1. Archive

Silent-film star

The wordless films at Tampa Theatre would be far less dramatic and comedic without Rosa Rio. The pipe organist and master of improvisation has been in show business since before "talkies" took over.

At the Tampa Theatre, Rosa Rio has the best seat in the house, but it sometimes gives her a pain in the neck.

"I've got to keep my right eye on the screen and my left eye on the music cues," said Rio, who plays the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ during showings of silent films.

The organ is set into the stage floor, left of the screen, and when Rio performs during a movie, all the audience can see of her is the top of her head. But before the movie begins, a platform hoists her and the organ up onstage, where she plays a lively mini-recital.

Pumping out her theme song, Everything's Coming Up Roses _ "That's Rosa, not roses!" she corrected _ Rio cuts a flashy figure in her glittering clothes, sequined shoes and jewelry that glints in the light.

"I believe in dressing up for the audience," said Rio, who has been in show business more than 75 years.

On Sunday afternoon, Rio will play for a double bill of Buster Keaton comedies, The Playhouse and Sherlock Jr. She has been accompanying films at the theater since a performance several years ago of The Phantom of the Opera, the 1925 version starring Lon Chaney. Her presence at the keyboard has drawn good crowds _ even sellouts _ ever since for Son of the Sheik, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and other silent classics.

"Anyone who loves music, they head for the stairs," said Bill Yeoman, Rio's husband and manager, from a seat in the Tampa Theatre balcony, where he was watching her practice one Friday afternoon in July. "The seats across the back of the balcony are the first batch to be filled. The sound is so much more pronounced up here."

Rio is a living legend among organists. She is the last of a breed that goes back to the days when celebrated organists like Jesse Crawford played in glamorous picture palaces, such as the Paramount and the Roxy in New York, the Fox in Atlanta, the Saenger in New Orleans, the Alhambra in Cleveland and hundreds more.

The Tampa Theatre, a rococo marvel built in 1926, sports a Wurlitzer with three manuals, or keyboards, and 12 ranks, or sets of pipes. In all, there are about a thousand pipes, and the instrument is well maintained as a working relic from a bygone age of entertainment by the Central Florida chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society.

After studying organ accompaniment at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., Rio got her start in the 1920s at theaters in New York. But soon after talking movies came on the scene _ The Jazz Singer was the first in 1927 _ the job market for theater organists dried up, and she landed in radio during the golden age of live drama on the air.

In the 1930s, '40s and '50s, she became known as the "Queen of the Soaps," playing for as many as 13 shows a week, including The Shadow, Between the Bookends and My True Story. She was also a feminist pioneer, being the only woman among the 100 or so musicians on the staff of NBC.

Former NBC music director Skitch Henderson remembers Rio from their years together at the network.

"Rosa was an absolute dynamo," Henderson said. "She was the only organist I ever knew who could really improvise. Organists were pretty foursquare. They always wrote arrangements and played it exactly as it was written, but she was an improviser and had a fantastic knowledge of the instrument."

Improvisation is the key to Rio's organ accompaniment, even though she watches the movies beforehand and prepares "cue sheets" in which scenes are matched with music.

Recently, while watching a video of The Playhouse at home, she jotted a few notes about tunes that would work in certain scenes of the Keaton comedy.

"I'll play a little No Business Like Show Business there," she said of a scene in which Keaton buys a ticket at a box office.

For another in which a man's beard catches fire, she wrote down Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.

There also are plenty of sound effects available on a theater organ _ siren, whistle, bird call, ah-oogah, hoofbeats _ to complement Keaton's comic pratfalls.

"I work on my score and memorize it," Rio said. "Setting the mood is very important. I come up with a theme for each of the characters. They're my own improvisations, and though I've done it many times, every time I do it a little differently."

During a movie, she doesn't have any sheet music on the organ, and wouldn't have time to read it anyway, having to pay constant attention to what's happening onscreen. She dreams up some of the music on the spot, but it all fits into her overall scheme of things.

