Origin: Orillia, Ontario
Merton Wesley Plunkett, like his brothers Fred, Syd. Morley and Albert, was born in a red brick house on Barrie Road in Orillia, Ont. There he learned to play the piano slightly, did a little local entertaining, took a flyer at the grocery business and in 1913, at twenty-five, went to Toronto to study singing. When war broke out he joined as a Y MCA entertainment director with the honorary rank of captain and early in 1916 landed in France with the 3rd Division.
His job was to boost morale. He would come into a battle area and set up a piano on a small stage in a tent as close to the front lines as possible. As the men came out of the trenches, tired, dirty, often hurt and always very sick of war, they would wander in to see what was going on.
According to those who saw him work the captain was terrific. A short blond roly-poly figure, he’d bounce out onto the stage, grin an infectious giin and start fooling around on the keyboard with songs like Tipperary, Pack Up Your Troubles, Smile A While and Mademoiselle From Armentieres. Gradually he’d get them going in a rip-roaring singsong. Then he’d shout for volunteers to come up and entertain in any way they wanted. And he’d get them—singers, monologuiste, endless satires on trench life and chorus lines featuring knobby-kneed privates in floppy hats and outlandish dresses. Female impersonators were always popular with these women-hungry men.
From these performances Plunkett learned two things which he never forgot and which accounted for much of his later success: soldiers like to clown and their friends like to watch them do it.
As he traveled from unit to unit Plunkett saw a surpising number of really good acts. A tall handsome piivate with the 9th Field Ambulance Corps named Ross Hamilton, for instance, who when properly made up had the grace and manners of a striking brunette and who could get bis voice into a falsetto that sounded like a trained coloratura soprano. Sgt. Ted Charters whose mock sermon on the battle of the Somme left the boys helpless. His own kid brother, Cpl. Albert Plunkett, who had lied about his age to get into the 58th Battalion at sixteen and who was developing an engaging singing style that was later to make him the most personable singer who ever climbed onto a Canadian stage. Private Alan Murray who could lpok and dance like a pretty girl. Singers like Ptes. Bill Tennent and Bert I^angley, and character actors like Pte. Frank Brayford and Cpl. Leonard Young. Most important of all he found a first-rate pianist in Cpl. Jack Ayre. He knew that if he ever got the chance he could get together a really good show.
Then, early in 1917, the chance came —an order from headquarters authorizing the use of fighting men for entertainment duty. Capt. Plunkett requested and got permission from divisional commander Maj.-Gen. L. J. Lipsett to form the 3rd Division Concert Party. Because the unit’s insignia was a red dumbbell they called themselves The Dumbells.
Of the ten originals none except Capt. (honorary) Plunkett ranked higher than a sergeant. They had an average of sixteen months’ front-line duty, but even at that Plunkett had a tough time getting authority to keep them as permanent entertainers. They staged their first show in the military theatre at Guoy-Servins, just outside of the town of Poperinghe, Belgium. This was in the Passchendaele sector, centre of the bitterest fighting of the 1917 campaign.
Plunkett still remembers every detail :rf that historic production. Except for the Dumbell Rag, written by Jack Ayre, they lifted their musical numbers whenever the lifting was good—mostly from English music-hall hits like Zig Zag and Yes, Uncle. Al Plunkett had scrounged a white cape, silk hat and suit of tails and was the envy of every khaki-clad man in the audience. His suave manner and smooth delivery made them think they were at the Ritz and the song he sang—a current U. S. hit, Those Wild Wild Women are Making a Wild Man of Me—hit every soldier where he lived.
Ross Hamilton, in a long, clinging gown with appropriate padding, was a knockout as Marjorie. He represented every soldier’s girl friend back home when he sang over the telephone to the dreaming soldier in the trenches (Bill Tennent) in that Dumbell classic, Hello My Dearie.
Right after that in true Plunkett tradition (“Make ’em cry one minute and laugh the next and you’ve got ’em”) came Ted Charters dressed in a long Prince Albert coat, a plastereddown wig with a centre part and a sanctimonious look. He folded his hands piously and announced in a sepulchral voice: “My sermon is Be
Ye Prepared, For No Man Knoweth When Inspection Cometh.” It was full of references to stolen blankets and other soldier shenanigans and it had the boys rolling in the aisles.
