On a February evening in 1900 the Irish revolutionary and actress, Maud Gonne, was railing against the British to a large, sympathetic crowd at New York City’s Academy of Music. During an intermission in the program, someone spotted a famous singer among the audience and began to chant, “Olcott, Olcott!” He was chanting for Chauncey Olcott, the Buffalo-born tenor and a favorite of audiences throughout the United States. They wanted him to sing an Irish ballad—and he obliged the audience by singing two.
By 1900, Chauncey’s career as a songwriter and actor was well established. “My Wild Irish Rose,” for which he wrote the lyrics and music, had reached number one on the Billboard charts the previous year, and sold one million copies. By then he also had roles in five plays to his credit, appearing on stages in cities across the country. His most famous song, “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” was still more than a decade away. One historian has claimed he had already become the “most renowned Irishman” of his time, and upon his death The New York Times said he was “one of the most popular actors of his day.” Over the course of his career, Olcott amassed a large fortune. He was recognized not just for his acting, but also as a lyricist, composer and singer. How did a boy born over a stable in Buffalo reach such heights? And why did his name eventually disappear into oblivion?
Buffalo has a rich history in the arts, and Chauncey Olcott was one of its first stars on the national stage. During the 19th and early 20th centuries there were a handful of people from the Queen City who “made it big” in the theater. Edwin Pearce (E.P.) Christy, founder of Christy’s Minstrels in Buffalo in 1842, preceded Olcott in fame. Like Olcott, Christy eventually left Buffalo for New York City in order to make his fortune. Michael Shea was a nationally known impresario during the Vaudeville era and built a fleet of theaters in Western New York. Shea, however, didn’t come close to Olcott’s fame. Katharine Cornell, who was raised in a wealthy family in Buffalo, was a star on Broadway by the 1920s. Cornell became one of Broadway’s leading actresses of the 20th century, and is still known as “The First Lady of the Theatre.” But Olcott’s humble beginnings make his success much more improbable and worth exploring.
On July 21, 1858, Chauncey Olcott was reputedly born on the second floor of his father’s horse stable in Buffalo. His baptized name was Chancellor John Olcott, but he was soon called Chauncey. His father was Mellon Whitney Olcott, a Yankee Protestant who owned a saloon in Buffalo, and his Irish-born mother was Margaret “Peggy” Doyle from Killeagh, County Cork. Peggy was raised in a primitive cabin in an Irish shantytown on Lockport’s West Genesee Street. She married Mellon Olcott when she was just 16 years old.
Mellon Olcott’s saloon at Canal and State streets was in Buffalo’s rough-and-tumble canal district. Later, Peggy ran the saloon for many years while Mellon pursued his interest in training horses. Chauncey spent his earliest years in the Canal District, where his neighbors were saloonkeepers, cooks and sailors. During his teenage years, he and his mother lived at 50 Batavia Street (now Broadway) where she ran her own saloon.
Besides Buffalo, Lockport also played an important part in his life. His boyhood summers were spent there with his Irish mother’s family. It was from his Doyle grandparents, immigrants from Ireland, that young Chauncey heard the romantic stories of the Emerald Island. And it was from them that his love for his ancestral homeland was nurtured. This love for his Irish ancestry had a profound influence on his career.
Young Chauncey’s domestic life was marked by tragedies and losses. When he was young, his father either died or abandoned the family. This forced his mother to support the family by running the saloon. Chauncey also lost his brother, William, to an illness at age five. His grandfather Doyle, with whom he was very close, drowned while working on the canal locks at Lockport. As a result of all of these tragedies, Chauncey became very attached to his mother. In fact, the theme of motherhood was prominent in many of his plays and songs.
Chauncey attended Buffalo Public Schools, finishing his studies at 13. He wasn’t a remarkable student but he loved singing, a gift he exhibited at an early age. At the age of four, he sang an Irish ballad to a crowd at St. Michael’s school and the audience burst into wild cheers. His talent caught the attention of a Mr. Baker, the Buffalo Public Schools’ supervisor of music. Baker encouraged his singing, and provided him with opportunities to display his talents at building dedications or when dignitaries visited Buffalo. On the Fourth of July in 1869, eleven-year-old Chauncey was mentioned in the Buffalo Courier for singing in front of a large crowd of spectators at Franklin Square. By 17, however, like many of his counterparts, Chauncey was “working on the lakes.”
