Rosa Rio, 107

Rosa Rio, 107; organist went from silent films to soap operas and back again

(St. Petersburg Times)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010

Rosa Rio, the last of the original silent-movie organists, gave her first professional performance in 1912, when she was 10. William Howard Taft was president.

In August, at the age of 107, she was still at the keyboard in Tampa, providing accompaniment for a screening of Buster Keaton's silent film "One Week." The movie was made in 1920, when Miss Rio was already a seasoned musician of 18.

Miss Rio's 97-year career in show business came to an end May 13, when she died at her home in Sun City Center, Fla. She was less than three weeks shy of her 108th birthday. She had broken her hip in March and developed an infection and influenza, but in the past week, she was still practicing at home on her nine-foot concert grand piano.

After moving to Florida in 1993, Miss Rio provided live musical accompaniment to dozens of silent films at the historic Tampa Theatre, reprising what she had done more than 80 years earlier, when the movies were new.

In the 1920s, after studying in a program on the subtle art of film accompaniment at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., she took a job for $40 a week at a theater in Syracuse, N.Y.

"I worked every day from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.," she said in 2006, "and I thought I was the luckiest girl in the world."

She performed in ornate movie palaces with giant Wurlitzer organs that could produce a magnificent sound, like trumpets and thunder, all at once. The organs, which dramatically rose out of the floor of the stage, had foot pedals, three keyboards and hundreds of stops, buttons and tabs to produce a startling array of sounds. These dramatic musical effects allowed Miss Rio create an aural illustration of the film.

In 1927, she was working at the Saenger Theatre in her native New Orleans when Al Jolson appeared in the first movie with sound, "The Jazz Singer."

"One day Al Jolson comes in and sings 'Mammy,' and I'm out," she recalled in 2006.

Miss Rio continued working at the Fox Theater in Brooklyn, N.Y., and at the Loews Burnside Theater in the Bronx before becoming the staff organist for NBC in 1938. She was the only woman working in an orchestra with 100 men. At times, the hazing went overboard, and one time an announcer unbuttoned Miss Rio's blouse while she was playing. Undaunted, she got even by pulling down the broadcaster's trousers as he read a commercial on live radio.

At her busiest, Miss Rio performed on 13 separate programs, dashing from one studio to another to perform the themes and incidental music for programs that included "The Shadow" with Orson Welles, "The Bob and Ray Show," "The Goldbergs" and no fewer than 24 soap operas.

"Rosa was an absolute dynamo," Skitch Henderson, the former NBC music director, said in 1999. "She was the only organist I ever knew who could really improvise . . . and had a fantastic knowledge of the instrument."

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