Few get to meet the woman who plays the most unusual - and loudest - instrument in New Orleans. French Quarter Journal goes behind the scenes and up top of the Natchez to watch Debbie Fagnano in action.
- story by Rheta Grimsley Johnson
- photos by Ellis Anderson
She has the largest audience of any musician in New Orleans and has for 30 years.
When Debbie Fagnano negotiates the steep steps to the tiptop of the Steamboat Natchez three times each day for 15-minute concerts, the entire French Quarter hears her calliope. To perform, she wears earplugs.
Blue skies, smiling at me…
“I always start with a weather report,” Debbie says as passersby look up in delight from the riverbank at Toulouse Street Wharf and begin to sway and clap. Some dance. The sky is indeed blue, and the air crisp.
Before the music can begin, Debbie must turn the stubborn valve that releases that steam that puffs through 32 whistles, a different one for each note, making each note played visible. Colored bulbs light up for their respective notes as well.
Roll Green Wave, roll them down the field….
“It’s a piece of plumbing,” she says. But, oh, what a sound. To stand near the calliope the earplugs are a necessity, and one must watch out for the plumes of steam. The proximity, however, is intoxicating, a ticket to time travel and circuses and state fairs and fetes of yesteryear.
Hold that tiger, hold that tiger….
Debbie varies her play list almost unconsciously. Today both LSU and Tulane have big games. Veteran’s Day will mean all patriotic music and Sousa marches. “People still cheer for ‘God Bless America.’”
Some songs sound better on the limited keyboard than others, and Debbie knows her business. “When the Saints Go Marching In” is a winner. “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” is one of her favorites, too.
Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans….
That one she’d play, standing alone at her keyboard, crying, after Hurricane Katrina took the boat out of regular service, until finally it was back in business.
Debbie, whose marble green eyes and satin olive skin reveal her Italian heritage, grew up in a musical family in New Jersey. When she was small, she visited a young friend’s house and asked her where the piano was, “because I thought all households had pianos!”
Debbie’s life has always had a soundtrack. She came to New Orleans on vacation in 1978 and fell in love with the music-infused city. She studied music education and has played and taught piano and organ most of her adult life. Debbie is Music Director at her church, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Belle Chasse.
She even married Al Hirt’s bass player, Jim Black. The couple lived in Houston for eight years but in 1988 moved to New Orleans. Debbie became a pianist in Hirt’s band. Later Debbie and Jim divorced but their son, Gene Black, is a New Orleans bass and drum player. He sometimes plays the Spotted Cat, which has a piano in the ladies’ room. Debbie once sat in the restroom merrily accompanying the band, unbeknownst to them.
But she had no formal training for the calliope. She had seen it being played and thought she could play it as well. One week, when the regular calliope player was sick, she volunteered to take over for him. He never returned.
That was three decades ago, and her job puts Debbie in an exclusive club of perhaps only a dozen calliope players in the nation. The substitute gig has become her life. She fondly remembers playing “Happy Birthday” for the six-year-old, Steven Nicoulin, who grew up and now captains the Steamboat Natchez.
Debbie could play her short, pre-voyage concerts and go home, take a rest and return for the next round. Instead, whenever she can, she rides the river excursion, eats with the passengers, enjoys the view. After all, this is a steamboat that has had as passengers President Gerald Ford, Vanna White, the Vienna Boys Choir and Snoop Dogg, to name just a few celebrities listed on a salon plaque.
“I never wake up in the morning and wish I didn’t have to go to work. I have a church mode and a boat mode, but sometimes I combine the two.”
At 65, Debbie has had a few health challenges that she mostly managed to take care of in the month of January, when the boat is in layup. She’s had two knee replacements – both during January layups – but still scrambles up to the pilothouse and its deck with spunk, if not ease.
The river rides are never the same. Once a man chartered the boat to propose to his sweetheart. The food and beverage workers had to wear tuxedoes. Another onboard proposal had to be narrated by Debbie, on the intercom. A Jackson Square wedding ended with a coordinated calliope rendition of “Going to the Chapel.”
After each performance, Debbie Fagnano takes a short bow and waves to acknowledge the part of her audience she can see.
“I’m always mindful that the entire French Quarter can hear the calliope,” she says, which inspires her to vary her playlist and to limit the performance to 15 minutes. An exception: after Katrina she’d sometimes play for an hour, just because it brought some normalcy back to the city, and to her.
“I had strangers tell me that when they heard the calliope, they knew things were going to be okay.”
French Quarter Journal editor Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a veteran reporter and former syndicated columnist for King Features Syndicate of New York. She is the author of eight bookseditor, including "Poor Man's Provence; Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana" and "Good Grief," the only authorized biography of "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. She is the recipient of the Ernie Pyle Memorial Award and the National Headliner Award for commentary. Contact her at editor@FrenchQuarterJournal.com.