"The music has construction," Rio said. "There's melody, form. So many organists just hold down a chord when they're filling time."

Improvisation can't really be taught. "It's one of those skills that one absolutely learns by doing," said Lew Williams, who performs on the largest public theater organ in the world, a Wurlitzer with 74 ranks at the Organ Stop pizza restaurant in Mesa, Ariz.

"I think a lot of improvisation is a gift that comes with having a very good ear. You have to encompass all types of music for every conceivable mood. You have to be able to jump in and hang loose and adapt at a moment's notice to the changes that confront you."

Rio figures her knack for it comes, in part, from her studies in composition and musical theory. She once took lessons from Joseph Schillinger, a music theorist who applied mathematical principles to composing. Schillinger taught a number of famous musicians, including George Gershwin.

She hauled out one of Schillinger's composing textbooks, with page after page of incomprehensible mathematical formulas.

"You almost have to be an Einstein to know what this guy is talking about," she said. "He was such a mathematical genius, but for all that, he couldn't improvise. He couldn't sit down and play 10 minutes of what I do."

The need to improvise is not limited to theater organists. Church organists have to wing it, too, though for shorter periods of time.

"In church organ playing, you have to do a bit of improvisation to stretch things," said Bill Brusick, organist at Grace Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg. "For instance, during communion, when the hymn is done and you've still got half the church to take communion, you've got to keep going and mix and match hymn tunes. But it's nothing like theater music where you're improvising for an hour or two."

Brusick also performs on the Tampa Theatre Wurlitzer before movie showings and is secretary of the theater organ society chapter. Rio participates in the organization.

"Rosa is a very humble soul," he said. "She's not like a celebrity shadow out there. She comes to our meetings and gives us helpful hints."

Last week Rio taught a workshop on silent-movie accompaniment at Colorado State University, where she also played in a screening of The Mark of Zorro.

It was 1993 when she and her husband moved to the Tampa Bay area from their longtime home in Shelton, Conn. They brought along her Rodger theater organ, installed in the living room of their Sun City Center home, and a smaller Hammond.

Also in the living room, against a mirrored wall, Rio has a 9-foot Baldwin grand piano once owned by Jose Iturbi, a famous Spanish pianist.

"I love to hear Rosa on piano," Yeoman said on a recent Saturday morning, when she played a meltingly beautiful rendition of Gershwin's The Man I Love.

Williams, who has known Rio for 30 years, is in awe of her longevity.

"Everybody wonders about Rosa's age," he said. "She's got to be in at least in her late 80s. She is amazing in her vitality. She can discuss current events and politics with the best of them. She keeps up on everything. She's already booking concerts for the year 2000. Here's somebody who started playing in the 1920s and she's still at it and still doing it well."

Rio demurs when asked how old she is. "Honey, age is just a number, and mine is unlisted."

Double dose of Keaton

The Playhouse and Sherlock Jr. are two of Buster Keaton's most stylish short comedies. They make up Sunday afternoon's double bill at Tampa Theatre, with accompaniment by Rosa Rio on the Wurlitzer pipe organ.

In The Playhouse (1921), Buster buys a ticket to the Buster Keaton Opera House and finds that everyone in the theater is a replica of himself. Through multiple exposures, Keaton plays the conductor, orchestra musicians in the pit, stagehands, a nine-man minstrel show and people in the audience. "This Keaton fellow seems to be the whole show," a man (Keaton) studying the program says to his wife (Keaton in drag). Keaton biographer Marion Meade considers it to be "a technical masterpiece, one of the most inventive films ever made."

In Sherlock Jr. (1924), Keaton plays a projectionist who walks down the aisle of a theater and right into the detective drama onscreen. Critic Leonard Maltin calls it a "sublime study of film and fantasy, which has undoubtedly influenced countless filmmakers such as Woody Allen, Jacques Rivette, even Bunuel."