This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

Chauncey Olcott's Rose Garden

18 April 2014

My dog can sing. She's in tune in any key. She's even a good dancer. But she's just an amateur compared to this dog, who was a genuine star of the musical stage. She belongs to the  man gallantly tipping his hat —  Chauncey Olcott — the most famous Irish tenor ever to be not born in Ireland.

This cabinet photograph was produced by Launey of New York City in about 1894-97 to promote Chauncey Olcott,  a new leading actor of Broadway's  theater world. His full name was Chancellor John Olcott, and he was born in Buffalo, NY in 1858. His early musical career began as a ballad singer in traveling minstrel shows, but in 1890 he moved to London to take voice lessons and there he appeared in a few music hall productions.

On his return to New York in 1892, he joined the cast of an Irish themed play called Mavourneen, as a replacement for the actor, W. J. Scanlan, another noted "Irish" tenor who was actually born in Springfield, Massachusetts. Like Scanlan, Olcott sang romantic songs as part of his Irish character, and at some point came up with the novel idea to add his St. Bernard to the cast list.

Dogs work cheap. 

A man of many talents, by 1896 Olcott was writing his own songs to include in his new shows, and they proved to be big hits with the public. The music industry of New York City's Tin Pan Alley was reaching new heights by publishing the latest songs and dances, as it seemed no American household was complete without a piano or a reed organ. Chauncey cleverly cultivated this offstage Hibernian persona to reflect the Irish characters he played on stage. Though his family roots may have originated in Ireland, his spirit of self promotion was all-American, and his celebrity helped to define the stereotypical image of the Irish American in American culture.       

In September 1902, Leslie's Illustrated Weekly Newspaper, featured an article called Pets of Popular Players, which included a bit on Chauncey and his other dog. I say other, because the St. Bernard that is pictured is much larger and has a darker face than the one pictured in my photo.

Leslie's Illustrated Weekly Newspaper
Volume 95, September 25, 1902

If "laughter is God's greatest gift to man," then Mr. Chauncey Olcott and his big dog "Prince" are certainly a gifted pair. When they laugh together, if the world doesn't laugh with them, "it is not to laugh" and the world is a sorry place. "Prince" and Mr. Olcott are co-stars between whom there is absolutely no professional jealousy. They even "dress together," and that is saying a most marvelous thing. A dressing room may be ever so spacious, but it is never quite large enough to hold the dignity of a star, and to crowd that dignity — well, I guess not! 
But  Mr.  Olcott and "Prince" are not like that. "Prince" finds the most comfortable place in the room,  where he stretches out and licks and prunes himself while Mr. Olcott turns himself into Garrett O'Magh, or some other Irish laddie of a century since, singing as he does so, little Irish love tunes sotto voce, to which "Prince" whines an approving accompaniment. "Prince" has been an actor so long that he knows the ropes as well as anybody. He knows what the "half hour" and "fifteen minutes" calls mean, and when "overture" is called he invariably gets up and walks to the dressing room door looking back expectantly to see if his master is coming. "All right, old chap. Wait a minute — curtain is not up yet," says Mr. Olcott, and the dog lies down and watches the crack under the door. In some of Mr. Olcott's plays "Prince"  has appeared so often that he has come to know his cues and never has to be led on nor called off. 

The money that Olcott's fame and success provided, allowed him to indulge in a life style that was a long way from his Buffalo origin. According to a book entitled Eminent Actors in Their Homes: Personal Descriptions and Interviews by Margherita Arlina Hamm, Chauncey and his dog kept residence in three homes: a handsome apartment in New York on West 34th Street near Fifth Avenue; a music studio near North Washington Square; and a summer place in Saratoga Springs, NY.  This house was named Inniscarra after the title of one his first big plays - Sweet Inniscarra. and became a very popular postcard image.

This card from 1907 shows the back of a typical two story New England Colonial house that by modern standards seems rather modest, but to Olcott's fans it must have appeared a palatial estate. Note the quaint covered well which resembles the studio prop in Olcott's photograph. 

