showmen that one would expect to find in show business. They were not 'born in a trunk' …. They were ordinary individuals having some gift or talent which had been brought forward as a result of the entertainment demands of wartime." (Al Plunkett: The Famous Dumbell, p. 77) Their story was later recreated in a stage musical, The Legend of The Dumbells, perfomed in 1977 at the Charlottetown Festival. To Canadians who remembered the Great War, the Dumbells ranked alongside the poppy as the most important reminders of the efforts of Canadian soldiers in Europe.
Part two: the North American tour, 1919-1932
When the Dumbells concert party shipped home to Canada in 1919, they decided to capitalize on their wartime success entertaining Canadian troops by setting up their own professional touring variety show. They created new shows for former soldiers and their families, this time without the worry of live shells falling on their stage, and in so doing launched a Canadian show-business phenomenon that was to last through 12 cross-Canada tours until 1932.
Mert Plunkett, the Dumbells' impresario-manager, and his brother Al Plunkett, the singer and actor, began planning for their new venture as civilians immediately upon arriving back home in Orillia, Ontario in the summer of 1919. Joining them were Ross Hamilton, Frank Brayford, Bill Tennent, Bert Langley, Allan Murray, and Jack Ayre of the original Dumbells concert party, as well as former soldier-performers from other concert parties, including Jack McLaren, Fred Fenwick, Albert Edward (Red) Newman, Charlie McLean, pianist Fraser Allan, Jock Holland (another female impersonator), Jimmy Goode, and Tommy Young. Mert Plunkett continued as general manager, and arranged financial backing for the expenses of putting on the professional stage show, which included upgraded sets, costumes, curtains, and props. After a scant few months of planning and rehearsals, and previews in Owen Sound and London, Ontario, the Dumbells' first professional tour opened in Toronto on October 1, 1919.
Audiences in Canada loved the Dumbells' new act because it finally gave them a chance to see the famous wartime soldier-singers that their own "boys" had spoken of. And for former soldiers, the new variety show was a reminder of the happier side of life in the Army. As a program for the Dumbells 1920 revue Biff, Bing, Bang stated, "To those at home who so often wonder 'what is he doing?,' the Dumbells bring this picture of one side of life overseas. To those who were there, who found momentary forgetfulness of their troubles … the picture will perhaps bring memories of some of the things that helped them forget what had been yesterday and what was to be tomorrow."
The Dumbells' Canadian act relied on the same successful formula as it had in wartime, with song and dance numbers, comic sketches, song duets and quartets, female impersonations, and a mix of sentimental ballads, popular hits and comic songs.
Much of the Dumbells' material for their early Canadian tours was recycled from skits they and the Princess Pat's Comedy Company had written in France, including Mert Plunkett's adaptation of HMS Pinafore. Certain songs that harkened back to the soldiers' days in khaki became well-loved favourites, such as Red Newman's rendition of "Oh, It's a Lovely War." The crooner Al Plunkett continued singing his popular success "Those Wild, Wild Women Are Making a Wild Man of Me," among others. Some numbers were borrowed from English music-hall successes of an earlier time, such as "My Old Dutch" by Albert Chevalier, who had been a favourite of London audiences as far back as the 1890s. There was a Dumbells Orchestra, conducted by Mert Plunkett, and their original pianist, Jack Ayre.
Because until 1919 they had been military men on active service at the European front, the Dumbells had not had the opportunity to make recordings. Once back in Canada, however, as their success grew, several of the members recorded their favourite songs in the Montréal studio of His Master's Voice. Al Plunkett, Red Newman, Jock Holland, Charlie McLean and Stan Bennett, as well as the Dumbells Orchestra, all made recordings during the 1920s. Many of these, such as "Oh, It's a Lovely War," proved to be big sellers. Their songs were recorded by other performers too, such as the Harry Thomas Trio. All in all, the Dumbells made 27 recordings for HMV.
The Dumbells' songs also proved highly popular in sheet music, which typically featured the name and photograph of the singer. The music publishing company, Leo Feist Limited, had hits with sheet music versions of "I'm a Daddy," "K-K-K-Kiss Me Again," and "Coal Black Mammy" - all songs from Dumbells' revues. So popular were the Dumbells, that any number used in their show was considered a sure hit.
As the Dumbells began to tour in the United States, they enjoyed even greater success and achieved Canadian "firsts." In May 1921, they became the first Canadian show to have a hit on Broadway, with their revue Biff, Bing, Bang, which played at the Ambassador Theatre for 12 weeks, and Jack Ayre became the first Canadian to conduct an orchestra there.
