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The queen of the soaps

Diamond rings flash on her quick little fingers.

Gold lame Batman slippers blur on her size-7 feet.

Rosa Rio makes the keys and pedals fly as she rides the Mighty Wurlitzer organ up from its lair under the stage of the Tampa Theatre. The whole rococo palace vibrates with the epic chorus of her theme song, a tune you'd swear was the show-stopper Everything's Coming Up Roses.

Think again, Ethel.

"That's Coming Up Rosa, not Roses," Rio shouts over the music spilling gloriously from the pipes overhead. "I always play this for my entrance."

An organ-playing legend since her days at NBC in the 1940s and 1950s, Rosa Rio has earned the right to take liberties, even with the Broadway canon. After a stint as an accompanist for actor and singer Mary Martin, Rio became known as "Queen of the Soaps," making music for more than 24 programs during the golden days at Radio City.

Ever heard the eerie, spine-chilling theme for The Shadow? That was Rosa. How about the sentimental sounds playing behind the warm-and-comforting messages of Between the Bookends? That was Rosa, too. And the sprightly, impromptu airs that enlivened The Bob and Ray Show? Yep, Rosa.

"Oh it was a grand time, so many wonderful people worked in radio," Rio recalled recently from her Sun City Center living room. She came to Florida in 1995 with her husband, Bill Yeoman, a former radio announcer. "Radio made you use your imagination. You could close your eyes and see the characters the way you wanted to. Not like television. With television you don't have to use your brain at all."

It was probably a good thing that the radio audience had to imagine. If the folks at home could have seen what was going on in the studio, they would have been privy to another kind of drama altogether.

"If something went wrong, there was no second take, everything was live. You had to fill that air time with something." Rio had to compose on the fly while keeping an eye on the director, the actors and the clock, and sometimes she had to stall while actors covered up mistakes in inventive fashion.

"Once I was playing during a murder scene, and the prop man's gun just wouldn't go off. So the actor thought fast. He said, "Ah! You stabbed me!' That would've been great, but the next thing you knew, the gun decided to work."

Orson Welles, Tony Randall and Roddy McDowell were all part of Rio's milieu in the days when radio was the thread that wired America together. The Queen of the Soaps sometimes endured a grueling schedule. At one point, Rio's music appeared on 13 programs airing Monday through Friday. Sometimes she had less than a minute to run from one studio to another to start the crazy improv act all over again.

"I never thought about how crazy that was. I work the best when I have much to do _ I'm in my seventh heaven. I didn't want to sit there and have a cue. The program started, and I was off! But I'm not a busy fingers. I'm there to set a mood.

"I loved radio. I was very proud to be a part of it. I wished it would never end. But television changed everything. We called it the death pill when it came in."

Forty-five years later and counting, Rio is still playing. She has made 42 local performances in the past two years, as well as teaching a course called "Background Music, The Unspoken Message! How It Did and Does Influence Us!" at a community church in Sun City Center.

Today at 3 p.m., she will perform at the Tampa Theatre, accompanying the Charlie Chaplin classic Gold Rush. The movie is one of more than 300 silent films that Rio has scored for videocasette release.

Rio's house is full of keyboards _ she has a Rodger three-tier theater organ and a Hammond X-66 deluxe, plus a 9-foot concert grand piano that once belonged to Jose Iturbe _ but she relishes the chance to play in the historic theater in downtown Tampa.

"It's a great experience, playing in a palace theater. You're sitting in this fabulous place, with the pipe organ, and the decoration and the sky overhead. The so-called box theaters don't have such a thing. What an experience _ what a fabulous setting to watch a picture in!"

It was just such a fabulous setting that drew Rio into her particular branch of show business. As a girl of 8 in New Orleans, she announced to her family: "When I grow up, I wanna play a big piano, wear pretty clothes and jewelry, and make people happy!"

She was sent to Oberlin College in Ohio to study piano. But halfway into her first year, she was told that she "lacked musical talent." She stumbled into a theater in downtown Cleveland, where she saw a vision that changed her life.

"I sat there and I heard this big, enormous, theater organ sound. And I saw the light glowing from the console. I didn't know what it was, but I was in ecstasy. I stayed for the second show. I don't remember what the movie was _ the heck with the movie. I was just in awe of the organ."

The Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., offered courses in theater organ, so Rio headed east. By 1935, she was an established silent movie accompanist, with a gig at the Fox Theater in Brooklyn. By then, of course, talking pictures were on their way in, so she soon made the switch to radio.

It wasn't as easy as playing, though. Because she was a woman, Rio had to fight to get work.

"I had my own studio on 55th Street. I was an accompanist. Some singers told me they needed an organist at NBC. So Mr. Leopold Spitalny, he gave me an audition. A very, very tough audition. I played everything under the sun. And he gave me a job as a substitute. I said, "I thought I passed.' He said, "Yes, you passed, but we're looking for a man.' I said, "Looking for a man? I thought you were looking for an organist.'

"He called me the next week again, asking me to come back as a substitute. I said, "Oh, no you don't. If I come back next week, I'm staying.' I stayed for 22 years."

Rio can tell many stories about those days, as she did after a recent rehearsal at the Tampa Theatre. Her husband and "personal representative" Bill Yeoman was there to lend support and smart commentary.

"Pardon me, miss. Were you in show business?" he called up to the stage during one of Rio's breaks.

"No," Rio answered. "But I watch all the old pictures!"

Rio took off "her brains," as she refers to her organ-playing slippers, and put on Chanel-style cap-toe pumps before sitting in the red velvet seats to chat.

"One time I was working in a government show. It was during the war. What'd they call it, Bill? Anyhoo, Helen Hayes was the star, and we had all rehearsed and we were waiting for her. She was late. So the director called her up. She was taking a baaath. We all got paid scale, so we made a lot of money waiting for her to finish her baaath. It was great.

"We did a command performance at the UN. We had such a lovely time with Mr. U Thant. Oh, he was late, too. But he was the nicest man. He was apologizing all over the place. Can you imagine that? A man of his stature apologizing to us for being late."

Rio still corresponds with Tony Randall and with some of her former students from the Rosa Rio Studio in Connecticut, where she taught after leaving New York in the 1970s. She proudly displays a picture of a young Walter Murphy at the keyboard in her studio. Murphy grew up to have a Billboard No. 1 hit in 1976 with his arrangement, A Fifth of Beethoven.

"'It's quite a number, what Walter did. They can work up a storm with all these new synthesizers. But you know what happens. The damn technology puts musicians out of work."

Rosa Rio, for her part, is still working. Even when she's not, she keeps up her showbiz standards. She never leaves the house unless she's in full regalia.

"I dress up like mad," she said. "You have to. Nowadays, there's no glamor. Gloria Swanson did everything until her dying day to keep the glamor alive. She was a queen. She expected flowers, the red carpet, until the day she died. Nowadays, people just want a check."

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