Other Matters: Rosa Rio

Television was a long time coming to the little eastern Washington town where I grew up. As a boy, I listened to a lot of radio. It made pictures in my head. One of the pictures was of something called a Mighty Wurlitzer and the woman who played it. It seemed that the theme music or background of half the shows on the air were by Rosa Rio, whose name was all but synonymous with that gargantuan instrument. Ms. Rio died on Thursday, less than a month short of her 108th birthday.
She was born in New Orleans in 1902 and decided on a life in show business when she was a youngster. Upon hearing a Wurlitzer for the first time, she switched from piano to organ. In movie houses, she provided music for silent films, including this insane Buster Keaton sketch, revived at the Tampa Theatre after she allegedly retired to Florida but couldn’t stop playing.

Ms. Rio was mistress of a craft that required musicianship, quick reflexes, flexibility and a sense of humor. When talkies made theatre organists redundant, she accompanied and coached singers in New York, then adapted to radio. At NBC, she played for everything from soap operas to the intervals between World War Two news bulletins. She helped frighten me as I huddled under the covers in my darkened bedroom listening to The Shadow after I was supposed to be asleep. She laid in organ stings that doubled the menace and portent in Orson Welles’ voice. Long after I had become an adult, Ms. Rio was still going strong in radio as the organist on, among other programs, The Bob and Ray Show. Indeed, she performed until nearly the end. Here is a clip from Tampa in 2007, when she was 105 years old. She introduces a Duke Ellington medley with a couple of minutes of talk. The inadequate acoustics make it difficult to catch all of her words, but when at 2:22 she begins to play, nothing can obscure the massive organ. Rosa Rio and the Mighty Wurlitzer are an indelible part of Americana.

For an obituary of Rosa Rio, see this piece by Margalit Fox in The New York Times.

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  1. Hal Strack says

    I do not know, one way or the other, if Emil Breitenfeld (Paul Desmond’s father, himself a theater organist) knew or knew of Rosa Rio. In the mid-1900s New York and San Francisco were worlds apart, as opposed to today. There were organists in other theaters in the City, but the premier organist in San Francisco was George Wright, who played the mammoth organ in the equally large Fox Theater.

  2. Diane Hehir says

    I believe she’s telling a joke involving the laws of supply and demand. A dead pope is confused by the relative humbleness of his heavenly abode vis a vis the Ellington mansion on the hill. St. Peter says he’s up to his neck in popes but only has one piano player….