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A real blast from the past

Irwin Arnstein
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          Irwin was sending information in for a fellow Bolter's GMC and, in the info exchange, he  commented that the temps in Texas were 101 and he was heading over to the Age of Steam Railroad Museum in Dallas, Texas to lay 36 pave stones for the steam calliope that he plays. "Huh?" I asked.  Here we thought he was just a regular Stovebolter with a '59 Chevy 1-Ton. What a neat surprise and we thought you'd enjoy it -- especially since we have a lot of railroad fans amongst our Bolters.  ~~  Editor


A Stovebolt Music Man

 
        The local newspaper refers to Irwin as the "Music Man of North Texas." He is a volunteer at the Age of Steam Railroad Museum in Dallas, Texas and he plays the steam calliope at the State Fair and on weekends.  In the clip from a news piece (it's a big file so it may be a slow download - but it's great!), he is playing a 1905 calliope that he restored himself.  It weights 3-400 pounds and he is pressing on keys with 25 inches of steam pressure!  The calliope came off the Golden Rod Show boat.  There are only five or six playable calliope in the United States.

        Irwin says, "The good thing about the steam calliope was that you can hear it two miles away.  And the worst thing is that you can hear it two miles away."

        About such notoriety, Irwin says, "The media is full of superlatives. There are far more that are far better."  

        Irwin has a few different ‘sets’ he plays on the calliope, such as Americana (patriotic music), popular music (standards, mostly from the swing era), folk music, and light classics. Stuff you would expect to hear on a calliope. If he gets ambitious, he’ll try to play Light Cavalry Overture or Can-Can by Offenbach. But those have a lot of notes and he says it's hard to squoze them into two and half octaves.

        Pressing on these huge keys with 25 inches of steam pressure, I figured he must have strong hands! "Yeah, you do build up your hands.  I have since gotten the pressure down to around 10 psi, but still, it’s a real bear to play.  I got Holman Boiler Works to donate a different regulator, but haven’t gotten it to work right and hope to get a consult this week. I just fitted this big Spence valve-regulator-thingy on to make it play better but its not quite working right. (new bit) Bill Erickson who donated the Spence valve brought me new stainless steel diaphragms for it and now the regulator works just fine and has greatly improved the play of the instrument."

        "Even so, there is still a great deal of pressure on the keyboard and most of my friends and other musicians can’t last more than a few minutes before their hands are burning.  I usually play it 15-20 minutes at a time, but often I drive everyone away within 5-10 minutes.    It will take a few days before I am able to play without any of pain.  And without the hearing protectors, I wouldn’t be able to play the calliope as it has an ear-splitting volume level when you stand next to it.   I had always heard that heavy metal will make you deaf…"

 

Can't stray from his Bolt

    Irwin is just an all-around famous kinda guy. That's no relation on the cover of the magazine but that is his '59 "baby" in the background!

 

        "If I am not playing the steam calliope, at least I can pull one. Here’s my friend Bill Flynt (right) with his 1923 Tangley Circus air calliope getting pulled by Big Red – my '59 Chevy 1-ton. As it turns out, the granny gear in the SM420 4-speed is perfect for parade mode as the truck would just idle along and pull the calliope without a hitch.

        "This was the Thanksgiving Day parade in Rowlett Texas, a northeast suburb of Dallas. Last year I played Bill’s air calliope in that same parade. I couldn’t go 200 feet without a compliment on the truck or an offer! I just top coated the truck with Delstar Fire Engine Red and left over Delstar White from my zebra jeep project.

 

        "I also just had signs made on the side of the truck that read:

Irwin Arnstein Inc.
Photography – Audio Recording – Computer Repair and Consulting Musician – Light Hauling – Garbage Removal

 

The story of this calliope

        The calliope was built in approximately 1905 by T. J. Nichol Company with the whistles and brass bits coming from the William Kirkup Foundry. It was obvious to me that the instrument was played regularly as the brass keys had considerable wear and 'dishing' from the various fingers that have brought it to life.

        Alexander P. Clark bought the instrument from Captain Menke in October 1939 for the princely sum of $300. As I understand it, Mr. Clark played this and another calliope at various events, but that’s all I know of Mr. Clark’s playing.

        In 1992 Mr. Clark was getting on in age and his family wanted him to get to play the instrument at least one more time. They contacted the Age of Steam Railroad Museum’s Executive Director Bob LaPrelle and asked if they could hook up a calliope to our 40 hp boiler (generously donated by the Holman Boiler Works to operate the steam whistles when removed from our engines). Permission was given and they came out with a very nice 36-note steam calliope and hooked it up.

        I was working on restoring the interior of our MKT Dining car at the time (I am pretty sure of that) and they told me Mr. Clark was coming out and that I ought to try the calliope. I asked if I could play and Mr. Clark said sure. I am a self-taught jazz / swing player so that when I look at music, I only want the chords and melody and I will do my own arrangements on the spot. This is how one plays from a fake book.

       As it turns out, that is what you really need to play the calliope because instead of the 88 notes of a piano, you only have 32-36 notes of the calliope and you have to fit the song into those notes. The calliope Mr. Clark brought out had two and a half octaves, plus F, G, A, B base notes. I sat down at the calliope and found it quite fun (and LOUD) to play. I started playing everything and anything I could think of including stuff like "The Stars and Stripes" and even "Bach’s Toccata in D minor." Mr. Clark also played more as well, but he didn’t remember that many songs.

