Today marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War One. Given the amount of military research I do, my husband believes I have a battalion of ancestors who served. Several of my ancestors did enlist, most out of Montreal, including my grandfather Frederick William Dever. All have an interesting story to tell, but my cousin Leonard Young’s story is perhaps the most colourful. He was my grandmother Lucie (Haire) Dever’s first cousin.
Leonard Young was an artist, a pianist, and a veteran of World War I. He was also a duchess and a Dumbell. Leonard was a member of one of Canada’s greatest vaudeville troupes, the Dumbells, a group of soldiers brought together during WWI to entertain the troops in France. Composed entirely of men, with several wearing women’s clothing, the Dumbells sang songs and performed skits that made fun of army life. Leonard’s most famous role was The Duchess, a grand lady who played the piano while wearing a ball gown, pearls, and long white gloves.
Born David Leonard Young on March 9, 1886 in Montreal, Leonard was the second child of Harry Young, a painter, decorator, and professional pianist, and May Watson.
Well known in Montreal’s theatrical circles
Leonard demonstrated his artistic talent at an early age. When he was 20 years old, he helped found the Trinity Players, an amateur theatre troupe, and soon became well known in Montreal’s theatrical circles. To earn a living, he worked as an artist for a local newspaper.
By the time Leonard was 29 years old, the war against Germany had been raging for 18 months. No longer able to ignore the call to enlist, he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force in January 1916.
After three months of training, Leonard was shipped to France and assigned to the 9th Field Ambulance unit. There, Leonard soon began performing with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Comedy Company. After fourteen months in France, Leonard’s unit was posted to the front line at Vimy Ridge where two months earlier Canadian troops had fought one of our country’s greatest battles. Soon after arriving at Vimy, Leonard’s life changed forever.
On June 2, 1917, as Leonard was going to the relief of a stretcher squad, he was hit by a fragment of a German shell that tore through the back of his left knee, severing an artery. Two days later, his leg was amputated.
After convalescing for a year in England and being fitted with an artificial leg, Leonard was assigned to the YMCA where he met Captain Merton Plunkett, a member of the 3rd Division and director of a year-old comedy troupe, called the Dumbells. Leonard joined the troupe and spent the duration of the war entertaining Canadian soldiers.
After the war, the Dumbells performed across Canada and in New York, London and Belgium. Leonard continued to appear on stage and worked as stage manager and costume designer.
In 1921, the Dumbells’ show, Biff! Bing! Bang!, became the first Canadian musical revue to appear on Broadway. Unfortunately, financial difficulties brought on by the Depression and the introduction of talkies forced the Dumbells to disband in 1932.
A few years earlier, in 1926, Leonard had moved permanently to New York, but he spent his summers in Cushing, Quebec where he hosted family and friends from the theatre, including James Cagney. He never married.
Leonard died at the age of 74 in New York on June 14, 1960, survived by his father and younger sister. He is buried with his parents and older brother in Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery. The headstone inscription is simple, providing only his name and the years he was born and died. There is no mention about the musical talent that lies beneath.
Wilson, James, Soldiers of Song: The Dumbells and other Canadian Concert Parties of the First World War, Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2012.
The Dumbells, Part One: The Canadian Army Third Division Concert Party, 1917-1919, The Virtual Gramaphone, Library and Archives Canada, online : (http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/gramophone/028011-1007.1-e.html).
The Dumbells, Part Two: The North American Tour, 1919-1932, The Virtual Gramaphone, Library and Archives Canada, online : (http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/gramophone/028011-1007.2-e.html).
You can listen to some of the Dumbells’ recordings on The Virtual Gramaphone.