One very famous person with family ties to Niagara County was Chancellor John Olcott, more commonly known as Chauncey Olcott. He was known throughout the music world for his contributions as a composer, singer, and actor. Olcott’s musical career actually began when he was very young.
Chauncey Olcott’s mother was born in Ireland and came to America and he later described his home in Lockport as “an Irish shanty” on the banks of the Erie Canal. The “Irish shanty” was located on the West Genesee Street next to the Clifford Lumber Company lumberyard. Some Lockport residents recalled times when Chauncey was hoisted onto a table at the Washington Hose firehouse on Church Street where he would sing Irish ballads. After the death of his father, his mother remarried and the family moved to Buffalo where Chauncey attended public school. His maternal grandmother continued to live in the “Irish shanty” on West Genesee Street where Olcott would spend his summer vacations.
In 1879, at the age of 19, Olcott appeared with Emerson and Hooley’s Minstrel Company in Chicago. The next year he joined a group called Haverly’s Mastodons in Buffalo and they opened with Billy Emerson’s Minstrels in San Francisco. Chauncey was very successful in the minstrel shows, but because of the special quality of his light lyric tenor voice, theatre managers encouraged him to sing Irish ballads and take leading roles in plays, operas and operettas.
In March 1886, Chauncey Olcott made his New York City debut at the Union Square Theatre as Pablo in Pepita. Later he starred in The Old Homestead, Pinafore and The Mikado. In 1890 he went to London where he made stage appearances and studied voice for three years. Even after appearing on the stage in New York and London and touring extensively, Chauncey Olcott returned to Lockport several times for appearances at the Hodge Opera House.
Olcott collaborated in composing many Irish ballads, but probably his most famous song, “My Wild Irish Rose,” was his own composition. Other Irish ballads that he made famous were “Mother Machree,” “A Little Bit of Heaven,” “Sure They Call It Ireland,” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” After Chauncey’s death in 1932, a motion picture was produced entitled, “My Wild Irish Rose,” as a biography of his life. Honorary pallbearers at his funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City included James J. Walker, mayor of New York City; Alfred E. Smith, governor of New York State; and George M. Cohan, and other famous personalities from the music world.
Douglas Farley, Director
Ann Marie Linnabery
Erie Canal Discover Center
24 Church St.
Lockport NY 14094