Penelope Calliope

By Beacon Staff

I met Frank Kuntz a few months back when we were both engaged to perform at a community theater production. Pianist, performer and entertainer, Frank is like the proverbial onion, a man of many layers. But it wasn’t until I was looking through some old Bigfork parade photos that I realized his true significance to the community. This was the guy who owns and plays the circus calliope!

You don’t see many calliopes any more. A variation of the pipe organ, their pipes are better characterized as whistles and most of the early ones ran on steam. Invented in the mid-19th century, they were popular on the steam-powered riverboats of the time. Not only were they able to run on the steam readily available from the engine room, they provided an amazing level of volume that effectively announced the arrival of a boat more than half an hour before it actually arrived.

I found Frank and his calliope, which is named Penelope, outside the workshop of his manicured cherry orchard just off Highway 35 about 12 miles south of Bigfork. I helped Frank raise the cover over Penelope and watched as he carefully inserted each of the 44 numbered brass pipes into the oak cabinet and removed their protective canvas covers. I’d seen a calliope and heard one before, but I’d never touched one. Frank started the generator that powers the calliope. It sounded a lot like a power lawnmower and I wondered how you could make music with all that background racket.

Frank sat down at the keyboard and donned a pair of ear protectors. No, not the little foam things you stick in your ears – real ear protectors, the kind you wear to direct jet airliners across the tarmac. Then he struck a note. The air was filled with the happy sound of George M. Cohan’s song, “Grand Old Flag,” and I understood. I understood why he wore ear protectors, why the generator’s sound was completely irrelevant, and what it really means to make, as he refers to it, “a joyful noise.”

Early steam calliopes were found on steamboats and at circuses. Steam boilers had a tendency to explode, though, which made air calliopes more popular for use in populated environments. A steam calliope on, say, the New Orleans Delta Queen, ran on 40 pounds of steam pressure and could be heard for 10 miles upriver. Yet, as Frank describes his air calliope, with just one pound of air pressure, it can still be heard clearly for a quarter mile in every direction.

The Penelope Calliope was a labor of love by Frank’s father, Frank Sr. Frank Sr., an electrical contractor by trade, had the opportunity to restore a friend’s aging calliope that had fallen into disrepair. The end result was a working calliope and a bite by the calliope bug that made him want to build another from scratch. Seven years of research and development later, he unveiled Penelope in 1977, a 44-pipe air calliope.

Calliopes, in concept, are a simple collection of whistles and valves connected to an organ-like keyboard. But they vary in materials, construction and craftsmanship. Frank Sr. started with a collection of brass pipe stock and a metal lathe, cutting each pipe to length, meticulously tuning it, and creating the internal working mechanisms on his metal lathe. In the end, Penelope, with her shiny brass pipes and stained oak console, was as much a work of art as an instrument of music.

Two years after completion, in 1979, Penelope made her debut performance at the Texas State Fair, an event that began a decades-long career of fairs, circuses, grand openings and other engagements where Penelope made “a joyful noise” for everyone within a quarter-mile of her placement. Frank Jr., a master calliopist, music educator and entertainer, appears with Penelope whenever the opportunity presents itself. He’s written a booklet of family history with Penelope that includes a collection of ten original compositions for the circus calliope.

You may contact Frank at pianolope@hotmail.com and learn more at his website FrankKuntz.com. If you happen to catch one of his performances, you’re welcome to sing along but you’ll have to sing loud!

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