Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Chauncey Olcott

Yes, Chauncey Olcott was a real person! I always love the parts in the high school Betsy books where each September, as a kind of autumn ritual, her family goes to hear the Irish tenor perform in the Deep Valley Opera House.
    Chauncey Olcott came to Deep Valley in his play, Aileen Asthore. Mr. Ray took the family to hear him. Usually Betsy saw her rare plays at matinees with Winona who had passes because her father was editor of the Deep Valley Sun. but once a year when Chauncey Olcott came, she went to the Opera House in the evening with her parents.
    The Irish tenor was growing old and stout, but his swagger was as gallant as ever, his voice as honey sweet. Always in the course of the evening the audience made him sing a hit song of earlier years called, "My Wild Irish Rose." At the end of the second act when he came out to take his curtain calls, someone in the audience would shout, "My Wild Irish Rose," and others would take up the cry. Chauncey Olcott would laugh, shake his head, make gestures of protest, but the cries would continue, and at last the curtain would got up again, and he would hoist himself a trifle heavily to a table or bench, and the orchestra would being the much-loved song.
    Mr. Ray would take Mrs. Ray's hand then. Julia, Betsy and Margaret…whose eyes were blazing like stars in the excitement of going to the Opera House… would settle back to enjoy each honied note.
    "Of course," Julia said to Betsy afterwards, "that isn't great music."
    "Why, the idea!" cried Betsy. "If that isn't great music, I'd like to know what is."
    "Grand Opera," answered Julia.
    "Like that Pagliacci you sing?"
    "Of course. But Chauncey Olcott is a sweet old thing."
    "A sweet old thing!" Betsy was indignant. She and Tacy agreed that Chauncey Olcott was the finest singer in the world.  (Heaven to Betsy, 125-126)
As happened every September Chauncey Olcott came to the Opera House and Mr. Ray took the family to hear him. … This year's play,  was called O'Neill of Derry. But the name didn't matter much. The play was always like last year's play, and probably next year's too. They were all laid in Ireland, they were full of plumed hats, high boots, laced bodices; and the Irish tenor, still handsome although stoutish, always sang the ballad he had earlier made famous:

"My wild Irish rose,
The sweetest flower that grows…"

    When he began Mr. Ray always took Mrs. Ray's hand, and the girls sat very still, not to miss a note or quaver. Even Julia enjoyed it, although she infuriated Betsy later with condescending remarks.
    "Chauncey Olcott," she said, "should really have done something with his voice."
    "Done something!" Betsy repeated. "Done something! He's made himself famous with it. What do you call doing something?"
    "He might have sung real music. Oh, Bettina, you must hear Mrs. Poppy's records! You must hear the really great ones…Caruso, Scotti, Melba, Geraldine Farrar…"
    "Chauncey Olcott," said Betsy stubbornly, "is good enough for me." (Betsy in Spite of Herself, 399-400)
I love Betsy's staunch loyalty here. :)

So, who was Chauncey Olcott? Here is a bit of information on him from Wikipedia:
Chancellor "Chauncey" Olcott (July 21, 1858 – March 18, 1932) was an American stage actor, songwriter and singer.

Born in Buffalo, New York, in the early years of his career Olcott sang in minstrel shows and Lillian Russell played a major role in helping make him a Broadway star. Amongst his songwriting accomplishments, Olcott wrote and composed the song "My Wild Irish Rose" for his production of A Romance of Athlone in 1899. Olcott also wrote the lyrics to "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" for his production of The Isle O' Dreams in 1912.

He retired to Monte Carlo and died there in 1932. His body was brought home and interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx.

His life story was told in the 1947 Warner Bros. motion picture My Wild Irish Rose starring Dennis Morgan as Olcott.

In 1970, Olcott was posthumously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
I thought it was interesting that Lillian Russell was mentioned here, as she also pops up more than once in the Betsy-Tacy series. (Stay tuned for a post on that.)

Here is a recording of Chauncey singing his famous "My Wild Irish Rose." This particular copy sounds a little creaky, though, and I would recommend visiting this link at the Songwriters Hall of Fame for a clearer excerpt of the song. 

What do you think? I kind of like his voice, and I can see why it would be such a memorable experience for the Ray family to hear him in person.

I was unable to hunt down a copy of the 1947 film about Olcott's life, but I did find this part of a scene from the movie. Dennis Morgan plays the main character. Perhaps this was like the shows that Betsy and her family saw each year? 

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