IU calliope to make rare appearance in CarmelFest parade

The CarmelFest parade will have a unique visitor when Indiana University’s historic calliope makes a rare appearance.

“The Carmel parade will be the first time we’ve taken it to a non-Indiana University campus since it’s been restored (three years ago),” said Stefan Davis, a retired IUPUI administrator.

Davis was asked if he would head up the restoration of the calliope, an instrument resembling an organ that creates sounds with steam whistles, for the Indiana University Bicentennial in 2020. For the last three years, he’s supervised its rebuilding and has been responsible for its outings.

“We’ve been restricting it to just IU campuses,” Davis said. “It’s been in Bloomington a couple of times a year, IUPUI and been to South Bend, the Southeast campus and Gary.”

Davis, an Indianapolis resident, said the calliope was likely in storage at IUPUI for the last 15 years before being restored in 2016.

Davis always travels with the calliope, which is stored in Indianapolis. Davis, who was previously executive director of the IUPUI Office of Alumni Relations and associate vice president of the Indiana University Alumni Association, retired four years ago and came back part time to take on special projects.

“We have a crew out of Louisville and a guy out of Peru, depending where we are that play the instrument,” he said. “One of the guys out of Louisville is an engineer, so he knows how to operate it. I go along for things like making sure there is a place to find water for the water tanks to fire the boiler. (I’m) just around to make sure everything goes smoothly with it.”

The steam calliope was rescued from the university’s showboat ,“The Majestic,” when it was sold in the mid-1960s. It was previously used to accompany productions by the IU Theater Dept.

“The circus wagon was built for the U.S. bicentennial and (they) installed the calliope inside that,” Davis said.

It then was often used at the Indianapolis 500 parades or IU home football games in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

“It was still horse-drawn at that point,” Davis said. “There is a challenge with the horses because you have to have specially trained horses that won’t buck when they hear the sound (steam-powered whistles). You can hear the sound for 3 miles. We are only aware of two horses trained like that in the Midwest. It’s become cost-prohibitive to use them. We leave it in the trailer and use it in parades that way.”

Davis said the calliope will perform a concert after the CarmelFest parade.

“It plays all sorts of music,” Davis said. “It’s not like a piano keyboard, so the music has to be scored to fit that keyboard. It plays the IU fight song and ‘Back Home in Indiana.’ He plays ‘Phantom of the Opera” on it. It’s got a wide range of songs. One person operates it and one person plays.”

Davis has one caution.

“If it’s raining, we won’t be there, unless it’s just sprinkling,” he said. “There is all this circuit board material used to fire the boiler.”

Davis said pouring rain at IU’s homecoming parade last year knocked out all the circuits.

“We are trying to figure out a way to cover the circuits so they don’t get wet and it can keep playing in a parade,” Davis said.