Alan Murray and Al Plunkett danced, there was a chorus line and numerous broad skits on army life. The show was clean and fast and well filled with ingredients that never missed with soldiers or audiences anywhere—what Merton Plunkett calls sentiment and hokum. It was a smash. Gen. Lipsett was pleased. The Dumbells were in.
After the first show the Dumbells increased their cast to sixteen and from then until the end of the war they traveled in trucks to wherever the troops needed them most. They picked up and made what scenery and props they could, used horses’ tails and rope for wigs, bits of cowhide for beards and mustaches. In an area where there were no buildings they’d set up seats on the side of a hill and give an outdoor show. Often their shows were interrupted by enemy action and, as Al Plunkett remarked recently, “Some of the men we entertained at five o’clock were dead at seven-thirty.” When the fighting was too close and tough the Dumbells doubled as stretcher-beaiers.
But they had a lot of laughs, too. One evening a young English officer was so smitten by Marjorie’s rendition of Some Day I’ll Make You Love Me that he turned up at the stage door with a bunch of flowers and a certain look in his eye. To save his feelings Capt. Plunkett explained that Marjorie wasn’t feeling well and the next day the show had moved on.
There was no doubt the Dumbells were good under the rough-and-tumble conditions of the trenches, but how would they go over in a regular theatre? Plunkett saw a chance to answer this in the fall of 1918 when the troupe was on a two-week leave in London. He went to see a Mr. Johns who was manager of one of the city’s biggest vaudeville houses, the Coliseum. But Johns told him through a secretary that he wanted no part of any soldiers’ revue. So Plunkett booked his whole show in at the lowly Victoria Palace at sixty pounds a week and obtained a two-week extension of leave. When Johns heard of the effect the Dumbells were having on London audiences he sent for Plunkett and offered him two hundred pounds a week for the show. CAll profits went to the YMCA entertainment fund.)
They got a further leave extension and played the Coliseum for four triumphant weeks. Johns canceled all his vaudeville acts and put the Dumbells on ahead of the feature attraction, the famous Diaghilev Ballet. But the Londoners cheered the Dumbells so long and so heartily that after a couple of nights the Diaghilev manager came to Johns and demanded that his ballet precede the soldiers’ show instead of following it.
When the Canadian Army moved into Mons on Nov. 11, 1918, Plunkett was ready for them with, of all things, a full dress production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. To give the show more zip he had picked up some entertainers from the Princess Pats’ Concert Party (Jack McLaren, Fred Fenwick and others) and fitted them into the show as a comic guard for Sir Joseph Porter and an American reporter (McLaren) who was aboard the good ship strictly for laughs. This was the troupe’s first chance in a legitimate vehicle in rented costumes and they gave it all they had. With the RCA fifty-piece band in the pit and young Al Plunkett in the Capt. Corcoran role the show ran for thirty-two days, two shows a day, with a hattalion crowding in for each show.
Capt. Plunkett returned from France in June 1919 and immediately began work on a show that would capitalize on the wartime popularity of the Dumbells. He gathered together all of the original cast he could get, persuaded his uncles, Albert and Sam Kerr of Orillia, to put up six thousand dollars and, after a couple of try-outs in Owen Sound, Ont., approached the biggest man in show business at the time, Ambrose Small, manager of the Grand Theatre on Adelaide Street in Toronto. Small was skeptical but said that maybe if Plunkett could enlarge his cast, get more numbers and more money he’d give the show a try.
Plunkett hurried back to the uncles and persuaded them to throw another twelve thousand dollars into the kitty. Then he lined up Red Newman, Charlie McLean, blackface comedian Ben Allen, baritone Tommy Young and female impersonator Jock Holland. These with old-timers brother Al, Ross Hamilton, Fred Fenwick, Alan Mur-z
They opened in London, Ont., on Oct. 1, 1919, with a show called Biff Bing Bang. Their audience was made to order—veterans who knew them from the trenches and their families and friends. Red Newman sang Oh It’s a Lovely War. When he came out in his old dirty bedraggled uniform with web gear askew, puttees undone and red wig sticking out under a battered helmet, they cheered just to see him. When he started “Up to your knees in water, up to your waist in slush,” there were lumps in a few throats and when he went into that never-to-be-forgotten routine of pitching his clothes and gear on the stage as he sought an elusive cootie, it just plain stopped the show.