The veranda of Chauncey's house looked out onto a formal garden pictured on this card postmarked in 1906. Saratoga Springs was another spa town like Mineral Wells, TX which was the location for my story last week. But this spa is much older and dates back to 1776. The geology of this area just north of Albany, NY created a mineral water that was credited with great medicinal powers. Entrepreneurs established dozens of different wells in Saratoga Springs, each claiming that their water had beneficial qualities that would cure various maladies and ailments that doctors could not. Naturally when combined with its pleasant summertime climate, Saratoga Springs became the summer playground of the wealthy and elite society people of New York.

The photographer for this view of Chauncey Olcott's rose garden must have stood in the upstairs bedroom window. This postcard was mailed in 1907 and like the other two, was published by a company in New York but printed in Germany. I don't know if the house and gardens were open to the public, but these cards represent only a few of the dozens of different postcards made of Olcott's home. Judging by the hundreds of similar postcards available on eBay, it was clearly a very popular choice of tourists at Saratoga Springs for many years. Curiously I have not found any postcards of Olcott himself, as most of his publicity material seems to be cabinet card photo reproductions from around 1895-1905. 

Chauncey Olcott
Source: NYPL Digital Gallery

This image from Launey Studios was probably made at the same time as the first photo. The dog, (whom I have nicknamed Princess as what else could it be?), is posed reclining with her master on a suitable Gaelic rock. It also proves that she was a real dog and not some photographer's taxidermied mutt.

Between 1899 and 1921, Chauncey Olcott is listed as a composer, lyricist, and/or performer in over 18 Broadway plays. I don't think it would be correct to call them musicals. Perhaps melodramas with music gives a better idea of their style. Most theaters in this era employed orchestras to accompany the plays, and having a character sing a love song was typical of how these light theater shows promoted their stars. 

  UPDATE: November 2015 

Thanks to a generous reader I have been given another photo of Chauncey Olcott
who is posed with an artist's easel and painter's palette.
There is no dog but Chauncey wears the same stripped vest as in the first photograph,
so it was probably taken to promote the same play.
Would a modern actor promote themselves as a romantic lead in this way?
Portrayals of sensitive artists are not common anymore.   

Chauncey Olcott
Source: NYPL Digital Gallery

This image shows Chauncey with his other dog, Prince. Like the previous photo it was found at the digital archives of the New York Public Library. I wonder if Prince had any speaking lines in the plays.

Today we can't escape reading or hearing about celebrities in every kind of media. It was no different 100 years ago, when Fuel Magazine: The Coal Operators National Weekly printed this amusing story in its edition from May 17, 1910. 

Got Him Going and Coming
Chauncey Olcott is somewhat conscience stricken – a rather unusual thing for an actor – and the cause of his remorse came about in this way:
One afternoon while he was rehearsing his company in his new play, Ragged Robin, at the Broadway theater New York, a young man whom he had noticed in conversation with two other men in front of the theater left his companions and crossing the street said:
" I beg your pardon but are you Chauncey Olcott?"
"No," responded the comedian, "I'm his brother."
"Then I lose my bet," exclaimed the stranger, darting in front of a car and rejoining his companions.
Mr. Olcott saw him hand one of the men a bill, and not wishing the stranger to lose his money, he started in pursuit to explain, but there was a rush of traffic at the moment and he lost sight of them.
An hour or so later Mr. Olcott was walking up Broadway when the same young man approached him with another man.
"Are you Chauncey Olcott?" asked the man.
"Yes, I am, and I want to say that when I told you a little while ago I was not I didn't know you had a bet on it."
"Well, I'll be blowed!" exclaimed the stranger. "That's two bets I've lost on you this afternoon. I just bet 'Jim' here a five spot that you weren't Chauncey Olcott, and I thought I had a cinch." And he turned and walked dejectedly away.

Source: Courtesy of the Irish Fest Collection,
Ward Irish Music Archives, Milwaukee Irish Fest

Of the many songs that Chauncey Olcott wrote, Mother Machree, When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, Goodbye, My Emerald Land, the Wearers of the Green, this one – My Wild Irish Rose – may be his most memorable. It is one of the reasons that Olcott was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, which includes his name with the other great composers of the Tin Pan Alley era, men like Geroge M. Cohan, Sigmund Romberg, and Irving Berlin.


