A Tribute to Rosa Rio
Rosa Rio peacefully passed away at her home in Sun City Center on May 13, 2010 with her husband, Bill Yeoman, by her side. She was 107 years old. Her prolific career began with a simple declaration to her family at age eight, “When I grow up, I want to play a big piano, wear pretty clothes and lots of jewelry, and make people happy.”
She was extraordinarily positive, motivated and determined. She was able to seamlessly adapt to changes in the entertainment industry (silent films, talkies, radio, TV, and finally, back to silent films). “I can’t believe that I’ve been so fortunate to have been in so many things that went out and I bounced back,” she said in 2007. Her path was not without challenges. As the only woman in the orchestra pit, she routinely challenged men who considered her to be second fiddle because of her gender. She allayed those stereotypical reactions with talent, charm and a (sometimes bawdy) sense of humor.
Tara Schroeder, Tampa Theatre’s Director Programming and Marketing, had become best friends with Rio. “Rosa’s talent and passion for music and the theatre organ was remarkable, and in fact I am certain that her passion was the key to her longevity. I feel so fortunate to have become so close to her. She is a testament to the will of spirit,” Schroeder said.
Rosa began taking piano lessons at eight, and at ten landed her first job at a silent movie theater in hometown of New Orleans. After studying music at Oberlin College and silent film accompaniment at The Eastman School of Music, Rosa accompanied silent films in movie palaces in New York and New Orleans. The balloon burst in 1927 with the advent of “talkies.”
In the 1930s and 40s, Rosa was dubbed “Queen of the Soaps,” having provided organ accompaniment for 24 soap operas and radio dramas, sometimes dashing from one studio to another with seconds between shows. On average, she played for five to seven shows per day, including “The Shadow” with Orson Welles and “The Bob and Ray Show,” “Cavalcade of America,” “My True Story,” and “The Goldbergs.”
Rosa was hired by NBC as a temporary replacement while they searched for a man. “I asked them if they were looking for a man or an organist,” Rosa said. She stayed for 22 years and was the first woman hired into an orchestra of 156 men. It would be ten years before another woman was hired, and would kindle Rosa’s life-long passion for women’s rights. Transitioning to television, Rosa played the organ for many network series, including “The Today Show,” “As the World Turns,” and “The Guiding Light.”On piano, Rosa worked with many vocalists, most notably Mary Martin, whom she accompanied at her audition for Cole Porter.
Since 1996, Rosa performed for over 30 silent film presentations for full houses at the Tampa Theatre’s 1,400-pipe Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ. Her last performance at Tampa Theatre was on August 30, 2009 when she provided the accompaniment for a Buster Keaton silent comedy. While the sold-out audiences always thanked her with standing ovations, she graciously returned the accolades, saying “I have such gratitude for the wonderful people who have such love for the theatre organ, silent pictures and Tampa Theatre.”
John Bell, Tampa Theatre’s President and CEO said, “We were so fortunate to have Rosa as part of the Tampa Theatre family for the past 14 years. She was an amazing woman with remarkable talent who introduced tens of thousands of people to the magic of silent films and the theatre organ. While I am very saddened by her passing, I am so thankful that she was able to share her musical talents throughout her long and fulfilling life. She was an inspiration to so many people, young and old.
Listen to a portion of Rosa’s StoryCorps Recording
StoryCorps recorded some wonderful conversations with Tampa Bay residents during their stay in Ybor City in partnership with our local radio station WMNF 88.5 where you you can tune in regularly to two different pieces each week.
Listen to Rosa’s recording here: http://feeds.feedburner.com/wmnfstory
Rosa Rio Magazine Article
Read more about Rosa in this in-depth article from the Journal of the American Theatre Organ Society.
Rosa Rio Interviewed on NPR
Listen to Rosa Rio’s interview on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition. Rosa speaks about her experiences playing the organ on The Shadow with Orson Welles and countless other radio shows, silent movies, and soap operas – and being the Tampa’s special event organist.
She Improvs with Age
A gift for improvisation has carried organist Rosa Rio through a century of change. By Cooper Cruz in The Weekly Planet
(Click on images to view larger version)
Rosa playing her signature tune, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, at Tampa
Theatre in 2005. She was 105 at the time.
Rosa’s last public performance at Tampa On May 7, 2009, Rosa Rio did live organ accompaniment for Buster Keaton’s
Sherlock Jr at the Palladium Theater at St. Petersburg College, as well as
talked about her life. (Media inquiries concerning this footage can be directed
to Paul Wilborn at the Palladium at (727) 302-6870.)