Mothers Looking For Blood
Punkett was in Small’s Toronto office at ten the next morning his face wrinkled in the I-told-you-so grin that was becoming a habit. Small offered him his usual deal—a fifty-fifty split with a one-dollar top. The show went straight into the Grand Theatre where it played eight weeks to capacity crowds and only left because of Small’s previous commitments for Christmas. It opened again in January for eight more weeks, took a swing around to Hamilton, Ottawa and Montreal and then headed out for the first of its twelve cross-Canada tours. Every where they were met by enthusiastic veterans and their friends. The show is believed to have made a profit of about eighty thousand dollars that first year.
The next fall they had a brand-new show, bigger and better than ever. So much so that in May of 1921 they invaded Broadway, the graveyard of so many successful shows before and sincé.
Merton Plunkett tells a story of how they were almost scuppered before they opened at the new Ambassador Theatre. In the Princess Theatre in Montreal they had used a joke about Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s famous Rainbow Division being the one that “came out after the storm was all over.” Although this “killed” the Canadian ex-servicemen it drew such violent and vociferous protest from a group of American convention wives in the audience that comedian Ben Allen didn’t dare appear again that night. Then, in New York on opening night when everybody was tiptoeing around with fingers crossed two stern females with blood in their eye caught Plunkett and demanded if this was the Canadian show that went around insulting American fighting men. Plunkett assured them that the foul joke was in another Canadian soldiers’ revue and managed to get rid of them. “If they had ever made a public fuss,” he says now, still shuddering at the memory, “we’d have closed that night instead of running twelve weeks.”
As it was, they loved them on Broadway and the reviews were flattering.
With their New York notices plastered on advertising bills the Dumbells again hit the road. Crowds and reactions everywhere were satisfactory but traveling back and forth across Canada was rough. About seventy-five percent of the stops were one-night stands with pretty primitive living conditions and theatres. In Pincher Creek, Alta., they had to use the house next door to the theatre for a dressing room and climb a six-foot fence on their way to and from the stage, while out in the audience the manager was selling orange crates for seats at three dollars each.
Then late in 1922, Capt. Plunkett faced his greatest test as a showman. Ten days before the Dumbells were to open the fall season in Hamilton a group of the original cast presented an ultimatum—either they get more money or they would quit and form their own show. Plunkett told them to leave if they weren’t satisfied and with only ten days and two stars left (AÍ Plunkett and Ross Hamilton) set about building a new show.
Other ex-service entertaineis soon provided replacements (Pat Rafferty, Sammy Birch, Bert Wilkinson, Glen Allen, Morley Plunkett) and the Dumbells opened as advertised in Hamilton with what AÍ Plunkett describes as “the best show we’ve ever had.” The Captain went into the act introducing a song he’d written himself called Come Back Old Pal and, according to him, some of the strikers who had come to scoff and remained to marvel confessed to damp eyes while this was being sung. Red Newman rejoined the show later and the rest of the rebels tried their luck with a show called The Originals which folded within the year.
The Captain, AÍ Plunkett, Ross Ham il Lon and the backers then organized a limited company and the Dumbells went on to even greater triumphs. They became an annual habit with Canadian theatregoers from the Atlantic to the Pacific and the names of their stars were household words.
The Money Came and Went
As the war faded in men’s memories the Dumbells’ sketches (mostly bought from English music halls) and songs got farther and farther from the trenches. Professional entertainers like tenor Harry Binns, bass Cameron Geddes and violinist Howard Fogg joined the show. Many people believe the Dumbells hit an all - time high for Canadian comedy with newcomers Fred Emney, Charlie Jeeves and Scotty Morrison and old hands Pat Rafferty and Red Newman. Emney in particular, a silly-ass Englishman in plus fours and monocle, has been called “one of the funniest men who ever got on a stage anywhere.”
