Rosa Rio (b. 1902)
By Jonathan Gradin
Rosa Rio at 106
Rosa Rio, famous theater organist for silent films, radio and television, was born on June 3, 1902 in New Orleans. Growing up, she showed musical talent and aspiration, being able to pick out a melody on the piano as early as age five; she started taking formal lessons a few years later. By age 12 she had played in church several times; however, she got a little tired of that, having said since age 8 that she wanted to “play a big piano, wear pretty clothes, lots of jewelry and make people happy.”
One day, the pianist at the local theater offered her a nickel to cover his shift; she accepted, not caring about the money at all. Her father, who disapproved of her show business aspirations, however, cut short this early stint. Rosa’s parents sent her to Oberlin Conservatory, where she studied classical music for one year; it was hard for her because she liked to improvise and change the music, something her instructors frowned upon.
Rosa’s dream of playing in a theater did not die; instead, it blossomed. While at Oberlin, she saw a film in a large movie palace, accompanied by the Mighty Wurlitzer; this inspired her so much that she transferred to Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, which had a course in silent film accompaniment. In a personal interview, she said that the course was one of the best things she ever did, as it taught her to prepare for the film; also, she learned a system for reliable improvisation. This training, she said, helped her not only in silent films, but also in radio, TV and concerts.
One of her teachers was organist John Hammond (not connected with the Hammond Electric Organ). When she first came to Eastman, there were two organists: John Hammond and another person. Rosa was going to take lessons from this other person when a girl came up to her and recommended Hammond. "He had this inborn feeling for improvisation," Rosa told me. She went on to say that she learned the most about organ playing, just by watching him during his performances.
Rosa looked up to her teacher and fell in love with him. They got married and both played in theaters. When Al Jolson came in with The Jazz Singer, their careers, as theater organists, were pretty much doomed. Rosa took this in stride, but John couldn't take it; after all, he was a famous theater organist! He went away to produce some shows, but he couldn't make any money. He "got tired of his family," leaving Rosa and her son, John Hammond III, and went to a small town, teaching organ and playing in church. He died virtually forgotten, while Rosa moved on with her life.
After graduating from Eastman (with financial help from Mr. Fait, a producer for the Eastman Theater), she played at the System Theater in Syracuse, New York. She also held other positions, most notably at the Loew’s and Saengers chains of theaters near New York City; however, the advent of sound films cut her planned career short. She still played for intermissions and times between shows, but she also started looking elsewhere, finding opportunities accompanying and training singers. She helped launch singer Mary Martin into stardom, accompanying her the night she auditioned for Cole Porter. Rosa also gave many ‘farewell’ performances, giving the last performance at theaters that were closing up.
In 1938 an NBC Radio person heard her, hiring her on as a temporary replacement while they searched for another male organist; she was the first woman hired into the NBC orchestra. Because she was looked down on already as a woman, she put down a different date of birth, making her appear younger. She stayed at NBC for 22 years, playing for 24 different soap operas as well as Orson Wells' The Shadow and short interludes between newscasts. She became in such high demand that she would play for several shows in a row, literally running from one set to another. As radio started to decline, Rosa played organ background music for TV shows such as As the World Turns and The Today Show, although her style wasn't really suited for the new medium.
When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Rosa was called in overtime to play between breaking news reports. She also was invited to play for wounded soldiers at Pelham Hospital every Sunday, brightening their day with songs like Begin the Beguine and Stardust.
In 1948, Rosa married Bill Yeoman, who had just gotten out of the service and was working for a Bible company; she met him at a party in New York City. Twelve years later, in 1960, she quit NBC and they moved to Connecticut, where she set up a vocal/piano studio to teach music.
In 1984 she got a chance to do what she had started to do: play for silent films. Video Yesteryears was releasing 365 silent films, so they hired her to score them, playing the accompaniment on a Hammond organ.
About this time, Rosa started performing professionally again. To date she has played to Command Performances for the United Nations General Assembly. She is a Hall of Fame member of the American Theater Organ Society. In 1993, she and her husband/manager, Bill, moved to Sun City Center, Florida. At an open-console meeting in 1996, John Otterson, organist at the Tampa Bay Theater, heard her play. He invited her to play a silent film there; she accepted, and now she performs there at least once a year. She also gives some lessons in between engagements.
I asked her what kind of playing was her favorite, e.g. silent films, radio, TV, or concerts. She said, “I enjoyed them all. Each of them had their own set of challenges.”
When asked about her age, she would always say, "age is just a number, and mine's unlisted." However, in the first week of June 2007, she announced that she had just turned 105, a fact backed up by many friends and associates.
Even today, at 106, she is still playing—on November 15th she just played a special concert featuring a silent film—and showing her razor-sharp mind and sense of humor. In a Tampa TV interview, she said that she doesn't think of how old she is. "I feel young and act young," she said. She also told me on the phone that she never lives in the past; rather, she looks forward to new opportunities and keeps a positive outlook on life.
I asked Rosa for a closing word of advice. She said to listen to your inner voice, and do your best at what motivates you. "I believe that everyone has something inside that they are blest with," she said. She also said that when new opportunities arise, jump on and make the most of them, which was what she has had to do all her life.
All in all, Rosa is a remarkable woman, to use an understatement. We can all learn something from someone who has seen art forms come and go and who has experienced first-hand most of the 20th Century.
Copyright 2008 Jonathan Gradin
Cruz, Cooper. She Improvs With Age. http://tampa.creativeloafing.com/gyrobase/she_improvs_with_age/Content?oid=6284
Klos, Lloyd E. Story of Rosa Rio. Theater Organ. February 1970.
Jenkins, Colleen. The Queen of Soaps Comes Clean. http://www.sptimes.com/2007/06/07/news_pf/Hillsborough/The_queen_of_soaps_co.shtml
Pine, Lou. The Gift of Music Keeps Her Young. http://www.makingmusicmag.com/pages/features/05dec01.html
Rosa Rio. Personal interview. Nov. 19, 2008
Rosa Rio. Personal interview. Nov. 24, 2008
Rosa Rio. Saenger Amusements biography. http://www.saengeramusements.com/music/rosario/rosario.htm
Schroeder, Tara. A Rosa Rio Biography www.cftos.org
Schroeder, Tara. Still Coming Up Rosa. Theater Organ. September/October 2001
Yeoman, Bill. Rosa Rio. PDF File sent in email.