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WW I-era Dumbells a slice of Canadian comedy history

The Dumbells, a group of soldier-entertainers who made life easier for Canadian troops on the Western front during the First World War, would be a nearly forgotten piece of history if not for Jason Wilson.

Toronto musician Jason Wilson revives groundbreaking variety act

Jason Wilson resurrects the comedy of group that entertained soldiers in First World War 2:47

The Dumbells, a group of soldier-entertainers who made life easier for Canadian troops on the Western front during the First World War, would be a nearly forgotten piece of history if not for Jason Wilson.

The Toronto musician is reviving the comedy and music act The Dumbells took from the battlefield to vaudeville in a performance in Toronto this Saturday. His show, Soldiers of Song, has been performed across Canada.

He’s so passionate about the group that he's also written a book about them. Wilson believes The Dumbells founded a great tradition of Canadian comedy that extends to groups like Wayne and Shuster and Kids in the Hall.

The Dumbells went to Broadway in the 1920s. (Private collections of John McLaren and Stephen Plunkett)

Poked fun at authority

The Dumbells poked fun at authority with their comedy and funny songs, providing Canadian soldiers a couple of hours of relief from the fighting in Europe during the First World War.  

"The Dumbells were allowed to make fun of almost everything, though not everything," Wilson said in an interview with CBC’s Deana Sumanac.

"One of those things was superior officers, who turned their cheek and said 'This is all in the interest of morale and trying to keep this show going and doing our best.' They were able to make fun of death. They were able to make fun of the war itself."  

According to Wilson, only poison gas and shellshock were out of bounds in their skewering of the military and its systems.

Formed in 1917 by members of the Canadian army's Third Division, the troupe was named for the red dumbbell in the division's emblem. The group's job was to bolster morale among soldiers with live "concert parties" featuring irreverent humour. After the war, The Dumbells toured Canada, had a run in London’s West End and scored a hit on Broadway when vaudeville was still going strong.

Early recordings

Wilson stumbled across The Dumbells while listening to recordings at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa and was amazed at how fresh and funny he found the material.

"People who had lived through the First World War and then the influenza and the Second World War, they needed something a little more cynical at times... that sort of spoke to the absurdity of it, and I think the absurdity of it all was what distinguishes The Dumbells from those that had come before," Wilson said.

The original Dumbells disbanded in 1932, but reunited for concerts in 1939 and 1955. Two of the group's writers later contributed to the act by Canadian comedy duo Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster. Wilson believes the Canadian talent for sketch comedy also began with the Dumbells, who — as an all-male troupe — dressed some of its actors in women’s clothing for certain roles.

Capt. Mert Plunkett, founder of The Dumbells, was a composer and comic genius. (Private collections of John McLaren and Stephen Plunkett)

Book on The Dumbells

Founder Capt. Mert Plunkett — the composer, conductor and comic genius behind The Dumbells — died in 1966. None of the original Dumbells is still alive and only one of the original troupe’s children is still alive — he is in his 90s.

So Wilson has written a book, Soldiers of Song: The Dumbells and Other Canadian Concert Parties of the First World War, to raise awareness among Canadians of this unique chapter in history.

"I feel my own sense of duty is to keep this story alive because they are so central to Canadian music history, of recording history in Canada — some of the first records made on RCA Victor were the Dumbell recordings," he said.

In his live show Soldiers of Song, Wilson works with Canadian storyteller Lorne Brown, who narrates the story of The Dumbells, and Toronto stage actors Jim Armstrong and Andrew Knowlton, who recreate Dumbells skits.