During the First World War, Canadian soldiers on the front lines endured not only the horrors and hardships of trench warfare but also periods of homesickness and boredom. To entertain the men and boost morale, soldiers in Canadian army divisions organized performance troupes known as “concert parties.” The most famous of these was the Dumbells, the Canadian Army Third Division Concert Party, founded and led by Captain Merton Plunkett. The Dumbells first performed for Canadian troops in France in the summer of 1917. Their shows incorporated various songs and dances, comedy skits, and female impersonations. The Dumbells went on to gain popularity across Canada and internationally after the war, touring North America as a vaudeville act until 1932. They were the first Canadian show to have a hit on Broadway.
Ross Hamilton, an army private and ambulance driver from Pugwash, Nova Scotia, performed with the Dumbells in drag as an opera diva named Marjorie. Marjorie sang in a beautiful falsetto soprano and immediately became an audience favourite.
Watch here – Marjorie makes her entrance at the 7:55 mark.Ross Hamilton returned to the army in the Second World War as an entertainment organizer for new recruits. A performance of Hamilton singing as Marjorie was recorded in 1940 in the training film, Letter From Camp Borden.
In August 1941, Hamilton was quietly discharged from the army “for reasons other than medical,” allegedly for homosexual behaviour with some of the recruits. He retired to Nova Scotia where he died in 1965.
Library and Archives Canada has much more information on the Dumbells here, including biographies of the soldiers/performers. All images courtesy of Library and Archives Canada and are in the public domain.