The Herald-Times: Calliope Returns for IU’s Homecoming Parade

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Calliope returns for today’s parade

By Michael Reschke 812-331-4370

 Oct 14, 2016

A new chapter will be added to the odd history of the Indiana University calliope Friday when the giant steam organ makes its way up Woodlawn Avenue for the 2016 IU Homecoming parade.

Those not familiar will the calliope, which was featured in parades across the state from the 1970s to the early 2000s, will easily be able distinguish it from the other 60-some parade entries because of the recently refurbished circus wagon in which it’s housed. However, they’ll probably hear it long before they see it.

On most days, the calliope’s 32 steam whistles can be heard from about 3 miles away, said Stefan Davis, executive director emeritus in the office of alumni relations at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

“On one of those clear-sound days, it can be up to 5,” he said.

This will be the first time the public has heard any sound from those whistles in years. With the exception of an appearance at the Indiana State Fair’s IU Day in the mid-2000s, the calliope has been in storage for more than a decade. Then, Davis got a call from IU Alumni Association CEO J Thomas Forbes.

“He was interested in beefing up the IU-B homecoming parade,” Davis said. “This is a piece that used to be in the parade and played at home games for many years.”

Long before the calliope was vibrating the eardrums of IU football fans, it was announcing the presence of the showboat Majestic as it traveled up and down the Ohio River.

Named after the muse for beautiful sound in Greek mythology, the calliope was patented by Joshua C. Stoddard in 1855. It was originally intended for use in churches, but became a common feature of showboats on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

The IU calliope was housed on the Atta-Boy, the tow for the showboat Majestic, which was launched in 1923 in Pittsburgh. According to IU archives, the Majestic brought theater to towns in the Ohio River Valley for years until Capt. Thomas J. Reynolds, at the age of 80, retired and put the riverboat up for sale. IU’s 11th president, Herman B Wells, read an article about the sale of the Majestic and sent a copy to Lee Norvelle, head of IU’s Department of Speech and Theatre. After inspecting the vessel, IU purchased the Majestic, the Atta-Boy and the calliope for $30,000 in 1959.

The IU Theatre Department performed on the showboat for five seasons before the Coast Guard deemed it unsafe for travel. The boat was moored in Jeffersonville, where the IU Theatre Department performed on it for two more seasons. In 1967, the boat was sold to the city of Cincinnati for $13,500, but IU kept the calliope.

The instrument was placed in storage until the country’s bicentennial in 1976. Circus buff and Herron School of Art and Design professor Robert Weaver built a circus-style wagon to house the calliope.

All together, the 6-ton monstrosity was pulled by a team of horses at events all over the state, such as the Indianapolis 500 Festival and St. Patrick’s Day parades in Indianapolis. A propane-fueled boiler turned hundreds of gallons of water in three tanks into steam. Then, an operator used a 32-key keyboard to release that steam through the calliope’s whistles, making people for miles in each direction aware that the IU calliope was in town.

“You had to have specially trained horses who can deal with the shrill sound of the instrument,” Davis said.

With only a few places in the Midwest training horses in such a way, the animals were eventually abandoned for more modern means of propulsion. A video on YouTube shows the IU calliope moving through the 1997 Indianapolis St. Patrick’s Day parade on a flatbed truck. That’s how the instrument and circus wagon were transported around the state, until fuel prices began to skyrocket in the early 2000s.

Eventually, small towns decided the cost of fuel and two drivers — as well as the two-person crew used to fire the boiler and keep it running while someone manned the keyboard — was too much. So once again, the calliope and its carriage were put in storage.

After all those years, it wasn’t exactly ready for the road when Forbes contacted Davis about bringing it back for this year’s parade.

“Well, it was a big old mess is what it was,” Davis said.

Plaster sculptures were disintegrating. A wheel hub was broken off. Wood had dry-rotted and the piping had sat unused. Davis contacted Baker Mechanical Services out of Indianapolis to give the whistles a tuneup and Tim Puro with Monroe Furniture Restoration LLC to fix the wagon.

Puro partnered with Jeff Stafford, who owns a furniture restoration business in Indianapolis, to strip the 16-foot long wagon down to its steel frame and replace it with new wood. It was painted cream, and Sports Graphics of Indianapolis provided a vinyl crimson wrap.

The restoration process was funded by an IU Bicentennial Grant, but Davis couldn’t provide a total price.

“I have no clue,” he said. “All the bills haven’t come in yet, but I can tell you, it’s not inexpensive.”

In addition to the IU Homecoming parade, which starts at 6 p.m. at Seventh Street and Woodlawn Avenue, the calliope will be playing in the Green Lot south of the IU tennis courts from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Saturday, prior to the homecoming football game against the No. 10-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers.

While the calliope will serve as reminder of days gone by for older Hoosier fans, Puro encouraged everyone to come out and take a look at the unique piece of history.

“It’s a big deal,” he said, laughing. “How many calliopes are there in the Big Ten? Probably just one.”

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