At this point, Olcott’s enterprising mother owned a small tugboat business on Buffalo’s waterfront. Eventually she met and married Patrick Brennan, the superintendent of the Buffalo Water Works and a fellow immigrant from Ireland. They eventually settled at 662 West Avenue, on the city’s west side. Chauncey’s mother urged her son to pursue a career in her tug business and promised him that someday he would be the captain of his own tug. He half-heartedly worked on one of her tugs as a fireman until one day, while shoveling coal into its engine, his shirt caught on fire. Interpreting this as a sign that he was supposed to do something different, Chauncey told his mother that he was finished with waterfront work and would pursue a career on stage.
Blackface Minstrel and Broadway Debut
As an aspiring stage performer from the working class, Chauncey had limited options for breaking into the performing arts. Blackface minstrelsy was one path that many Irish Americans pursued. Chauncey left Buffalo in 1879 after being spotted by Billy Emerson, a prominent minstrel company owner, in a tavern. He quickly joined Emerson’s Minstrels in Chicago and later performed with the well-known Haverly’s Mastodon Minstrels. In a short time, his minstrel career took him from Chicago to London, where the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, was so impressed with his performance that he requested Chauncey visit him in his private box. Eventually, however, Olcott soured on the idea of performing in blackface. Whether he found it repugnant in its demeaning portrayal of African Americans or if he simply desired to perform in a more “respectable theater” is unknown. But to make the move, he needed someone to discover him.
His luck came in 1886 when one of the leading ladies of the stage, Lillian Russell, recognized his talent after watching one of his minstrel performances. Russell selected him to star opposite her in the leading role of Pablo in the comic opera, Pepita, performed at the Union Square Theatre in New York City. Performing with Russell had the potential to launch a career on Broadway for this 28-year-old waterfront worker from Buffalo. Unfortunately, Olcott was soon dismissed when Russell’s husband, the producer of the play, found a note in Lillian’s handwriting asking to have dinner with handsome Chauncey. This was just one of the many setbacks Olcott encountered on his journey to stardom, but he was undeterred. He went on to perform in New York productions of H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado before embarking on his next major venture.
Forsaking Broadway for the moment, the restless Chauncey decided to pursue a career as an opera singer by taking voice lessons in Milan, Italy. On his 1890 voyage to Italy, however, fate intervened. After a terrible sea crossing, he demanded that he be let out in England. There he enrolled in voice lessons in London to improve his diction. While living in London, he was chosen for a tenor role in the comic opera Miss Decima at the Prince of Wales Theater. It was in this comic role – as an Irish adventurer posing as a Spanish bullfighter trying to win the heart of a Spanish girl – that he finally found his calling. He was perfectly suited to the dual roles of a romantic Irish ballad singer and a comedic stage actor. Olcott now clearly saw his path to stardom.
A Star is Born
In 1893, Olcott caught a break. At that time, America’s leading Irish tenor was William J. Scanlan, star of the play Mavoureen. But the handsome, angelic-voiced Scanlan suffered from early dementia, which forced him to retire at the young age of 37. Augustus Pitou, the producer of Mavoureen, urged Olcott to take Scanlan’s place. Within days, Chauncey proved to be an audience favorite and his reputation spread far and wide. Even President Grover Cleveland became a fan of Olcott, and arranged for him to dine and sing at the White House. Pitou had promised Olcott that he would transform him from an ordinary opera singer into an Irish star. He certainly kept his promise.
Mavoureen was just the beginning for Olcott on his meteoric rise to fame. Over the next three decades, he would be the lead actor in at least 20 major plays. Along the way, he helped transform the roles that Irish-American male actors played, as well as how Irish-Americans were portrayed in the American theater. Prior to the 1890s, Irish male characters, often “Paddy,” were stereotypically depicted as drunks, fighters, mischievous and lacking in intelligence. These persistent stereotypes dated back to the Elizabethan-era theater and followed the Irish across the Atlantic to the American theater. As the audience of Irish-American theatergoers grew, however, they rejected these stereotypes and demanded something different.
Actor and Composer
In a 1909 interview, Olcott explained his life’s mission in the arts as “trying to help the world along with the genius of Ireland.” Detailing the numerous accomplishments of the Irish in all aspects of life, he felt the negative theatrical stereotypes denied the Irish an equal place in America. He went on to outline how the Irish were not inferior to other groups:
The Irish gentleman is as fine an ideal as his British, French, or German counterpart; the belle of wealthy Irish society will compare with her sister in New York, London or Paris; the village priest is as interesting, benevolent, and devout as any of the clerical roles which have been drawn from other lands.
