BMHOF Class of 2017
Each year on March 17th, St Patrick’s Day celebrations sweep through Buffalo. Buffalonians don’t realize it, but as they lift a pint and raise their voices to “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” they are also celebrating a native son, John Chancellor “Chauncey” Olcott.
Olcott, who was born in South Buffalo on July 21,1860, was a songwriter, singer, actor and producer in the late 1900s and early 20th Century, deemed “the leading Irish-American performer of his day,” by W.H.A. Williams in his book, “Twas Only an Irishman’s Dream.”.
According to his New York Time obituary, Olcott was educated in the Buffalo Public Schools and made his first public performance at the Academy of Music here in 1880. The Niagara County Historical County’s page about Olcott says that he appeared with Emerson and Hooley’s Minstrel Company in Chicago in 1879 and the next year joined Haverly’s Mastodons while they were in Buffalo.
Within a few years he had left minstrelsy behind and was cast in the 1886 Broadway production, “Pepita,” co-starring with Lillian Russell – one of the biggest stars on New York’s theatre scene for a generation. He followed with a pair of Gilbert & Sullivan roles in New York.
Ironically, Olcott only truly polished his Irish accent when went to London to study music. He wound up with an Irish role there that prompted him to take his first trip to Ireland to enhance his accent. In New York, he soon took over for W.J. Scanlan, the foremost Irish singer and actor of the day, in “Mavourneen,” a long-running New York production and made it his own.
His two most notable songs were written for the theatre in New York as he expanded to writing and producing. He co-wrote “My Wild Irish Rose” in 1897 for “A Romance of Athlone” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” for “The Isle of Dreams” in 1912. Olcott also did some of the earliest recordings of those songs.
Among his other standards were “Mother Machree” and “I Love the Name of Mary.” He also introduced the song “Too,Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral (That’s an Irish Lullaby)” in 1913 for the play “Shameen Dhu.”
Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart,” got her start in the Olcott production “Edmund Burke,” playing the part of Lord Bertie.
Olcott became known as the foremost Irish tenor of his time and became a rich man doing it.
A Times review of “Romance in Green” from 1907 showed just how popular he was. “Mr. Olcott was an immense favorite,” it read. “After singing one of his new songs, “One Little, Sweet Little Girl,” bouquets were showered on him by admirers in the boxes and orchestra seats, whereupon the soldier of fortune in warlike garments (he was playing a soldier) stooped and gathered in the flowers.”
A hit song in 1903, “Bedelia,” contained the verse, “I will be your Chauncey Olcott, if you will be my Molly O.”
When Warner Brothers produced a film musical version of Olcott’s life (based on a biography written by wife, Rita) in 1947, the Times referred to Olcott as “The Frank Sinatra of 1900.”
He was also a founding member in 1915 of the American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).
Olcott was inducted into the national Songwriters Hall of Fame’s initial class in 1970.
He was a regular in the theatre and society pages for almost 35 years. He maintained homes in New York City (17 Sutton Place) , Saratoga (a property named “Inniscarra”) and Monte Carlo.
He gave up performing after health issues arose in 1925. Olcott died in the early hours of March 18, 1932, in Monte Carlo, when it was actually still March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day – in New York City.
His funeral at St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York was attended by over 3,000 people, and Fifth Avenue was briefly closed for two blocks to accommodate more mourners. George M. Cohan, John McCormack, New York Mayor Jimmy Walker (who had an Irish Setter named Chauncey Olcott) and former New York governor and presidential candidate Al Smith were among the honorary pallbearers.
Chauncey Olcott was laid to rest on Hickory Knoll at Woodlawn Cemetary in the Bronx.