Published: May 14, 2010
On Oct. 6, 1927, the day “The Jazz Singer” splashed noisily across American movie screens, Rosa Rio broke down and wept. Al Jolson was talking, and the very sound of him, she knew, would put her out of business.
But Miss Rio’s fears went unrealized, and for the next eight decades — until her final performance, last year — she built a career as one of the country’s premier theater organists.
Miss Rio was undoubtedly among the very last to have played the silent-picture houses, accompanying the likes of Chaplin, Keaton and Pickford on the Mighty Wurlitzer amid velvet draperies, gilded rococo walls and vaulted ceilings awash in stars. She was also one of the few women to have made her way in a field dominated by men.
Miss Rio died on Thursday, less than three weeks before her 108th birthday. The death, at her home in Sun City Center, Fla., was confirmed by her husband, Bill Yeoman.
For the silents, Miss Rio provided music — often improvised — to set moods that images alone could not: the footsteps of a cat burglar, the sighs of young lovers and the dreadful roar of the oncoming train as the heroine flailed on the tracks. When silents gave way to talkies, she became a ubiquitous presence on the radio; when radio yielded to television, she played for daytime serials. The Queen of the Soaps, the newspapers called her. More