The New York Telegram reviewer enthused that "No American soldier show seen in New York has Biff, Bing, Bang's shape and vigor, nor its talent" (Globe and Mail, June 27, 1977). Their American tour included stops in Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, and Boston.
Other high points of the Dumbells' North American tours included a stint at Toronto's Massey Hall; "Marjorie" receiving a gift of jewelry from the Prince of Wales; and meeting such famous entertainers as Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, and John and Ethel Barrymore.
By fall 1922, nearly all the members of the troupe became dissatisfied with their financial situation, and split from Mert and Al Plunkett in a dispute over pay. Only Ross Hamilton, the female impersonator, stayed with the Plunketts. Since by then the Dumbells were a household word across Canada, it was no time to fold up. Within days the Plunketts enlisted their brother Morley and several other ex-servicemen entertainers as new Dumbells with a new show, aptly named Carry On. It was at the first show with this new group that Mert introduced his composition "Come Back, Old Pal," which became a hit.
Red Newman, Jock Holland, Leonard Young and the other former Dumbells meanwhile had formed their own touring company, calling themselves "The Originals." They toured for a few years, putting on the shows Full O'Pep, 1923 (recording songs from it for HMV); Rapid Fire, 1924; and Thumbs Up.
Plunkett's group forged ahead independently, producing annual shows including Cheerio in 1923. His 1924 revue was called Ace High; it played in Toronto from August 25th for two weeks to full houses. Red Newman had meanwhile rejoined the Plunketts, and Ross Hamilton was still playing "Marjorie," who had not lost any of "her" attraction. Stan Bennett sang a comedy number to close the first act. Ace High toured 31 cities in Ontario alone, as well as many in Quebec, the Maritimes, the Prairies and British Columbia. The same year, 1924, sheet music sales for "Come Back, Old Pal" had reached five figures, and the Dumbells' other hits were selling almost as well in both recordings and sheet music.
The break-away Originals group toured Western Canada in 1925. At the same time, Mert Plunkett's Dumbells had just launched the Lucky Seven revue (the title referred both to Plunkett's seventh show and to the original number of soldiers chosen to be in the Dumbells and Princess Pat's concert parties). The music for this was published by Leo Feist Limited. The Plunkett revue toured Ontario and Quebec, avoiding competition with the splinter group.
The Plunkett Dumbells continued their activities after the Originals had ceased to tour. Later shows by the Plunkett Dumbells included Oh Yes (1925); Three Bags Full and Joy Bombs (1926); Oo-La-La (1927); and Why Worry (1928). The soldier vaudeville show was still riding high on a wave of success.
Since their days as an army concert party, Mert Plunkett had understood that an infusion of new blood into the Dumbells would provide fresh ideas and improve their professionalism. With this in mind, in 1925 he brought in Howard Fogg, a professional violinist from the Victor Talking Machine Co. of Montréal to be the Dumbells Orchestra's conductor, replacing Harold Rich, the musical director (1924-25). Fogg wrote numbers for Lucky Seven, and also arranged songs for the Dumbells, including Mert's composition "Winter Will Come." Three years later, in 1928, the Plunketts added, for the first time, real women to their cast to bolster the female impersonators on whom they had previously relied (although some audience members did not like the change).
By the end of the 1920s, the Dumbells had been touring Canada as professional entertainers more than twice as long as they had served in khaki. However, several factors were beginning to contribute to a sharp decline in their popularity and earning power.
First, a travelling stage act was becoming prohibitively expensive, and could not compete economically with the "talkies" (motion pictures with sound and music) that began to circulate in 1927.
Second, vaudeville itself was losing popularity.
Third, the Great Depression which struck in 1929 left audiences with precious little spending money for shows.
And finally, audiences had tired of the songs and jokes of wartime, which were now over a decade old.
By the early 1930s, the Plunketts' show was losing money, and the famed Dumbells put on their last tour in 1932.
After the legendary show folded, many of the Dumbells continued individually in the entertainment business. Al Plunkett established a career as a radio and nightclub singer, while his brother Mert went overseas again in 1939 as the Canadian Legion's entertainment supervisor, and Red Newman bought a hotel at Wasaga Beach, Ontario. Ross Hamilton and Jack Ayre also continued as entertainers before eventually retiring.
They say an old soldier never dies, and so it is for the Dumbells. Reunion concerts in 1939, 1955 and 1975 saw the old soldiers on stage again. Library and Archives Canada honoured them by assisting in the production of a record album called The Original Dumbells in 1977, and the stage play The Legend of the Dumbells, which honours the group, is occasionally performed to revive their memory. Although all the members of Canada's famed khaki vaudeville group have long since faded away, they remain legends of Canadian show business.
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