History of Calliope

1970s: Calliope House – The Beginning

Drawn away from a career in academia by a love of traditional folk music and instrument-making, in 1976 Calliope founder George Balderose purchased and renovated a 100-year-old grand Victorian house at 1414 Pennsylvania Avenue in the Manchester neighborhood of Pittsburgh’s North Side. The house soon became a vital place for local folk musicians to gather (and sometimes live) and trade verses, melodies, and ideas.

At a friend’s suggestion, George began to host house concerts in his living room. Interest in traditional music was strong in the U.S. at the time of the Bicentennial, and small quiet venues in Pittsburgh were scarce. The house takes on a name – Calliope House – a nod to both the steam instrument and the ancient Greek muse of instrument-making and epic poetry.

Presenting both regional and nationally based artists, Calliope hosted 135 house concerts by the time the series ended in 1985. Word of the house concerts was spread by a newsletter, tickets were $3 (rising later to $5), and the crowds typically numbered 30-60, seated on maroon velvet pew cushions on the living room floor.

Shortly after its inception, Calliope House became incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and appointed its first Board of Directors, its slate of members consisting of both professional and avocational musicians. Of the time, George Balderose remembers, “There was a spirit of cooperation, a spirit of sharing … There were medical students. There were doctors who were involved too, and college professors … but everyone seemed to realize the value and the power of folk music.”

By the end of the 1970s, Calliope had begun presenting concerts to larger audiences around Pittsburgh, at venues such as Pitt’s Frick Fine Arts Auditorium, Carnegie Lecture Hall, and the Third Presbyterian Church, and Calliope organized the first Smoky City Folk Festival at the Pitt Student Union.

1980s-1990s: The Smoky City Folk Festival

With support from the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts, the Smoky City Folk Festival found a years-long home at Schenley Park’s Flagstaff Hill. The free weekend-long event, powered by volunteers, featured outdoor concerts as well as workshops and square dances. Over the years, folk luminaries such as Pete Seeger, Odetta, and Tom Paxton performed from the festival stage, alongside numerous notable Pittsburgh-area musicians and dancers.

After the loss of Flagstaff Hill’s elm trees and their precious shade, in 1995 the festival migrated to Downtown Pittsburgh and was held in conjunction with the Three Rivers Arts Festival. Hartwood Acres, South Park, and the Edgewood Club played host in the event’s later years. To this day the Smoky City Folk Festival remains a treasured Pittsburgh summer memory for its attendees and participants.

Calliope continued to expand its reach and evolve as an organization. In the mid-1980s, the group relocated its center of operations from Calliope House to offices on the third floor of the Lawrenceville Library and in 1987 moved from an all-volunteer workforce by hiring its first paid Managing Director, with support from The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments. Besides the Smoky City Festival, Calliope presented a number of folk concerts throughout the year, adding venues like Penn Café, Stephen Foster Memorial, Synod Hall, JCC, and the nightclubs Graffiti and Rosebud to its rotating roster of performance spaces.

1990s-2000s: The Calliope Concerts Series and the Calliope School of Folk Music

The various concerts presented by Calliope around town crystallized as a subscription series in the early 1990s. The series grew out of what had become the Smoky City Folk Festival’s tradition of inviting a nationally known musician for one evening of the event, extending such programming year round. The series settled in at Oakland’s Synod Hall, later moving to the acoustically pristine Carnegie Lecture Hall, its present home, in the mid-1990s.

Also stemming from the Smoky City Folk Festival and its workshops, during this time the Calliope School of Folk Music was founded. The school offered – and continues to offer – small-group instruction in a wide range of traditional instruments as well as jam sessions, songwriting, dance, quilting, and other arts. Over the years, the school has nourished the music-making and participation in heritage arts of over 4000 students, both experienced and novice.

In what many will acknowledge as the low point of Calliope’s history, the organization faced a grave financial management crisis in the late 1990s, with the board ultimately forced to take over operations.  Fortunately, in time accounts were put back into order with minimal disruption to the group’s activities, and the organization survived to see the new millennium.

2000s to Today: Calliope in the 21st Century

Calliope’s most recent decades have seen the amplification of the society’s vision, with the continuation of the Calliope Concerts at the Lecture Hall and the School of Folk Music, augmented by numerous workshops, collaborations, and outreach events. At the end of the 1990s, long-time volunteer Donna Isaac was hired as Office Manager, and Patricia Tanner first as Managing Director then as Executive Director. With the addition of Lisa Alexander as PR & Marketing Manager and bookkeeper Judy Lightner, this quartet of dedicated women made up Calliope’s staff lasting well into the 2020s. After Lightner’s retirement, steadfast Finance Manager, Lynette Garlan was brought on to the team.

Calliope revisited its house concert roots in the early 2000s, presenting intimate acoustic shows at the First Unitarian Church in Shadyside. From 2009 to 2015, Calliope sponsored the Emerging Legends Series at the Cup and Chaucer in Pitt’s Hillman Library, which showcased local musicians during lunchtime performances.

In 2011, Calliope renovated an event space in the basement of the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and christened it the Roots Cellar. The Roots Cellar Series brings both master musicians and rising stars to its stage for intimate performances in a club-like atmosphere.

The Covid pandemic of 2020 brought challenges no one expected. The organization had to pivot to online music and resources to keep performance and teaching opportunities available to both local and national artists and to keep the community connected. The RootsCellar@Home series began at this time presenting artists far and wide right into people’s homes.

The aftereffects of the pandemic required Calliope to change venues. The first in-person concerts were a new series, The Schenley Summer Series presented in partnership with Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. These evening, free-to-the-public concerts featuring local artists were a great way to welcome back audiences outside on summer evenings.

We presented two seasons at the historic Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty, and in 2023, we presented our concert series at the newly-built City Winery Pittsburgh in the Terminal building in the Strip District. The Calliope School of Folk Music was moved to the Winchester Thurston School in Shadyside and began to expand.

Spring of 2024 saw the retirement of two longtime staff members, Patricia Tanner and Donna Isaac. Lisa Alexander was promoted to Operations Director, and Alyson Bonavoglia was brought on board as Executive Director.

Decades since its start, Calliope is still the premier presenter, educator, and community-builder of folk music in Western Pennsylvania, presenting performing artists of national and international reputation, rewarding audiences with experiences of music rarely presented elsewhere in our region, while also enabling people to make their own. We thank you for your support!