[Dixielandjazz] Rosa Rio

Stephen G Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Sat May 15 07:40:07 PDT 2010

The obit of legendary Rosa Rio. Perhaps not OKOM, but certainly a part  
of the era.

Steve Barbone

May 14, 2010 - NY TIMES - by Margalit Fox
Rosa Rio, Organist From Silent Films to Soap Operas, Dies at 107

On Oct. 6, 1927, the day “The Jazz Singer” splashed noisily across  
American movie screens, Rosa Rio broke down and wept. Al Jolson was  
talking, and the very sound of him, she knew, would put her out of  

But Miss Rio’s fears went unrealized, and for the next eight decades —  
until her final performance, last year — she built a career as one of  
the country’s premier theater organists.

Miss Rio was undoubtedly among the very last to have played the silent- 
picture houses, accompanying the likes of Chaplin, Keaton and Pickford  
on the Mighty Wurlitzer amid velvet draperies, gilded rococo walls and  
vaulted ceilings awash in stars. She was also one of the few women to  
have made her way in a field dominated by men.

Miss Rio died on Thursday, less than three weeks before her 108th  
birthday. The death, at her home in Sun City Center, Fla., was  
confirmed by her husband, Bill Yeoman.

For the silents, Miss Rio provided music — often improvised — to set  
moods that images alone could not: the footsteps of a cat burglar, the  
sighs of young lovers and the dreadful roar of the oncoming train as  
the heroine flailed on the tracks. When silents gave way to talkies,  
she became a ubiquitous presence on the radio; when radio yielded to  
television, she played for daytime serials. The Queen of the Soaps,  
the newspapers called her.

In Miss Rio’s career one can trace the entire history of entertainment  
technology in the 20th century. After all, she was alive, and playing,  
for nearly all of it.

Midcentury Americans could scarcely touch a dial without hearing Miss  
Rio. As the staff organist of the NBC radio network from the late  
1930s to 1960, and an occasional organist for ABC Radio, she provided  
live music for a spate of popular shows, including “The Shadow,”  
starring a trim Orson Welles, and “The Bob and Ray Show.” Her  
television credits include “As the World Turns” and the “Today” show.

In recent years, long after television dispensed with live organists,  
Miss Rio accompanied silent films at some of the nation’s tenderly  
restored movie houses. She was most closely associated with the Tampa  
Theater in Florida, a lavish picture palace built in 1926.

Several times a year Miss Rio would rise from beneath the stage there,  
seated at the organ in sequined evening gown, diamond rings and gold  
lamé slippers. As she wafted majestically upward, the room shook with  
her signature tune, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” or, as she much  
preferred to call it, “Everything’s Coming Up Rosa.”

Borne on a wave of cinematic nostalgia, Miss Rio had come blissfully  
full circle.

Miss Rio was born on June 2, 1902. Her maiden name and birthplace have  
been lost to time; her given name was Elizabeth and she was reared in  
New Orleans. She began calling herself Rosa Rio — a name narrow enough  
to fit neatly on a theater marquee — early in her career.

At 8, Elizabeth began piano lessons and immediately decided on a show  
business career. This, her parents made clear, was no fit occupation  
for a proper Southern girl.

She persevered, and her parents relented a little. Playing in church  
would be fine, they decided. So would the genteel life of a children’s  
piano teacher. With these callings in mind, Elizabeth entered the  
Oberlin College Conservatory in Ohio.

She chafed there until the day she visited a Cleveland movie palace  
and heard a theater organ for the first time. Not long afterward, she  
transferred to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, which had a  
program in silent-film accompanying.

Miss Rio’s first marriage, to John Hammond, an organist, ended in  
divorce. She is survived by her second husband, Mr. Yeoman, whom she  
married in 1947; three grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. A  
son, John Hammond III, died several years ago.

In the 1920s, Miss Rio played in movie houses around the country  
before being hired by the Fox Theater in Brooklyn. Then came Jolson,  
and she found supplementary work as an accompanist and vocal coach.  
One of her clients was an unknown singer named Mary Martin, whom Miss  
Rio accompanied on her successful audition for the Cole Porter musical  
“Leave It to Me!” (1938), Martin’s Broadway debut.

At NBC, Miss Rio played for as many as two dozen radio shows a week,  
often with just 60 seconds between shows to bolt from one studio to  
another. On Sept. 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, she was  
summoned to work at 2 a.m. For the next 10 hours, she performed somber  
music between news bulletins. After the United States entered the war,  
she had her own show, “Rosa Rio Rhythms,” broadcast to American troops  

Radio of the period was a rough-and-tumble world — a man’s world. Miss  
Rio gave as good as she got.

As recounted in Leonard Maltin’s book “The Great American Broadcast: A  
Celebration of Radio’s Golden Age” (Dutton, 1997), she was playing a  
show at NBC one day when the announcer, Dorian St. George, crept up  
behind her, undid the buttons down the back of her blouse and unhooked  
her bra. Miss Rio, performing live before a gallery of visitors, could  
do nothing but play on.

When the music stopped, Mr. St. George stepped up to the microphone to  
do a commercial. As he intoned plummily with the gallery looking on,  
Miss Rio stole up behind him, unbuckled his belt, unzipped his fly and  
neatly dropped his trousers. Then, according to Mr. Maltin’s book, she  
started on his undershorts.

What happened next is unrecorded.

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