Vaudeville, popular in the 19th century in both the United States and in Canada, was a style of theatrical entertainment that featured small unrelated acts, even incorporating dance and song. The vaudeville troops quickly took the place of Shakespearean plays, entertaining a wide range of people with a wide variety of acts. Some argue that vaudeville derives from the French expression “vaux de ville” meaning ““worth of the city, or worthy of the city’s patronage”, but in all likelihood, as Albert McLean suggests, the name was merely selected “for its vagueness, its faint, but harmless exoticism, and perhaps its connotation of gentility”. Therefore, vaudeville could be an amalgamation of many artistic things, creating a style of theatrical art open to many different artists.
During the First World War, vaudeville would be presented to the troops behind the trenches as a way to pass the time and a way to forget the horrors of the war. One particular group was formed within the Canadian army and were known as the Dumbells (sometimes spelled Dumbbells). This group was first formed in 1917 at Vimy Ridge, where the Canadians were having a difficult time successfully taking the ridge. Ten men from the Third Division of the Canadian Army would put on plays, portraying men and women alike. The Dumbells would always make sure to bring along their curtains, their costumes and an upright piano wherever they knew Canadian troops would be. Their vaudeville troop experienced such success during the war that they continued after the Armistice in 1918. The name Dumbells was inspired by the Third Division emblem which was a red dumbbell representing strength.
The original members are as followed: “Merton Plunkett, managing director and comedian; his brother Al (Albert), a baritone […]; Ted Charters, assistant manager and comedian; Ross Hamilton (‘Marjorie’) and Allan Murray (‘Marie from Montreal’), female impersonators; Jack Ayre, pianist and music director; Bill Tennent, tenor; Bert Langley, bass baritone; and Frank (later Jerry) Brayford and Leonard Young, actors”. Their first show had gone so well that they decided to increase their number to 16, members with new capacities which would allow for more variety in their show. The members included “Bill Redpath, Elmer Belding, George Thorne, Andrew Catrano, J. McCormick, and D.L. Michie”. The group would keep on growing when they came back to Canada.
When the war ended, the men’s first appearance outside of the trenches was at the London Coliseum where they performed a four-week engagement. It is said that one of the highlights was their interpretations of ‘These Wild, Wild Women Are Making a Wild Man of Me’ and ‘I Know Where the Flies Go’, ‘Hello My Dearie’ and ‘Someday I’ll Make You Love Me’. When they returned to Canada, the Dumbells would open at the Grand Opera House in London Ontario on October 1st 1919 with the show Biff, Bing, Bang. They would later perform for 16 weeks at the Toronto Grand Theater.
The Dumbells were instrumental in providing morale for the Canadian troops during the First World War. One of the reasons the Dumbells saw such success is that they had a little something for everyone, from “funny skits to sentimental ballads, and a style that ranged from rowdy to suave”, making fans out of every soldier in the ranks. Moreover, they were not people trained in the craft of theater, they were normal people with particular talents and joined forces to use these talents in the efforts to help the Canadian soldiers forget the atrocities of the war.