The Dumbells

The Dumbells. World War I concert party that became, after the armistice, a leading Canadian vaudeville troupe. It was formed in 1917 near Vimy Ridge, France, by 10 members of the Canadian army's Third Division under the direction of Merton (Wesley) Plunkett (b Orillia, Ont, 1888, d Toronto 21 Dec 1966, a YMCA entertainment director, assigned the rank of captain in the army). Originally formed to build the morale of the troops on the front lines, the group took its name from the Third Division's emblem, a red dumbbell that signified strength.

Original members were Merton Plunkett, managing director and comedian; his brother Al (Albert), a baritone (b Orillia 1899, d Toronto 19 Apr 1957); Ted Charters, assistant manager and comedian; Ross Hamilton ('Marjorie') (b Pugwash, NS, 1889, d Halifax 29 Sep 1965) and Allan Murray ('Marie from Montreal'), female impersonators; Jack Ayre, pianist and music director (d 1977); Bill Tennent, tenor; Bert Langley, bass baritone; and Frank (later Jerry) Brayford and Leonard Young, actors. Shortly after the first show in August 1917 at Guoy-Servis (near Poperinge, Belgium, in the Passchendale combat sector) the Dumbells increased to 16. Other soldiers associated in various capacities with the early Dumbells included Bill Redpath, Elmer Belding, George Thorne, Andrew Catrano, J. McCormick, and D.L. Michie.

With a collectively conceived program of songs of the day and skits about life in the trenches, the Dumbells entertained Canadian soldiers - often at the front lines - and played a four-week engagement in 1918 at the Coliseum in London. Highlights of their shows included the songs 'These Wild, Wild Women Are Making a Wild Man of Me' and 'I Know Where the Flies Go' (sung by Al Plunkett), 'Hello My Dearie' (a duet by 'Marjorie' and Tennent) and 'Someday I'll Make You Love Me' ('Marjorie'). Many of their patriotic songs were published and the sheet music to their theme song, Ayre's The Dumbell Rag, sold more than 10,000 copies. During WWI the Dumbells and approximately 30 other comedy-musical troupes entertained the troops in France. Wherever Canadian troops were located, even the front lines, the troupe would carry their curtains, costumes and an upright piano.

Toward the end of the war, the Dumbells were joined by some members of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry Comedy Co, a similar concert party (formed in May 1916, disbanded in June 1917, and re-formed in November 1917) which had given a royal command performance in June 1918 at the Apollo Theatre in London. (Lt Gitz Rice is known to have played the piano occasionally for the Princess Pat's group.) The two troupes first appeared together 12 Nov 1918 (the day after armistice) as the Dumbells in Mons, Belgium, in a production of HMS Pinafore that ran for more than a month. The musical was performed for King Albert of Belgium, who awarded Captain Plunkett with a medal to recognize the group's support of the troops. The Dumbells also performed in other Belgian centres prior to demobilization in 1919.

Upon their return to Canada in 1919, Merton Plunkett re-formed the Dumbells as a vaudeville troupe and they performed as civilians completing 12 cross-Canada tours over the next 13 years. Members included Al Plunkett, Hamilton, Brayford, Tennent, Langley, Murray, and Ayre from the original Dumbells, Jack McLaren and Fred Fenwick from the Princess Pat's troupe and several performers from other Canadian army concert parties - Albert Edward 'Red' Newman (b Dover, England, 1887, d 1952; famed for his jocular rendition of 'Oh, It's a Lovely War') and Charlie McLean from the Y Emmas, the blackface comedian Ben Allan from the 16th Battalion Party, the female impersonator Jock Holland from the Bow Belles (a Scottish army troupe), the blackface comedian Jimmy Goode, and the baritone Tommy Young.

After rehearsals in Orillia and a 'tryout' in Owen Sound, Ont, the Dumbells opened 1 Oct 1919 at the Grand Opera House in London, Ont, with the revue Biff, Bing, Bang. They then performed at the Grand Theatre in Toronto for 16 weeks.

Later additions and replacements included former army entertainers Morley Plunkett and Pat Rafferty and such professional performers as the tenor Harry Binns, the bass Cameron Geddes, the singer Stan Bennett, the pianist N. Fraser Allan, and the comedy team Charlie Jeeves and Fred Emney. The Dumbells Orchestra, led by Harold Rich 1924-5 and Howard Fogg 1925-30, included well-known dance band musicians of the day - eg, the saxophonist Nat Cassels and the trumpeter Morris London. Although audiences continued to enjoy the female impersonators in the cast, in 1928 the Dumbells added women to their troupe and in the production Why Worry?, actresses were included for the first time.

In May 1921 a revised Biff, Bing, Bang opened at the Ambassador Theater in New York, the first Canadian musical revue to appear on Broadway. It ran for about 12 weeks and Jack Ayre became the first Canadian to conduct an orchestra on Broadway. Prior to the mounting of a new show in 1922, Newman, Holland and others left to form a troupe known both as the Old Dumbells and the Originals, which toured for three seasons in Full O' Pep, Rapid Fire and Thumbs Up. The Dumbells, meanwhile, continued with such shows as Revue of 1922, Carry On (1922), Cheerio (1923), Ace High (1924, which saw the return of Newman and Holland), Oh, Yes (1925), Lucky 7 (1925), Joy Bombs (1926), Oo-La-La (1927), and Why Worry? (1928), gradually replacing the wartime references with more topical material. When Fogg (d Montreal 17 May 1953) joined the Dumbells in 1925, he became their conductor and also wrote and arranged songs such as "Winter Will Come" and songs for the revue for Lucky Seven.

The success of their tours and the popularity of their music in Canada resulted in 27 recordings and the distribution of sheet music songs such as "Come Back, Old Pal" that sold very well. Hit songs from these shows (most published by Leo Feist) included 'Canada for Canadians,' 'Come Back, Old Pal', 'Give Me a Little Cosy Corner,' 'Hahaski Hohoski Wow Wow,' 'It's Canada, the Land for Me,' 'K-K-K-Kiss Me Again,' 'Li'l Old Granny Mine,' 'Most Powerful Love,' 'She Must Be a Wonderful Girl,' 'Shufflin' Along,' 'Winter Will Come,' and 'Yum-Yum-Yum-Yum'. Some were originals, others, hits of the day and several were included in new shows.

The Dumbells were forced to disband in 1932 in face of financial difficulties brought on by the Depression, by the introduction of the 'talkies,' and by some poor investments (including an attempt to launch a second soldiers' revue, The Maple Leafs). At their peak the Dumbells made national stars of the 'crooner' Al Plunkett, Ross Hamilton, and the comic singer Red Newman. Both Plunkett and Newman are well represented among the 27 78s the Dumbells' recordings made for HMV, of which some were reissued in 1977 on the LP The Original Dumbells (Aquitaine ELS-385).

The Dumbells were reunited for concerts on a few occasions, including a performance at Lansdowne Park, Ottawa, in 1939 and Massey Hall, Toronto, in 1955. They have been the subject of several CBC radio and TV documentaries, including The Dumbells (telecast 5 Mar 1978), which combined a dramatization of the troupe's war years with scenes from a 1975 reunion at Lambert Lodge in Toronto of the last surviving members - Ayre, Brayford, McLaren, and Redpath. A musical, The Legend of the Dumbells, conceived by Alan Lund and written by George Salverson (b St Catharines, Ont, 30 Apr 1916, d Toronto 9 Apr 2005), was staged at the Charlottetown Festival in 1977 (with performances also at the NAC) and 1978. A production by Toronto's Tapestry Music Theatre toured Ontario in 1990.