In Leonard Maltin’s old-time radio memoir The Great American Broadcast, veteran announcer Jackson Beck recalled a most amusing anecdote involving today’s birthday celebrant. “There was a time Rosa Rio was playing the organ,” reminisced Beck, “and Dorian St. George, who was a real prankster, was the announcer at the show. She’s at the Hammond organ, and she’s a very attractive, talented lady, great sense of humor. And he went up and unbuttoned her blouse while she’s playing; she had a blouse with buttons down the back. He unbuttoned the whole thing and then he undid her bra. She can’t say anything, [and] there’s an audience up in the visitor’s booth at NBC watching this.”
Beck continued: “She waits until his middle commercial comes up and she walks up, undoes his belt, unzips his fly and drops his pants. And then starts on the underpants. And there’s an audience up there! They go, ‘What the hell is going on here?’” Sounds like just another wacky day at the National Broadcasting Company, where Rosa Rio worked as staff organist from the late 1930s to 1960, with stops at Mutual and ABC to boot. Rosa was born Elizabeth Raub in New Orleans on this date in 1902, and enjoyed a long career not only on radio, but during those early days of thrills and laughter in the silent movie era as well.
Young Elizabeth demonstrated an inclination towards music in early childhood; she began playing piano at the age of four, and was taking formal lessons on the instrument by age eight. Her family disapproved of her career ambitions, by the way…until they reasoned that playing the organ at church wouldn’t be too scandalous for a young Southern lady. Her first gig was accompanying movies in the theater, and by adolescence she was studying music at both Oberlin College and the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. When Elizabeth decided to turn professional, she changed her name to Rosa Rio…since it was easier to fit on a theater marquee.
Rosa played the Wurlitzer organ—her instrument of choice—in a variety of theatrical venues throughout New York and around the country, accompanying the movies of such silent movie greats as Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton…and performing before audiences who paid to see such classics as The Birth of a Nation, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Phantom of the Opera. October 6, 1927 marked the day of a disturbing cloudburst on Rosa’s career; with the release of The Jazz Singer, Rio feared that “the talkies” would put her out of business.
Rio was able to find temporary work as an accompanist and vocal coach. One of her pupils was a young Mary Martin, who asked Rosa to accompany her when she auditioned (successfully) for her Broadway debut in 1938, the Cole Porter musical Leave it to Me! Rio eventually was hired by NBC to play organ for as many as two dozen shows a week, including everything from Bob and Ray to Ethel and Albert. At one point, she headlined two of her very own programs, Rosa Rio Rhythms and Rosa Rio Time. Her work on such daytime dramas as Front Page Farrell, Lorenzo Jones, My True Story, and When a Girl Marries earned her the nickname “Queen of the Soaps.” Purportedly, the time between the sign-off of Lorenzo Jones and the start of Bob and Ray was less than sixty seconds…necessitating Rio’s dash between the two studios.
One of Rosa’s best-known jobs at the radio organ was her accompaniment for The Shadow; in 1985, Radiola Records—the LP division of Radio Yesteryear—released an audio documentary entitled The Story of the Shadow that featured Rio and surviving members of the Shadow series reminiscing about what it was like to work on the program. Rio’s relationship with Radio Yesteryear would extend to the company’s foray into videocassette releases (appropriately titled Video Yesteryear); she would provide scores and accompaniment to nearly 370 silent movie releases including Intolerance, The Thief of Bagdad, and The Cat and the Canary.
After years of working on such radio hits as David Harding—Counterspy and Hannibal Cobb, Rosa Rio attempted a transition to television, playing for such small screen efforts as The Today Show and As the World Turns. The opportunities for work in TV, however, were not quite as generous as those in radio…and soon Rosa found herself in Connecticut, where she ran a music school offering classes in voice, organ, and piano. Relocating to Florida’s Hillsborough County in 1993 would provide Rio with a “comeback” career, however; she was the official accompanist for the silent movie program presented by the Tampa Theatre, the revival house built in 1926. My friend Jeff Stewart would often enthusiastically inform me of his visits to see silent films on “the big screen,” and remind me that the music would be provided by “Rosa Rio and the Mighty Wurlitzer.” Rosa would traditionally take a bow before the audience as her signature tune Everything’s Coming Up Roses would play (she jokingly renamed the standard “Everything’s Coming Up Rosa”).
Rosa Rio passed away in 2010—three weeks before her 108th birthday. If you find that amazing, keep in mind that for many years, no one actually knew Rio’s real age (ageism is still alive and well in the show business world, sadly); it was only during an appearance at the Tampa Theatre in 2007 that she divulged her secret. (Because she was not the kind of person given to blowing out birthday cake candles, some members of her family didn’t even know.) A lovely portion of her obituary in the New York Times reads: “In Miss Rio’s career one can trace the entire history of entertainment technology in the 20th century. After all, she was alive, and playing, for nearly all of it.” Radio Spirits is only too humbled to celebrate the natal anniversary of this legendary individual, and if you want to check out her talent we suggest you make a purchase of The Story of the Shadow in addition to The Shadow: Strange Puzzles. Happy birthday, Rosa!