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

(St. Petersburg Times)

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Between radio jobs, Miss Rio was the accompanist for singer-actress Mary Martin, had her own radio show and was friends with many musicians and composers, including Cole Porter. But by 1960, radio and television studios no longer needed orchestras and organists to provide incidental music, and she moved to Shelton, Conn., where she taught piano, organ and voice.

In the 1980s, when silent movies were being formatted for videocassette, Miss Rio was called on to compose and perform soundtracks for almost 400 films, including "The Phantom of the Opera," "Birth of a Nation," "Hunchback of Notre Dame" and several classic comedies of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.

In 1985, she reflected on her changing fortunes, after her career had been turned upside down by the introduction of talkies more than 50 years before.

"I thought that was the end of my life," she said. "But things have come full circle, and it's like old times again."

Miss Rio was habitually vague about her personal history and for years deflected questions about her age with a well-practiced quip: "Honey, age is just a number, and mine is unlisted."

But at a birthday concert in 2007, she revealed her true age: She was born June 2, 1902, and grew up in New Orleans. Her husband of 63 years, Bill Yeoman, 90, said Saturday that her name at birth was Elizabeth Raub, but she took the stage name of Rosa Rio because it fit easily on a theater marquee.

She had an early marriage to John Hammond, a fellow organist who was her professor at the Eastman School of Music, from whom she was divorced. They had a son, whom Miss Rio outlived. According to published accounts, she had three grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

Miss Rio began playing piano by ear at age 4, and by her late teens, she was studying classical piano at Oberlin College in Ohio. One day, she went to Cleveland and, as she recounted in a 2006 NPR interview, "I heard a sound I had never heard before. I saw the pinpoint of a light grow larger and a console came from out of the pit. . . .

"I stayed for the second show just to hear it again. And when I walked out on the street, I looked up at the sky as if to say a prayer. I said thanks. I now know what I want to be in my life. I laugh and say, 'As long as I can play, lift me on the bench, I'll play.' "

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