A Costume for Playing Calliope

Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

Carole Mullen

Catalog Number: 1994.094.01

Local piano teacher Juanita Beck’s spangled violet pantsuit helped to put people who came to hear her calliope in a festive mood. With silver stripes, loops of gold sequin beading, a matching pillbox hat, and a treble clef and “Juanita” on the jacket back, the costume went well with the ornate circus wagon housing Juanita’s calliope.

Beck’s vibrant costume was sewn by local seamstress Della Schultz in 1956, and it was donated by Schultz to the La Crosse County Historical Society in 1994. The fitted violet jacket and pants probably were considered daring for a woman in the mid-1950s.

A pantsuit was practical for Beck for a couple of reasons. First, it wouldn’t get in the way while she was seated inside the small wagon the way a fashionable crinoline would have. Second, Beck had a limp and wore a metal leg brace, which the pantsuit concealed. Her limp was caused by unsuccessful surgery after injuring it while chasing one the Palomino horses that she and her husband, Brownie, rode in parades. One of her later costumes, an old-fashioned fuchsia gown with matching picture hat, accomplished the same objective.

Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

By the time her violet pantsuit was made, Beck had been playing calliope for many years. She and her husband, Brownie, acquired the former Ringling Brothers calliope in 1946, along with a circus wagon once used as a monkey cage. Joseph Schoenberger of Hackner Altar Co. was commissioned to carve six wooden mythological scenes that were attached to the wagon holding the calliope.

The restoration of calliope and wagon took a few years, but by 1949 Juanita and Brownie Beck were on the road with a colorful calliope wagon drawn by eight pygmy mules.

Over the years, they hit the circuit of Midwest parades and festivals, dazzling spectators with circus nostalgia and the potent draw of Beck’s calliope playing. She was quite the trooper, playing song after song inside the hot, steam-filled wagon. Many remember her calliope playing as the much-anticipated finale of the Oktoberfest Maple Leaf Parade.

After Brownie’s death in 1980, Beck continued to play calliope in the Maple Leaf Parade for another decade, and she taught piano lessons almost until her death in 1993.

In the late 1960s she had made a record of her calliope playing, “Calliope Capers,” also preserved at La Crosse County Historical Society.

Beck was justifiably proud of her music on a difficult instrument, and on copies given to friends she signed the record, “Try and forget me now.” But for those who heard this talented local musician play, Beck’s calliope made her hard to forget.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on December 16, 2017.

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