But they kept to the Plunkett formula of few encores (“If they want to hear it again they can come back the next night and pay for it”), clean family-type humor and a fast mixture of laughs and tears. The personable Plunketts continued to make friends, money and whoopee up until 1929. Wherever they went they were wined and dined and lionized. It was easy to turn a buck in those days. The show was making big pro its and every city had brokerage offices where bigger ones could be made. AÍ Plunkett tells of a small investment in oil in Calgary that eained him twelve thousand dollars by the time the show had gone to the west coast and back.
But it was easy to lose a buck, too. Merton Plunkett said recently: “If I hadn’t been greedy and had stuck to the Dumbells instead of getting into other ventures I’d be worth a quarter of a million today.” On the theory that if one soldiers’ revue made money two should make twice as much he launched the Maple Leafs, also full of ex-army entertainers, hokum and sentiment. It lost thirty thousand dollars. At a cost of fifteen thousand dollars he built the Merrymakers open-air theatre at Sunnyside in Toronto where he used some of the Dumbell stars when they weren’t on the road. It made money for awhile but then went into the red and the Toronto Harbor Commission took over the property. He brought out the famous English comedian G. P. Huntley and took him on the road with a little thing called Three Little Maids. It flopped with another forty thousand dollars of the Dumbells’ profits. But the clincher came in 1929 when the stock-market crash just about cleaned out both the Captain and AÍ.
The Dumbells had introduced girls into the show with the tenth annual revue, Why Worry, in 1928. Some diehard fans still insist that the girls ruined the show; others say they improved it. The girls remained with the show from then until the end in 1932.
But whether the girls helped or hindered, the handwriting was on the wall for the Dumbells. Transportation costs had gone up, musicians and other workers were unionized and, worst of all, talking pictures had arrived. Theatre managers who were packing in crowds couldn’t afford to rent their houses to the Dumbells for the short end of a seventy-thirty split. Stars like AÍ Plunkett, Newman and Emney, traveling in special cars lugging COHtumt‘8, props and technicians with them, just couldn’t compete with the Jolsons. Tibbetts and Marx Brothers, traveling on movie film in little tin cans.
Merton Plunkett didn’t give up easily. In 1931, without any money, he tried a comeback with “the biggest dollar’s worth in show business,’’ a variety show with a cast of two hundred, in the Victoria Theatre, Toronto. It played to good houses for a week but had to close when the creditors moved in too soon.
In 1932 he tried one last, disastrous tour. With many of the smaller expense-paying stops eliminated the show just couldn’t pay its way. It got as far as Edmonton and on the way back was stopped at Winnipeg by union officials who slapped a fine on musicians and stage hands for accepting half-filled pay envelopes and put Plunkett on the black list.
Plunkett went into the insurance business until 1939 when he again went overseas as an enteitainment supervisor for the Canadian Legion Auxiliary Services. He wrote a song called We’re On Our Way which the soldiers sang on the ship going over and which later caught on in England where it is still occasionally sung. Invalided back in 1941 after a car accident Plunkett worked at a number of jobs, including secretary - manager of the Albany Club in Toronto, and recently retired with his wife to Collingwood, Ont. Now, at sixty-three, he is a grey-haired little man, slightly crippled with arthritis but not unhappy.
AÍ Plunkett had fair success in radio and night-club work in Montreal and the U. S. during the Thirties. Now he works for the Ontario Department of Highways and helps his wife run the Plunkett Nursing Home.
Red Newman, who made three hundred dollars a week with the Dumbells and saved his money, owns a hotel at Wasaga Beach on Georgian Bay.
Ross Hamilton, the female impersonator, has been entertaining off and on ever since he left the Dumbells in 1930. When he joined the Army Medical Corps in Toronto in 1940 he dumfounded the clerk by giving his occupation as actress. Now he lives in Brookfield, N.S., and is retired.
Jack McLaren has a display advertising business in Toronto.
But the days of the traveling revues are over. The old Empire Theatre in Saskatoon is now the Victory movie house. The high-school kids in that city rarely see a live professional on the stage. But their fathers still tell them about the Dumbells, the like of which may never be seen again.
-Max Brathwaite, Jan 1, 1952