Friday, January 28, 2011

The Dumbbells Come To London

"The London Advertiser" Speptember 27, 1919.
The Dumbbells was an entertainment troupe that was formed just after the battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917. Formed to entertain the troops, and build moral, the members were formed from the ranks of the Third Division. Thus their name - which was also the division’s symbol.

As far as I know no one from Southwestern Ontario was a member of the Dumbbells. Managing Director and comedian was Capt. Merton Wesley Plunkett (1899-1966).

Library and Archives Canada
The Dumbbells played to the front line soldiers with skits and songs about life in the trenches. Theirs was very much a vaudevillian act. Through 1917 and 1918 the show would be taken to wherever the Canadian Corps happened to be . The skits tended to dark humour which went over well with soldiers, but was sometimes was over the heads of civilians who could not quite see the trench humour. Songs tended to be, for the time, racy, with titles like “These Wild, Wild, Women Are Making A Wild Man Of Me”, or “I Know Where The Flies Go”.

After the war the troupe re-formed, and after rehearsals in Orillia, opened for three nights September 30, October 1 and 2nd., 1919, at the Grand Theatre in London (the Grand is still here and thriving). Theatres in London by 1919 were mixing both vaudeville acts, and silent films, on their playbills.
Library and Archives Canada
Library and Archives Canada
Both London papers found the show well received. “The London Advertiser” in its review stated:

“A capacity audience, which included the staff and patients of the Western Military Hospital, was delighted with the performance of the “Dumbells” in the original overseas review. “Biff Bing Bang”, at the Grand Theatre last night. These talented artists, who repeat their bill tonight and twice tomorrow, present an offering which is of high order, the entire cast being male, although R.D. Hamilton, as Marjorie, could easily become the ace of female impersonators should he care to try for the honour. His work was of the best, possessing a good singing voice which aided greatly in the impersonation.”

“The artists in this company have served an average of sixteen months in the firing line before being selected by Capt. Plunkett for the revue, and last night was military night, the “boys” being welcomed in London by local soldiers, this being the opening engagement in Canada”. (1)

For “The London Free Press”;

“ London theatregoers were presented with something new, something, which they have not seen here before, last evening when “The Dumbbells” in their original overseas revue , “Biff Bing Bang” opened a three day engagement at the Grand. The house was packed to the roof and the boys in France got as much fun out of the entertainment as those present last evening , life on the other side was not as black as most folk imagine.” (2)

I might add in closing that they hit Broadway in May 1921 with their show “Biff, Bing, Bang”, and were a hit. The Dumbbells' popularity with veterans reminds me of the popularity that Bob Hope enjoyed with American veterans in his long career.

Library and Archives Canada. In front of the Ambassador Theatre on Broadway, New York, 1921.
 For more on the Dumbells, and biographies of some of the members, check out Library and Archives Canada "The Virtual Gramophone".

(1) “The London Advertiser”, September 30, 1919.
(2) “The London Free Press”, September 30, 1919.

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