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Singin' o' the green Some of the most popular Irish songs were penned by one of Buffalo's own

From Dublin to Denver today, they'll be wearin' green and singin' songs written by someone who grew up in Buffalo, far from the land of the Shamrock -- or the Rockies, for that matter.

Yes, Chauncey Olcott, who authored "My Wild Irish Rose," perhaps the greatest of Irish ballads, and co-wrote "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" and other St. Patrick's Day favorites, is one of our own.

Born in 1860, before the Civil War, Olcott starred on the national stage as a composer, singer and actor from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, when Buffalo's other songwriting legends, Harold Arlen and Jack Yellen, were still in their baby clothes.

Because his career faded before the advent of sound recordings, radio, talking movies and television -- not to mention the Internet -- he never gained the global celebrity that lesser talents seem to have no trouble finding nowadays.

Joe Crangle doesn't remember the name Chauncey Olcott, but he sure remembers "My Wild Irish Rose."

"When I hear that song," the former county Democratic chairman recalls, "I think of how my mother -- Peg McNutt from Ireland -- made my twin sister Betty Ann and me sing Irish songs to guests whenever they dropped by the house. It was a command performance. They all loved it -- at least, they appeared to love it."

Though Olcott's musical history was chronicled in a screenplay written by his widow after he died in 1932, details of his earlier life remain sketchy. No family members are known to remain in Western New York.

Chancellor John "Chauncey" Olcott's mother, Margaret, was born in Ireland and crossed the Atlantic with her family when she was 8. After living briefly in Montreal, they moved to Lockport in the 1840s -- just as immigrants fleeing the great Irish potato famine began arriving on America's shores.

According to Lockport historian Clarence "Dutch" Adams, the family lived in what Chauncey later described as an Irish shanty along the Erie Canal on West Genesee Street, next to a sawmill.

A newspaper story from the era reported that after his mother married Mellon Whitney Olcott in Lockport, they moved to Buffalo, where Chauncey was born on July 21, 1860.

After Mellon Olcott died, Margaret married Patrick Brennan, who was chief engineer of the Buffalo Water Works. They lived on West Avenue between Rhode Island Street and Massachusetts Avenue.

Chauncey Olcott attended Buffalo public schools and spent summers at his maternal grandmother's "shanty" in Lockport. People later remembered him, as a youngster, singing Irish ballads in the Washington Hose firehouse on Church Street.

In 1879, the 19-year-old Olcott appeared with Emerson and Hooley's Minstrel Company in Chicago. The following year he joined Haverly's Mastodons in Buffalo, and they opened at Drury Lane Theatre in London.

In October 1881, he joined Billy Emerson's Minstrels in San Francisco. He did well in the minstrel genre, but his light lyric tenor voice proved perfectly suited to Irish ballads and leading roles in plays, operas and operettas. In March 1886, Olcott made his New York City debut as Pablo in "Pepita" at Union Square Theatre. He later starred in "The Old Homestead," "H.M.S. Pinafore" and "The Mikado."

In 1890, he returned to London, where he made stage appearances and studied voice for three years. Even after ascending to stardom on the New York and London stages and touring extensively, Olcott returned to Lockport for several engagements at the Hodge Opera House, according to Clarence Adams.

Olcott collaborated on many Irish ballads, but "My Wild Irish Rose" was his own.

Margaret O'Donovan Olcott once recalled that, during a visit to Ireland in 1898, the year after their wedding, a boy in County Cork gave her a flower. Asked what it was, he replied, "Sure, it's a wild Irish rose."

She placed it in an album, and one day when her husband was trying to dream up a song title, she opened the book and pointed to the rose.

He co-wrote "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" with Ernest Ball and George Graff Jr. Of course, that last tune has another verse that is always on countless lips come March 17:

When Irish eyes are smiling, sure 'tis like a morn in Spring

In the lilt of Irish laughter, you can hear the angels sing

When Irish hearts are happy, all the world seems bright and gay

And when Irish eyes are smiling, sure they steal your heart away

In November 1925, while touring in "The Rivals," Chauncey Olcott fell seriously ill and never appeared on stage again.

After his death in 1932, Margaret Olcott wrote "Song in His Heart," a biography of her husband that was made into a motion picture, "My Wild Irish Rose," released in 1947. Margaret Olcott died at 70 in 1949, in the LeRoy Sanitarium.

News Staff Reporter Anthony Cardinale contributed to this report.

e-mail: tbuckham@buffnews.com

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