[Dixielandjazz] Rosa Rio, Organist from Silent Films to Soap Operas, Dies

Robert Ringwald rsr at ringwald.com
Sun May 16 05:57:19 PDT 2010

Rosa Rio, Organist from Silent Films to Soap Operas, Dies at 107
by Margalit Fox
New York Times, May 15, 2010

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 business.
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 overseas.
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.

--Bob Ringwald
Amateur (ham) Radio call sign K6YBV
Fulton Street Jazz Band

"Critics can't even make music by rubbing their back legs together."
--Mel Brooks

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