Canadian First World War Entertainment Troupes – The Dumbells

Have you ever heard of the Dumbells? They were a group of men who would travel the battle grounds in the First World War and entertain the troops in the trenches. The troupe was made up of Jack Ayre, Ross Hamilton, Red Newman, Albert Plunkett and Mert Plunkett. There were other members of the group one of which was Jack MacLaren who was a neighbour of my Grandparent’s in Toronto.

Captain Merton Plunkett was the organizer of the Dumbells Troupe. They were a group of soldiers who sang, performed skits and comedy acts to entertain the troops. According to the book “Al Plunkett: The Famous Dumbell”  “…Captain at once commenced selecting his talent from Canada’s 3rd Division in France. Hence, the birth of the “Dumbells,” so named because the 3rd Division insignia was that of a “Dumbell” prominently in view on all vehicles and equipment of the 3rd Canadian Division.”[1]

The book also notes that some of the players came from: 9th & 10th Field Ambulance; 58th Battalion; 116th Battalion; 5th Cmrs; and the 52nd, 49th, 42nd, and 43rd Battalions.

The Dumbells first show did not go very well and it wasn’t until Ross Hamilton arrived on stage dressed as ‘Marjorie’ and sang a song that things turned around. The place of the first performance is uncertain. It could have been a show for General Currie when he took charge of the Canadian troops or Gouy-Servins, France in the Passchendaele sector. Others think it might have been in August 1917 at Vimy Ridge. Most believe that the Gouy-Servins was the first show.[2]

Their repertoire contained such First World War hits as “Mademoiselle from Armentières,” “Pack Up Your Old Kit Bag” and “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” They also played patriotic Canadian songs such as “It’s Canada (The Land for Me).” Jack Ayre penned the group’s theme song a tune called “Dumbell Rag.”[3]

It was hard work being a member of this troupe. They had to transport their own piano through the muck and over the land to the next performance. They created their own sets and costumes. They were the roadies who set up and dismantled the stage for every performance. The troupe created floodlights to help light the stage. The first floodlights were made out of candles and biscuit tins. As they became more popular they asked actresses from Britain for their old costumes so that characters like ‘Marjorie’ could come to life.

The soldiers had to return to their unit after each performance but as the performances became so important to troop morale they stayed together as a single unit. This troupe was so important to the soldiers and the players that when Leonard Young lost a leg in battle he returned to the troupe after he recuperated.

Each time the Dumbells were set to return to active service General Lipsett stepped in and reminded the powers that be the importance of this troupe. He said “Now as never before the troops need entertainment.”[4]

The Armistice did not stop the Dumbells from performing. They joined with the Princess Pat’s Comedy Company and created one large troupe. They would continue to entertain the troops who were waiting for demobilization.

It appears that “some of the other battalion concert parties were being disbanded. Colonel Adamson, O.C. of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Battalion, 3rd Canadian Division, requested Captain to absorb some members of the Princess Pat’s Battalion concert party into the Dumbells. Our divisional party was to continue the entertainment of the troops to war’s end.”[5]  It was at this time that Jack MacLaren joined the group.

The group entertained the troops from 1917 until the end of the war in 1918. Their performances didn’t end there. After the war they entertained in venues across Canada and the United States. They even had a stint on Broadway. They toured North America from 1919 to 1932.[6]

You can read more about the Dumbells at the Virtual Gramophone on the Library and Archives Canada website.

You can also listen to some of their recordings at the Virtual Gramophone.

©2012 – Blair Archival Research All Rights Reserved

[1] Plunkett, Albert William; Earle Patrise. – Al Plunkett: the famous Dumbell- by Patrise Earle, as told by Al Plunkett, New York, Pageant Press (1956), page 55

[2] The Virtual Gramophone, Library and Archives Canada, ( viewed November 2012

[3] The Virtual Gramophone, Library and Archives Canada, ( viewed November 2012

[4] The Virtual Gramophone, Library and Archives Canada, ( viewed November 2012

[5] Plunkett, Albert William; Earle Patrise. – Al Plunkett: the famous Dumbell- by Patrise Earle, as told by Al Plunkett, New York, Pageant Press (1956), page 63

[6] The Virtual Gramophone, Library and Archives Canada, ( viewed November 2012

4 thoughts on “Canadian First World War Entertainment Troupes – The Dumbells”

  1. It is my understanding that my Great Grandfather Robert Morris ( son of William Morris) was a member of this troupe. I have very little family history. I don’t know if he carried on with them after the war but doubt that he did. My daughter sent me a copy of Canada Remembers Times ( Nov. 5-11) 2013 which mentions the troupe & jogged my memory of a story about Great Grandpa being propositioned by a very inebriated Sr. Officer who was set up & egged on by his less drunk friends after a show …guess I’ll have to do some more research.

  2. jasen earle plunkett

    My name as you read is Jasen Earle Plunkett I am from Toronto my fathers name was Allister Earle Plunkett. My father told me stories about is Grandfather entertaining troops in World War1. He told me that when they first started they would fight during the day and entertain at night. So after fighting all day then they would do the show After a year so a General I am assuming it is probably the same one you mentioned decided the Troop had grown so popular that it would be excellent for the soldiers morale and organized it for them do tour all over Europe. There s another story that they were so close to the front lines my great grandfather and uncle and others were shot while on stage no one was hurt badly.

  3. My father met Jack Ayre in the early 1970’s, when he volunteered to help my Dad stage a Rotary Club show for the benefit of surviving WWI veterans. Jack Ayre appeared in it and it was a huge hit with the men, some of whom well-remembered seeing the Dumbbells perform, My father said several of them who seemed weak and tired that evening, even danced and stood up and cheered. Jack became a friend of my father’s and came to our home in Toronto a few times. We were delighted when one afternoon, he sat down and played our piano, and I remember him on that occasion telling us that The Dumbells had a routine where one of them would announce a reading from the Book of Numbers and proceed to read from the telephone book. He also spoke of his wife who had passed away and how he would have to leave soon as he visited her grave every day. He was a lovely gentleman and I know my Dad missed him very much when he passed away in 1977.

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