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' next act, the 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, which the Charlottetown Festival mounted in 1977. 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.
For more information on Dumbell's recordings, please consult the Virtual Gramophone database.
Braithwaite, Max. -- "The rise and fall of the Dumbells". -- Maclean's. -- (January 1, 1952). -- P. 20-21. -- AMICUS No. 88134
"The Dumbells". -- Encyclopedia of music in Canada. -- Edited by Helmut Kallman et al. -- 2nd ed. -- Toronto : University of Toronto Press, c1992. -- xxxii, 1524 p. -- AMICUS No. 12048560
McLaren, J. W. -- "Mirth and mud : the chronicle of the first organized Canadian concert party to tour the trenches during the Great War". -- Maclean's. -- (January 1, March 1, and May 15, 1929). -- AMICUS No. 9325096
Murray, Allan. -- "The Dumbells : nostalgic memories of World War I's great soldier entertainers". -- The legionary. -- Vol. 39, no. 8 (January 1965). -- AMICUS No. 2914545
O'Neill, Patrick B. -- "The Canadian concert party in France". -- Theatre history in Canada = Histoire du théâtre au Canada. -- Vol. 4, no. 2 (Fall 1983). -- P. 192-208. -- AMICUS No. 1669530
Plunkett, Albert William ; Earle, Patrise. - Al Plunkett : the famous Dumbell. -- By Patrise Earle, as told by Al Plunkett. -- New York : Pageant Press, . -- 107 p. -- AMICUS No. 13090515