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The Dumbells

Part Two: The North American Tour, 1919-1932

Photograph of Fraser Allan and Stan Bennett

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Fraser Allan and Stan Bennett of The Dumbells

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.

Photograph of Bert Langley in costume

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Dumbells member Bert Langley

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.

Photograph of The Dumbells, dressed as women, performing a skit entitled BIG BEAUTY CHORUS

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A Dumbells skit: "Big Beauty Chorus"

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."

Photograph of The Dumbells Quartette: Frank Brayford, Bert Langley, Al Plunkett, Bill Tennent

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The Dumbells Quartette: Frank Brayford, Bert Langley, Al Plunkett, Bill Tennent

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.

Photograph of a Dumbells dance number

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A Dumbells dance number

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.

Article about two new His Master's Voice recordings by Red Newman and Al Plunkett, January

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Article about new recordings by Red Newman and Al Plunkett, Canadian Music Trades Journal, January 1922

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.

Cover of sheet music of I'M A DADDY, from a Dumbells' revue, 1922

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Sheet music of I'm a Daddy, from a Dumbells' revue, 1922

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.

Photograph of The Dumbells troupe outside the Ambassador theatre in New York City where their show BIFF, BING, BANG was a smash hit in 1921

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The Dumbells troupe outside the Ambassador theatre in New York City, where their show Biff, Bing, Bang was a smash hit in 1921

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.

Photograph of Allan Murray and Al Plunkett, dancing together in a Dumbells skit

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Allan Murray and Al Plunkett

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.

Cover of sheet music for Mert Plunkett's composition COME BACK OLD PAL (REVIENS, PETITE AMIE)

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Sheet music for Mert Plunkett's composition "Come Back Old Pal" ("Reviens, petite amie")

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 to mount, 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.

For more information on Dumbell's recordings, please consult the Virtual Gramophone database.


References

Braithwaite, Max. -- "The rise and fall of the Dumbells". -- Maclean's. -- (January 1, 1952). -- P. 20-21. -- AMICUS No. 88134

Brown, James Duff ; Stratton, Stephen Samuel. -- British musical biography : a dictionary of musical artists, authors, and composers born in Britain and its colonies. -- New York : Da Capo Press, 1971. -- ii, 462 p. -- AMICUS No. 1647192

Canadian music trades journal. -- (June 1922). -- P. 65-67. -- AMICUS No. 113380

_____. -- (September 1924). -- P. 65. -- AMICUS No. 113380

_____. -- (January 1924). -- P. 71-72. -- AMICUS No. 113380

_____. -- (October 1925). -- P. 54-55. -- AMICUS No. 113380

Champagne, Jane. -- "The Charlottetown festival brings back the Dumbells". -- The Canadian composer = Le compositeur canadien. -- No. 123 (September 1977). -- AMICUS No. 42283

"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

Moogk, Edward B. -- Roll back the years : history of Canadian recorded sound and its legacy : genesis to 1930. -- Ottawa : National Library of Canada, 1975. -- xii, 443 p. -- AMICUS No. 80154. -- Also published in French under the title: En remontant les années : l'histoire et l'héritage de l'enregistrement sonore au Canada, des débuts à 1930

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, [1956]. -- 107 p. -- AMICUS No. 13090515