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Longtime Tampa Theatre organist Rosa Rio dies at 107

TAMPA — The Queen of the Soaps has played her last note.

Rosa Rio, the spirited organist who earned her nickname providing accompaniments for soap operas and radio dramas decades before thrilling Tampa Theatre audiences with her witty turns on the Mighty Wurlitzer, died Thursday (May 13, 2010) at 107.

In a testament to her stamina, Mrs. Rio's death — just weeks before her 108th birthday — took people by surprise.

"The lady triumphed at every turn," said Lew Williams, a fellow organist and longtime friend. "She was more than a musician. She was a life force."

She was also possibly the last of the original generation of theater organists, said John Apple of Michael's Music Service, a company that published some of her work.

"We really lost a link to that past," he said Friday.

Mrs. Rio's resume read like a history book on the evolution of the entertainment industry. She established herself as a silent movie accompanist in the '20s after studying piano at Oberlin College in Ohio and organ at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.

When talking movies dried up the theater gigs, she switched to radio. Her fingers and feet got a workout during the 1930s and '40s at NBC, where she sometimes had to dash from one studio to another in less than a minute to get to her next program.

At one particularly hectic point, the Queen of the Soaps' music could be heard on 13 weekday shows. She provided organ accompaniment for 24 soap operas and radio dramas in all, including Orson Welles' The Shadow.

After playing for television soap operas, she opened a music school in Connecticut and scored more than 300 silent films for videocassette release. Her students included noted composers Walter Murphy and Ralph Blane.

The journey was a dream realized for Mrs. Rio, who began playing by ear at age 4 and at 8 told her family in New Orleans: "When I grow up, I wanna play a big piano, wear pretty clothes and jewelry, and make people happy!"

Friends knew the stories of her golden years well, like the time she played piano accompaniment for Mary Martin during a midnight audition in Cole Porter's Waldorf Astoria apartment.

But she also spoke of the gender and age bias she encountered, then overcame. NBC initially hired her as a substitute organist, saying they were looking for a man.

"I thought you were looking for an organist," she told them. She stayed 22 years.

To combat age discrimination, she secretly shaved years off her birth date. Mrs. Rio kept up the trick for decades, even listing June 2, 1914, as the birth date on her driver's license when she moved to Sun City Center in 1993.

She publicly revealed her true age, which is supported by newspaper clippings and census documents, just three years ago. Appropriately, she made the announcement from the Tampa Theatre stage.

Her flabbergasted fans gave her a standing ovation.

"I always lived every day, and I never celebrated birthdays," she had told a St. Petersburg Times reporter looking for insight into her longevity.

Long known by the stage name Rosa Rio, she drank margaritas and enjoyed dirty jokes.

For years, a rug someone gave her featuring her face greeted visitors as soon as they stepped inside the home she shared with Bill Yeoman, her second husband, whom she married in 1947.

She outlived her only child, a son from her first marriage, Williams said.

Sharing her musical talent with local audiences brought her true joy, said Tara Schroeder, another longtime friend who serves as Tampa Theatre's program and marketing director. Mrs. Rio thrived on their energy.

She started each performance with Everything's Coming Up Roses. Afterward, she would rush to the lobby to greet her fans.

"I enjoy being a part of a picture," Mrs. Rio said in a 2006 interview with National Public Radio. "I love going into a trance and being inspired by little tiny themes. I write out everything and memorize it. And then I get here. I look at the screen and do something different."

She played her last full performance at the theater in August, providing the accompaniment to Buster Keaton's silent film One Week.

She fell and broke her hip in March, then developed an infection. Yet in her living room just last week, Schroeder said, Mrs. Rio was still coaxing melodies from her concert grand piano.

Times staff writer Andy Boyle contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

A remembrance

A memorial service is being planned for Rosa Rio at 11 a.m. June 5 at the Tampa Theatre, 711 Franklin St. The service will be free and open to the public.

Longtime Tampa Theatre organist Rosa Rio dies at 107 05/14/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 15, 2010 12:46am]

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