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May 16, 2010

Rosa Rio, colorful theater organist, dies at 107

The obituary of Rosa Rio caught my eye. She was a much-admired theater organist who provided live soundtracks for silent films (an exceptional art form) and kept her career going after the arrival of talkies by switching to radio and eventually TV soap operas. What a cool, inspiring life she had. She died Thursday in Florida, a few weeks before her 108th birthday -- a fact made all the more remarkable when you learn that she gave a concert as recently as a year ago at the Tampa Theater, once again accompanying a silent film. To quote from the Times obit:

Several times a year Miss Rio would rise from beneath the stage there, seated at the organ in sequined evening gown, diamond rings and gold lamé slippers. As she wafted majestically upward, the room shook with her signature tune, 'Everything’s Coming Up Roses,' or, as she much preferred to call it, 'Everything’s Coming Up Rosa.'

By all accounts, Miss Rio was quite a character, always willing to challenge sexism in the days of a male-dominated entertainment industry. She also offered a remarkable connection to history -- she played the sobering music in between NBC radio broadcasts of the German invasion of Poland in 1939.

I would have loved hearing Miss Rio in person. I had to settle for these two video clips, which offer a sense of her personality and her talent -- making her entrance at the Tampa Theater a few years ago, and accompanying a Buster Keaton comedy:

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:29 PM | | Comments (3)


Such a treat to hear Rosa and see Buster. Thanks!

Amazing lady!!! I hope I can still play the piano like she played the organ when I'm 103---if I make it. I also hope I look that good.
Enjoyed both videos!

Glad you liked them. She really was amazing. TIM

Actually, Rosa's last performance as a theatre organist was October 17, 2009 at the Palladium Theatre in St. Petersburg, FL.. She played for a Buster Keaton film during the first part of the evening, and then she played the piano and accompanied singer Paul Winborn during the second part. She was 107 years old at that time. She didn't look it AND she didn't act like it either. As usual, she was full of vitality, because she was doing what motivated her all her life, i.e., she was expressing and sharing her music.

Tim, on May 25, you remembered Beverly Sills on her 81st birthday. Rosa knew Sills personally when the singer was a teenager. The only vocal teacher Sills had was Estelle Liebling. Rosa worked with Miss Liebling as an accompanist and coach of many Broadway singers during the 1930s, before Rosa started working full-time in network radio at NBC.

It was during this time that Rosa became Mary Martin's accompanist.. Rosa accompanied Martin when she tried out for Cole Porter, which began Martin's Broadway musical career.

By the way, another interesting fact about Rosa's life is that she literally played the piano for over 100 years! She had perfect pitch and started picking out melodies on the piano before she was tall enough to see the keyboard.

Rosa Rio was my music mentor and close friend. I can personally attest to the fact that she was a great lady, who was full of life and who loved life to its fullest.

Thanks for sharing the memories, and the clarification. I do wish I had known more about Rosa before reading her obits. (I'm glad to learn for you of the Liebling connection. I knew one of her other voice students, the late Grace Panvini, and always enjoyed hearing about the great teacher.) TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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