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Tampa Theatre says goodbye to its queen, Rosa Rio

TAMPA — They passed the box office with Rhapsody in Blue playing through the speakers. Music lovers, hundreds of them, filed into the Tampa Theatre for one last performance.

An encore of a life well lived.

One by one, they took their seats. The lights dimmed, the crowd hushed, a spotlight burst on as the organ rose from the stage.

Then, the music.

No, there would be no funeral for the 107-year-old spitfire they called legend of the silent screen and queen of the soaps. Tears, yes, but no solemn processions. No black garb required.

The way Rosa would have wanted it.

• • •

Rosa Rio, perhaps the last of the remaining original theater organists, died May 13. She became a fixture at the historic Tampa Theatre, playing the Mighty Wurlitzer, after moving to Florida in the early '90s.

Her career evolved from silent movie accompaniment in the 1920s to playing for radio to playing for television to teaching music. Her students included noted composers Walter Murphy and Ralph Blane.

She left behind fans, friends and family that spanned generations along with sheet music, stories, punch lines and memories.

In what was perhaps her final joke, Rosa's memorial Saturday at the believed-to-be-haunted theater began with the first notes of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor — a Dracula-esque arrangement chosen by Rosa.

The crowd of about 200 went wild.

Cliff Shaffer, president of the Central Florida Theatre Organ Society, turned from the bench and smiled.

"She was one of a kind. There was no one quite like her, and there will never be," he said. "Wild and full of life."

• • •

Outside in the lobby, the guest book was packed with signatures and messages: "I'll miss your music," "I'm sorry I didn't meet you," "Thanks for all the joy."

Inside the theater, folks young and old sang along with It Had to Be You, and munched popcorn while watching Buster Keaton's classic silent film, The Play House.

And from the movie screen, Rosa spoke. She told stories of that prankster Orson Welles, and reminisced about the first time she heard a theater organ.

"I was just in seventh heaven," Rio said in an interview recorded years before. "I just looked up at the sky and said, 'Now I know what I want to do.' "

In the front row, Bill Yeoman, now a widower, cried.

"I loved her, that's all," said the man who married Rosa 62 years ago. "She was the best."

Before the lights came up, Rosa had one last thing to say — a thank you for her beloved audience.

"They give and I take, and I give and they take, and we all have a wonderful time," Rosa said. "This is real, I tell you."

It ended the way Rosa would have wanted.

A standing ovation.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813)661-2442 or kwilmath@sptimes.com.

Tampa Theatre says goodbye to its queen, Rosa Rio 06/05/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 5, 2010 9:08pm]
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