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The unique sounds of the Calliope

The unique sounds of the Calliope
Posted at 6:40 PM, Jun 26, 2024

HELENA — On a sunny June day in Helena, Frank Kuntz Jr’s fingers glide across the 44-key calliope, welcoming in the sunny warm days with the hoots and whistles of the sounds of summer.

"The sound of summer time it really is because when you hear it coming you would you just go 'Wow! Ahh,'” said Kuntz.

The Calliope is a uniquely American instrument, created in 1855 by Joshua Stoddard.

From about 1970-1977, his father Frank Kuntz Sr., an electrician by trade, built two Penelope Calliopes in his basement.

The two instruments were passed down to Frank Jr. and his brother.

Penelope Calliope 1.JPG

During her heyday, the sound of the air-powered American instrument could be heard for miles during Kuntz Jr.’s performances.

The Penelope made numerous performances at state fairs, parades, ballrooms, and malls. Kuntz himself even had an opportunity to play a calliope aboard the Delta Queen steamboat.

“It's considered the first over the air advertising the beginning of over the air advertising, because it would come down the river and Mississippi River and in the old days and and people knew when the show was coming to town because you could hear 10 miles up the river,” said Kuntz.

Not only was this instrument featured in concert halls and venues throughout the country, but it also made a feature in a Kuntz Bros. Films in the 30-minute special known as "The Penelope Gang."

“It’s bringing joy. You know, it’s happy sounds and joyful sounds and just for the sake of laughter,” says Kuntz.

These days the Penelope and her sister mainly sit in storage in Helena and Colorado. But it still comes out for a few select performances.

Penelope Calliope.JPG

Kuntz is hoping that someday the instrument will live on after he’s gone, to be featured as an American relic that brings joy to all those who are lucky enough to hear its unique sound.

“We thought we'd like to find an organization or someone a place for it that someone is willing to store it and maintain it,” says Kuntz.

If you want to hear the calliope for yourself, it will be out and playing at the East Helena Rodeo parade on July 13th.