Silent film organist worked on NBC shows

Rosa Rio, a silent film organist who became the chief organist at NBC for many radio and television soap operas, died of natural causes in Sun City Center, Fla., on May 13. She was 107.

Rio was able to seamlessly adapt to changes in the entertainment industry seguing from silent films, to talkies, radio, TV, and finally, back to silents.

Her prolific career began with a simple declaration to her family, “When I grow up, I want to play a big piano, wear pretty clothes and lots of jewelry, and make people happy.”

By all accounts she did just that especially in her later years at the Tampa Theater where she played her signature tune “Everything’s Coming up Roses,” dressed in diamonds, sequined dress and lame sandals.

Rio took piano lessons at 8, and at 10 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, she accompanied silent films in movie palaces in New York and New Orleans. When that career ended in 1927 with the advent of “talkies,” she segued to radio sudsers.

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.

In the 1930s and 40s, Rio 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.”

Rio was hired by the Peacock as a temporary replacement while they searched for a man. “I asked them if they were looking for a man or an organist,” she said. She stayed for 22 years and was the first woman hired into an orchestra of 156 men. It would be 10 years before another woman was hired, and would kindle her life-long passion for women’s rights.

Transitioning to television, Rio 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 midnight audition for Cole Porter at his Waldorf Astoria apartment.

Beginning in 1996, Rio performed for over 30 silent film presentations at the Tampa Theater’s Mighty Wurlitzer organ. Her last performance was Aug. 30, when she provided the accompaniment for a Buster Keaton silent comedy.

A son predeceased her. Survivors include her husband, Bill Yeoman; three grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

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