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article imageThe Dumbells Live On Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Jun 10, 2013 in Entertainment
Toronto - The Dumbells were an entertainment group created by ten members of the Canadian army's Third Division during World War One. A new live show re-imagines a Dumbells show while paying homage to Canadian comedy history.
Initially created to lift troop morale, the Dumbells created a program of songs and skits, taking their name from a familiar source, as the historical Collections Canada website notes: [...] some time in the summer of 1917, the Dumbells (the Canadian Army Third Division Concert Party) became a formalized, full-time endeavour. They took their name from the Third Division's insignia: crossed red dumb-bells, signifying strength. Although formally part of the regular army, their activities were entirely funded and organized by the YMCA.
Enjoying a quick rise in popularity from their humble start performing on packing boxes, the Dumbells became one of the most popular of wartime acts, modelling their work on that of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry Comedy Company, who were largely responsible for the proliferation of the so-called "concert party" concept popular across Canadian units stationed in France at the time.
The group capitalized on their popularity following the end of the First World War by organizing a touring variety show, where they wrote new material and expanded their repertoire; they would enjoy twelve cross-Canada tours up to 1932 (and a run on Broadway, where, notably, they were the first Canadian musical revue to appear), when repercussions from the Depression forced a halt. Reunion concerts were organized in 1939, 1955, and 1975; they were later honored by Library and Archives Canada in 1977 with the production of an album and stage play.
The Dumbells' work helped to shape that of of many succeeding performers and comics; as well as influencing members of Monty Python and SCTV years later, various members became writers for the beloved Canadian television comedy program Wayne and Shuster.
Toronto will enjoy a revival of the Dumbells on June 15th, when two-time Juno-nominee Jason Wilson presents a show saluting their legacy at the Toronto club Hugh's Room. Based on Wilson's book, Soldiers of Song: The Dumbells And Other Canadian Concert Parties of the First World War (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2012), the evening will feature a live concert band playing sounds of the era, and comedy skits narrated Canadian storyteller Lorne Brown.
Jason Wilson took a few moments between rehearsals to offer thoughts on the legacy of the group, and the challenges of recreating the Dumbells' magic in the 21st century.
What do you think was at the core of the Dumbells' shows?
At the beginning of their run –in the trenches that is –one gets the sense that these soldier-entertainers had a deep sense of duty in what they were doing. This notion is, perhaps, one that does not readily transfer or resonate with many who share post-Vietnam/conspiratorial sensibilities, and who gaze backwards to these old wars through a tie-dyed lens. Yet, these lads really believed that they were doing some good by entertaining our Canadian soldiers and there is ample evidence to show that this was indeed the case.
The Dumbells Concert Party members in uniform  circa 1918.
The Dumbells Concert Party members in uniform, circa 1918.
Collections Canada
How do you think their work might speak to contemporary audiences?
The Dumbells were involved in a period when “black humour” was being born in the nightmare of the trenches. While soldier-comedy of this era certainly retained the soul and form of the British Music Hall, it also took on –as most concert parties of the First World War did –a new, surreal aspect that would eventually influence Wayne and Shuster, Monty Python, Kids in the Hall and Saturday Night Live. In fact, Wayne and Shuster’s army show of the Second World War was, in part, based on the concert party material of the previous war (the Dumbells’ Jack McLaren was peripherally involved with the show); SNL’s Lorne Michaels married Shuster’s daughter Rosie. So, you really can witness concert party DNA in modern comedy.
What's the hardest part about bringing history alive in a performance?
You can only do so much. We can’t recreate a vaudeville-style show of the 1920s vintage, much less a frontline-trench show. We can only try to faithfully render the essence of the Dumbells, present snippets of their songs and stories, and flesh out the human links between then and now.
Sheet music for the  Dumbell Rag   with a photograph of the composer  Jack Ayre. (Source:  Dumbell R...
Sheet music for the "Dumbell Rag", with a photograph of the composer, Jack Ayre. (Source: "Dumbell Rag" [music]; words and music by Ivor E. Ayre -- [S.l. : Ivor E. Ayre], c1920)
Canadian Collections
How does your background in music help?
It’s immense. I don’t think I could have done it otherwise. There are those musical signifiers such as humour, pathos, majesty and so forth, which one needs to hear in order to capture, to the best of one’s ability, authorial intent. When, for instance, the Dumbells’ Red Newman sang “Oh! It’s a Lovely War”, he sang it as a dirge, almost painfully slow, which helped carry the obvious funny bits of the song, but also carried a darker irony that might be lost if the song is only read.
How did you go about organizing the event?
It starts with music and a lot of that material is so wonderful. The band is from either a jazz or, in my case, reggae background, so it was a bit of a learning curve for us. It has, nevertheless, been incredibly satisfying as the melodies are so very pure. The skits and sketches were essential to the Dumbells too -and this is where the talented storyteller Lorne Brown, and actors Jim Armstrong and Andrew Knowlton, come in to lend their hands in recreating some of that Canadian-centric humour that helped the Dumbells forge a lifelong relationship with their soldier-audiences.
Musician/author Jason Wilson performs as part of Soldiers of Song: Canada’s Famous “Dumbells” ...
Musician/author Jason Wilson performs as part of Soldiers of Song: Canada’s Famous “Dumbells” in Toronto on June 15th.
Artistic Connexions
How do you go about producing this sort of an event without it being solely an historical recreation?
There is no way to recreate this music and humour without first filtering it through our own musical and comedic sensibilities. And so it can only ever be a re-imagining. We, all of us on stage, have seen, heard and absorbed the musical and comedy culture of the past 30-plus years. Knowing this, we are charged with the responsibility of making the re-imagining highly entertaining, and this is where we free ourselves from history’s shackles, and, where we take just a little liberty with the material.
What do you think the wider legacy of the Dumbells is, in an international sense?
The Dumbells intersect with so many important points in Canadian history: the troupe members made several recordings with RCA Victor on the new medium of 78s; the group became the first ever Canadian show to score a hit on Broadway; and the dark humour that emerged from the First World War was brought back to Canada by the Dumbells and disseminated among thousands of new fans over the course of a dozen national tours. Perhaps most importantly, if nationhood was won on the crest of Vimy Ridge during that “war to end all wars,” it was the Dumbells who provided the Canadian soundtrack.
More about The Dumbells, Comedy, Sketch, World war one, Trenches
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