One of several Canadian Army concert parties in France during WWI, the original Dumbells were drawn from the 3rd Division by Merton W. Plunkett at Ferfay, France, in 1917 and included Jack Ayre (pianist and musical director), Elmer A. Belding, Ted Charters, and Allan Murray. Taking their name from the 3rd Division's insignia, a red dumbell, the group entertained front-line soldiers with popular songs and collectively conceived skits about army life. In the summer of 1918, after recruiting Ben Allan from the 16th Battalion's Party, "Red" Newman and Charlie MacLean from the Y-Emmas, and Ross "Marjorie" Hamilton from the Maple Leaf Concert Party, Plunkett brought the Dumbells to London where they performed at the YMCA's Beaver Hut, the Victoria Palace, and the Coliseum before returning to France. Amalgamating with other top army performers in 1918-19, the Dumbells became the elite Canadian concert party in Europe and are remembered for their unique army version of Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore.

In June 1919, Plunkett returned to Canada, borrowed $18 000, and created a civilian version of the Dumbells which included Merton Plunkett (the impresario), Jack Ayre (musical director) and Allan Murray from the 3rd Division, and others from the London tour and the H.M.S. Pinafore production: Hamilton, Bert Langley, W.L. Tennent, Allan, Newman, MacLean, Fred Fenwick, and Al Plunkett. Immensely popular, the Dumbells toured Canada, the U.S., and England with Biff, Bing, Bang (1919, revised 1921), which played twelve weeks at the Ambassador in New York and was the first "all-Canadian" show on Broadway, The Dumbells Revue of 1922; Carry On (1922); Cheerio (1923); Oh, Yes and Aces High (1924); Lucky 7 (1925); Three Bags Full, Joy Bombs, That's That and Let'er Go (1926); Oo! La! La! (1927); Why Worry? (1928), which introduced women into the show, Here 'Tis and Come Eleven (1929); Happy Days (1930), the last show with women; As You Were (1931); and The Dumbells (1933).

The Depression killed touring and ended the theatrical careers of the Dumbells. Nevertheless, the reputation the group earned during the war and on their professional tours earned them a special place in Canada's memory and in 1977 The Legend of the Dumbells was devised and staged by Alan Lund at the Charlottetown Festival.