All-male musical revue including Merton and Al Plunkett, Jack Ayre (pianist and musical director), Elmer A. Belding, Ted Charters, Allan Murray, and Jack McLaren, created in 1917 to entertain troops on the front lines in France in order to improve morale. The troupe performed original satiric sketches, comic songs, dances, and female impersonations, improvising sets, lighting and costumes. The name derives from their Third Division insignia: crossed red dumbells, signifying strength, although its comic associations are obvious. The Dumbells enjoyed a popular success for a performance in London in 1918. At the end of the war, the troupe toured across Canada as a professional variety show, and appeared in Broadway in 1921 in a show entitled Biff, Bing, Bang. The original group split in 1922 over financial disagreements, but the Plunketts continued to tour with new members until 1932, finally defeated by the Depression, the decline in popularity of vaudeville, and the advent of film.
Among its satiric reviews was a real estate sketch by McLaren, in which he attempts to sell property in No Man's Land to another soldier, pointing out the advantages of on-site water and gas. The troupe's black humour and satire has since come to characterize much of Canada's musical theatre, such as Spring Thaw, and the comic sketches of performers such as Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster; it is also evident in works such as Billy Bishop Goes to War.
A popular Dumbells' song "Oh! It's a Lovely War" inspired the English radio play by Charles Chilton, The Long Long Trail (1961), which was transferred to the stage by Gerry Raffles in partnership with Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop in 1963 as Oh What a Lovely War.
An archival collection on this subject is available at the Toronto Reference Library, and at the National Library Archives on-line.
Readings: Jason Wilson. Soldiers of Song: The Dumbells and Other Canadian Concert Parties of the First World War. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2012.
See also: http://www.cbc.ca/player/News/TV+Shows/The+National/Arts+and+Entertainment/ID/2391732332/
Contemporary Canadian Theatre; New World Visions, ed. Anton Wagner, Toronto: Simon and Pierre, 1985.
Last updated 2017-05-01