With the help of writers from Tin Pan Alley in New York City, Olcott played an important role in changing the image of the stage Irishman. One historian claimed he perfected it. Olcott worked with songwriters and playwrights such as Ernest Ball, George M. Cohan and Rida Johnson Young to create songs and plays with themes aligned to his vision. In 1897, he married Rita O’Donovan from San Francisco, a fellow theater enthusiast. She played an important role in his career and they collaborated on several plays. She was also the inspiration for at least one of his biggest hits: “My Wild Irish Rose.”
Chauncey helped popularize the genre of Irish romantic comedies and sentimental operettas with Irish themes. The plays he wrote or starred in were often infused with comedy, often taking place in the pre-Famine period to avoid focusing on the humiliation of the Famine and years after. The scenery and costumes were rich and beautiful. The Irish hero was often cast opposite a British or Anglo-Irish character who was attempting to swindle him. Of course, the Irish hero – who was often handsome, witty and sentimental – always triumphed and won his blue-eyed colleen. In later years, Olcott starred in plays focused on a romantic longing to return to an idyllic Ireland.
As an actor, Chauncey was considered good, not exceptional. He was, however, an excellent singer, and was known both in the US and in Europe as “the Irish Tenor.” Newspaper writers and reviewers also referred to him as “the Irish Thrush,” describing his “silver tongue” or “golden voice.” There were other great Irish ballad singers in his day, but Chauncey stood out for being multi-talented. Not only did he write songs that emotionally connected with his audience, he sang these songs in a manner that mesmerized them, while also charming fans with his acting and comedy. Reviewers noted the multiple encores demanded after his performances, or described how the audience wept as he sang songs such as “Mother Machree.”
Some of the plays in which he performed enjoyed exhausting two-year runs. As an example, between 1908-1909, he starred in his play, Ragged Robin, which toured 66 cities across the US and Canada in an era before air travel. In some cities, he performed on multiple nights. By 1909, it was estimated that Olcott appeared in 3,000 stage performances and had entertained over seven million people. He kept up this hectic pace for close to 30 years. Buffalo and Lockport were obviously regular stops on his theater tours, where he performed in front of sold out crowds at Peter Cornell’s Star Theater in Buffalo and the 2,000-seat Hodge Opera House in Lockport. When he was in town, he also spent time performing recitals in private residences. Not surprisingly, most Western New York newspapers claimed he was one of the area’s favorite actors.
Singer and Songwriter
Unfortunately, there is neither film of Chauncey’s acting nor extant copies of many of his plays. Instead we remember him through the songs he wrote or helped popularize in his plays. Hit songs, such as “My Wild Irish Rose” and “Mother Machree,” were among his compositions, and co-wrote the lyrics to “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” He also introduced and made famous several of the classics of the Irish-American canon. Olcott was associated with songs such as “I Love the Name of Mary,” “Where the River Shannon Flows,” “A Little Bit of Heaven” and “Tis An Irish Girl I Love.” His recording of James R. Shannon’s “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ra (That’s an Irish Lullaby),” hit number one for a short period in 1913.
In fact, his songs often reached number one on the music charts: “My Wild Irish Rose” in 1899, plus “Mother Machree” and “I Love the Name of Mary” in 1911. “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” enjoyed its number one ranking for the entire year in 1913. And for the entire decade of the 1910s, his rendition of “My Wild Irish Rose” ranked as the 6th biggest hit. In his day, Chauncey was so famous, his name even appeared in the lyrics of a 1904 number one hit song called “Bedelia,” written by William Jerome and Jean Schwartz. The chorus of the song began with:
Bedelia, I want to steal ye,
Bedelia I love you so,
I’ll be your Chauncey Olcott
If you’ll be my Molly O’
Chauncey amassed a fortune from the sales of his songs and his box office success. He and Rita owned a beautiful townhouse in a section of Manhattan near the East River (worth about $8 million today). Chauncey also owned a writing studio in New York City where he composed his songs. The Olcotts wintered in, and eventually retired to, their villa in Monte Carlo overlooking the Mediterranean. While there, they travelled in style in a Rolls Royce, complete with driver. They also owned a large estate in Saratoga Springs, NY, where they spent their summers. The estate was surrounded by beautiful gardens, which included a replica of the Irish cottage where his mother was born. Non-musical passions included golf, horse racing and gardening. He and his wife also accumulated an important collection of early American antiques and furniture, as well as medieval tapestries, ceramics, paintings and a fine library. Olcott’s name was so well known that he even received product endorsements. The W. Mulford & Sons cigar company named their number-one-selling cigar after him, while his name also appeared on playing cards, trays and other memorabilia.