The song was written in 1898 after a suggestion from Olcott's wife, Margaret and it featured in Chauncey's play A Romance Of Athlone in 1899. He would sing it many more times, including on a recording he made in 1913. We can hear his voice, courtesy of this video on YouTube. The dog is there too but unfortunately they don't sing a duet.  

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The website Irish Sheet Music Archives has a long list of songs written by other composers who tried to find a rose by some other name, but none would achieve the same lasting success as Olcott's song.
  • I Am Dreaming Of My Irish Rose
  • I Want An Irish Rose
  • Little Connemara Rose
  • My California Rose 
  • My Emerald Isle Rose
  • My Galway Rose
  • My Killarney Rose 
  • My Irish Rose
  • My Little Irish Rose
  • My Irish American Rose
  • My Rose Of Erin's Isle
  • My Rose Of Old Kildare
  • My Rose Of Tipperary
  • My Sweet Derry Rose
  • My Wicklow Primrose
It occurs to me that the Chrysanthemum is a neglected flower when it comes to songs. Someone should look into this, as they smell just as sweet. 

Chauncey Olcott died in Monte Carlo on March 18, 1932 – St. Patrick's Day. It would be hard to find anyone else who made such an important and lasting contribution to Irish-American culture.

In 1947 he received the ultimate Hollywood tribute with a bio-pic movie musical called My Wild Irish Rose. It was directed by David Butler. and starred Dennis Morgan and Arlene Dahl. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 1948, and has a colorized trailer which is a fabulous example of how movie trailers once used
instead of explosions and car chases to grab the attention of movie goers. About halfway through there is a very brief glimpse of  why this 1940s film no longer shows up on classic film lists.

I wonder if there is a dog in it.

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This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone is out working in their garden this weekend.


Wendy said...

There's a lesson in there -- never bet on an Irishman (or someone resembling an Irishman!). HA. That was a funny story.

La Nightingail said...

That poor betting fellow couldn't win for losing. But for heaven's sake - that's the second time in two weeks Dennis Morgan's name has come up & this time with a movie trailer to tease. As I mentioned last week, I sang with Dennis in a church choir after he retired from the movie business & he gave me some of his music and I, being a soprano, & he, a tenor, I've sung some of the pieces he gave me in concert. He did have a wonderfully rich tenor voice.

Brett Payne said...

Not just big words, but lots of them. I guess for many of us English colonials that whole Irish-American influence seems far more on the fringes, but of course to North Americans it is very prominent.

Anonymous said...

I like the way you've been able to link roses into this weeks post with your marvellous postcard collection to develop the theme. Makes me wish I'd been a post card collector. I certainly don't agree about chrysanthemums smelling sweet as roses though!

Jo Featherston said...

Fascinating! I'd never heard of Chancey Olcott before, but he was clearly a very accomplished fellow. I can see why the movie is off the list too.

Anonymous said...

You don't have to be Irish to enjoy those lovely Irish melodies. I'd forgotten about that film so I've just downloaded it and tomorrow night will sit and watch it and smile. Thanks. It will be so much more interesting after all that you've told us about Chauncey

Susanna Rosalie said...

Maybe his wife was Irish! :)

You've inspired me to watch the movie. And I will watch out for a dog!
But one thing is puzzling me: sorry, I don't understand the hint about the movie being off the list for classic films. I assume it has to do with the black painted minstrel?

Postcardy said...

The names of his songs sound familiar, but I hadn't heard of Chauncey Olcott before. It would be fun to watch that Wild Irish Rose movie on St. Patrick's Day.

Kristin said...

Can't imagine a singing dog.

Alex Daw said...

I always wondered what Chauncey was short I know!

Karen S. said...

Wow, a wonderful new story me. I just adore a man in a hat with his dog nearby! Beautiful photos!

Little Nell said...

An enjoyable and educational, post. An entertaining anecdote and some great sepia photos, all accompanied by music and BIG WORDS!

Tattered and Lost said...

This was grand. I do hope nobody ever read the review without knowing the writer was talking about a dog. The line " where he stretches out and licks and prunes himself" might have caused great confusion.

Thanks for teaching me a little something special about the man who wrote so many memorable songs. I had no idea.

Again, Sepia Saturday teaches me something new.


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