        The family packed up the calliope and that was that. I forgot about it as did everyone else.

        Well, in 2002 the family called the Museum, asked for Bob, and inquired "Say, is that guy who played the calliope about 10 years ago still out there?” Bob said "Yes, Irwin Arnstein still volunteers at the museum."

        “Good, then we’d like you all to have Mr. Clark’s second calliope as Mr. Clark has passed away.”

        What a stroke of kindness and good luck! I could hardly believe that they remembered my noodling around the calliope from 12 years ago (as I didn’t!). A couple of museum volunteers, the Phelps brothers, drove up to the east coast to get the instrument and brought it back to Texas. I then started cleaning the thing up, and repairing the action. I had a local machine shop mill the pivot rail as the keys hung off at various angles based on how much the key had been played. I also added brass ‘shoes’ to the keys which were also cut by the pivot rail so that we’d have a renewable wear surface. I spent a lot of time getting the ‘action’ sorted out enough to play. The action and play of the calliope went from execrable - to miserable - to adequate - if you compare it with almost any other keyboard-based instrument.

        That work got the calliope good enough to play for the past two Texas State Fairs and I have been continuously trying to improve the general play of the instrument through various regulators provided by Holman Boiler Works. It was through the incredible generosity of the Alexander P. Clark family that many people will now get to hear the shrill and thrilling sounds of a genuine steam-powered calliope.

        Think back to a time when there were no amplified musical instruments. You are sitting on your porch near the mighty Mississippi and you hear a tune wafting through the woods. You race down to the river to see what’s going on and watch the Golden Rod sail down to the docks with the calliope playing a cheerful tune. The calliope, no doubt, served to bring people to the river boat to trade and to take in the shows.

        I believe Mr. Clark’s other calliope, the one pictured with him playing in 1992 (above), went to the Circus Museum in Wisconsin.

 

History of The Golden Rod
Information from the 1951 book Showboats by Philp Graham

       The Golden Rod was built in 1908-1909 by the Pope Dock Company for W. R. Markle. She is 200 ft. long and 45 ft. wide. (The largest showboat ever built.) She had 21 boxes on two levels clustered about the stage and all around the front of the balcony. Her capacity was 1,400 (later cut to under 1,000 to avoid certain additional taxes). On the outside she was very plain, the least ornate of all the showboats. But on the inside, she was the most highly decorated of them all. Ceilings and walls were studded with 2,500 lights clustered in intricate designs. Gilt friezes and highly wrought brass decorated balcony and box railings. Draperies and upholstery were of red velour, and the floor was richly carpeted. Full length mirrors exaggerated the size of the spacious auditorium. The stage was large and was elaborately decorated in frieze and gilt and was equipped with three drops and eight sets.

        Markle used his unlimited credit to install every convenience known to the River. At first she was called W.R. Markle`s New Showboat, but his sister suggested the name Golden Rod. A special steamboat (The W. R. Markle) was built to do the towing.

        In 1913, Markle lost the Golden Rod by foreclosure. (He was a gambler and lost all his money.) She was sold at auction for $11,000 -- less than a fourth of the original cost. Markle, who had set new standards for the showboat world, got a job in Pittsburgh on the waterfront, as a night watchman for $10 a week.

        In 1922 the Golden Rod was purchased by Capt. Bill Menke. With steam heat for the winter and a cooling system for summer, she played a 12-month season. The Golden Rod received so much publicity as "The World`s Greatest Showboat" that they did not need to advertise much. A simple announcement of her arrival in the local papers, and framed posters set up on the wharf or nearby street were all they needed. The steamers; [1912] Liberty, [1894] Wenonah, and Crown Hill successively towed the Golden Rod.

        During the summer of 1930 she was tied up above Aspinwall, Pennsylvania (at the Montrose Hotel, in O`Hara Township) for a stand of 17 weeks. In 1931 she was back for 17 more weeks. In the summer of 1937 she went to St. Louis for repairs, and there she stayed at the Locust Street Landing. (She was still there in 1951 when this book was published.)

GOLDEN ROD plays Pittsburgh
From 1930, July and August issues of the Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph and Post Gazette

        While in Pittsburgh, in July of 1930, the GOLDEN ROD docked at the Montrose Hotel Landing on the Allegheny River. July 21st, the season's opening play was "Tilty Ann." This was preformed by the boat's regular company of show boat actors. Cast for this season: Misses Grace Robertson, Charlotte Vetter, Marie McLain, Messers. Frank Anton, Carl Replogle, Roy Sheets, Raymond Rameau and Clinton Cole. August 12th, the "The Hoodlum" opened. August 17th, "Lena Rivers" opened. August 24th, "Driven From Home" opened.

GOLDEN ROD Moves to St Charles, Mo

        By 1988 the Goldenrod needed extensive repairs. The city of St. Charles bought the showboat from Pierson's heirs and moved it to St. Charles in 1990. Ample Entertainment Inc., a group of celebrated Broadway producers who have won more than 25 Tony awards, leased the Goldenrod and conducted extensive repairs. The Goldenrod's premiere St. Charles performance was on May 10, 1991. Today the Goldenrod Showboat continues its prestigious tradition of presenting quality dining and professional entertainment year round.

v December 2005


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