Crew Spotlight: Martha Gibbs, Calliopist

Martha Gibbs spent years dreaming of playing the calliope aboard the Belle of Louisville and, in 2005, that dream came true when she auditioned and became a calliopist! As one of only two female calliope players in the United States, Martha holds the unique job of playing songs on the Belle’s calliope before cruises, a tradition that dates back to the early 20th century. In this Crew Spotlight chapter, we interview Martha to learn more about her unique role and the unique tradition of playing the calliope.

How long have you worked with Belle of Louisville Riverboats?

I always loved to hear the Belle’s calliope in my earliest days living in Louisville. The sound was just so exciting and wonderful. Every time I drove past the Belle, I would think to myself that I would LOVE to have the job. I was so excited when my son called to tell me that he had just read the Belle was looking for a calliope player. The next day, I auditioned for the job and signed the employee papers. That was in June 2005 and I have been the calliopist for the Belle of Louisville since that first summer season. Is it really my 18th season that I have enjoyed playing the calliope?!

What are some of the important responsibilities of your job?

I play the calliope during the one-hour boarding time for each cruise, but that varies depending on the type of cruise and people involved. I play for weddings, charters, special parties, as well as all public cruises.

As people begin to board, the passengers are interested to know what I am doing and what the small brass and copper, 2-and-a-half octaves keyboard that I am playing is. Some have never heard of a calliope and are very interested to know that the music they hear is actually the steam from the engine room traveling up and blowing through the 32 pipes on the roof of the Belle. I love telling people that the calliope was used on the steamboats during the early 1900s to announce that there was a boat coming into town. This was long before the internet or cell phones, so when people heard the calliope, everyone ran to the river to welcome the steamboat into town.

In your opinion, what is the best aspect of your job?

Besides loving to play the calliope, I have met so many interesting people from all over the world who are visiting Louisville and enjoying a cruise on the Belle of Louisville. I love telling them about the calliope and asking them if they have a request for a certain song that they would like me to play for them on the calliope. I also love learning new pieces to try on the small keyboard. It is so nice to be appreciated when a group of passengers gather around to listen to their favorite songs and following my playing with an applause.

What does a typical workday look for you?

I am usually scheduled to play three or four times a week, sometimes more if there is something special going on. I play for all public cruises and some charters, weddings, reunions, etc.

Before playing, I check with the fireman to be sure there is enough steam, then check in the engine room to ask them to open the valve which runs steam up to the calliope. Then I head on up to the Texas Deck where the calliope keyboard is. I play for one hour during boarding before all public cruises. When I’m not actually playing the calliope, I have time to talk to the passengers. They ask about the small brass and copper keyboard that I play and I show them the picture of the actual calliope up on the top deck. I take requests if people ask me to play their favorite song. My job is so much fun and I enjoy meeting people from so many walks of life.

What is the most unique aspect of your job?

As far as I know, there are only two female calliope players in the U.S. The other player is Debbie, who plays the calliope on the Natchez Steamboat in New Orleans. I’ve met her a few times and she calls me her “calliope sister.” After hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, they brought the Steamboat Natchez to Cincinnati and on the way, made stops to give cruises and raise money for Katrina help. Since Debbie was not able to come with the boat, I was hired to play the cruises in Cincinnati for several days. I loved playing the calliope on the Natchez.

What is your favorite memory of working with Belle of Louisville Riverboats?

There are so many wonderful memories that I have, it would be hard to mention them all. However, probably going to Tall Stacks in Cincinnati in 2006 was a real experience. It is a steamboat festival where so many steamboats are present lined up on the Ohio Riverbank. Also, the 100th birthday celebration of the Belle was so much fun in 2014. But just meeting so many wonderful people has probably been my most meaningful memory of all. And the Belle crew is just like my second family.

Having the opportunity to work on the oldest operating Mississippi River-style steamboat in existence is such an honor and being able to carry on the playing of such a unique and rare musical instrument is so amazing to me. I am continually grateful for my job with the Belle of Louisville Riverboats.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I am so grateful for the opportunity to play music for the Belle of Louisville Riverboats and consider the staff and crew part of my family.

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