Perhaps as a result of his humble beginnings in Buffalo, Chauncey remained grounded throughout his stardom. He was a generous man even while enjoying the finer things in life. During World War I, he donated half of his earnings to the war effort and performed in charity benefits. Olcott also hosted an annual fundraiser in New York City to benefit the Franciscan friars and travelled to Buffalo to offer free fund raising concerts for Holy Angels Church on Porter Avenue. The childless Olcotts also adopted a young girl and piano prodigy, named Janet, whom they met at a Catholic girls’ academy in Monte Carlo.
Death and Legacy
On October 30, 1925, while playing his dream role of Sir Lucius O’Trigger in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals, Olcott fell ill and wasn’t expected to survive. He eventually recovered, but it was the last time he appeared on stage. Almost seven years later, Chauncey finally succumbed to his chronic bout with pernicious anemia at his Monaco villa in the early hours of March 18, 1932. It was a fitting day for the Irish tenor to expire. As some of his friends observed, due to the time zone difference, it was still St. Patrick’s Day back in Buffalo and New York City. As the revelers made their way home, possibly humming Olcott’s “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” or “My Wild Irish Rose,” no one yet knew that the Irish legend would be forever silent.
His obituary in The New York Times credited Olcott with creating a new stage style that included weaving Irish melodies into plays. The writer went on to say that Chauncey was “perhaps as widely known as any player on the American stage.” The Buffalo Courier declared him the premier singer of Irish ballads. In addition, The Irish-American Advocate claimed, “no Irish actor ever reached the pinnacle of popularity that he did, and no Irish singer (with the exception of John McCormack) ever had the heart-appeal of the Irish people as strongly as Olcott.”
Olcott remained in the public eye for some time after his death. In the 1930s, the legendary Irish tenor John McCormack brought Olcott’s songs to a global audience, while Bing Crosby kept them alive during the 1940s, on the radio and in movies. Crosby’s recordings and performances of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” “My Wild Irish Rose” and “Mother Machree” cemented them into the mainstream of American popular culture.
At some point after World War II, however, Olcott began to fade from public memory. This is due, in large part, to the fact that the type of theater in which he performed fell out of favor. To keep his memory alive, his wife wrote his biography, A Song in His Heart. Years later, in 1947, Warner Brothers produced an Oscar-nominated film starring Dennis Morgan called My Wild Irish Rose – a biopic of Olcott’s life based on Rita’s book. Chauncey is perhaps the only Buffalonian who has had a major Hollywood movie devoted entirely to his life. Interested listeners can also hear his voice on digital recordings online or by purchasing old vinyl records.
In 1970, Olcott was posthumously inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. The Recording Industry Association ranked Olcott’s recording of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” as one of the greatest songs of all time. They placed it ahead of songs like Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa” and Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are a Changin’.” Recently, in his native Buffalo, there have been a few memorials erected in his honor. A granite plaque is embedded on Elmwood Avenue near Bidwell Parkway on the Buffalo Cultural Walk of Fame, and a carved, wooden statue of Chauncey Olcott fittingly resides in front of the Irish Center in South Buffalo. In 2016, New York State Senator Tim Kennedy initiated a resolution in the New York State Legislature honoring the life and legacy of Olcott for his contribution to our nation’s rich cultural life.
Chauncey Olcott’s songs and melodies will continue to be sung and listened to for generations to come. While Olcott would be pleased to know that he continues to entertain people, he would be prouder of his efforts at changing the image of the Irish – both on the stage and off. Perhaps something grander should be done to commemorate this golden-tongued tenor and entertainer who was born in a Buffalo stable, raised in a working-class family and reached such great heights in the world of American entertainment.
South Buffalo native Chauncey Olcott entertained audiences with his songs and musical productions, simultaneously changing the nation’s perception of the Irish.
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