Rosa Rio (June 2, 1902 – May 13, 2010), born Elizabeth Raub, was an American theater and motion picture organist known also for production and arrangement. Rosa Rio began her career as a silent film accompanist. She became a leading organist on network radio for soap opera and drama and continued to perform until age 107, becoming one of the oldest performers in the music industry with a lengthy career, particularly in theatre.
Rosa Rio was raised in New Orleans. At the age of four, she began playing the piano and started taking lessons when she was eight years old. At the age of nine, Rio first played the piano at a silent movie theatre. After her musical education at Oberlin College, she studied at the Eastman School of Music. As a theatre organist, she performed in Syracuse, the Loew's theaters in New York, as well as Saenger's Southeastern theatre chain, the Scranton Paramount, Brooklyn Fox Theatre, RKO Albee and the Brooklyn Paramount.She was working at the Saenger Theatre in her hometown of New Orleans when Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer was released, signaling the end of the silent film era. At a birthday concert in 2007, she revealed her true age, June 2, 1902, thereby making her 107 years old when she died in 2010.
Bill Yeoman, her husband for 63 years said that initially her name was Elizabeth Raub, but then she used a stage name of Rosa Rio as it fitted easily on a theater marquee. Her early marriage to John Hammond, a fellow organist who was also her professor at the Eastman School of Music, ended in divorce. They had a son, John Hammond III who died before her on May 13, 2010. According to published accounts, she had three grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and a pet snail named Iowa.
Caricature of Rosa Rio reflecting on her career as a staff organist for NBC Radio.
During her 22 years in a radio station, she was known as Queen of the Soaps, providing the organ background music for 24 soap operas and radio dramas, and playing an average of five to seven shows per day. Some of the programs she played for included Bob and Ray, Ethel and Albert, Front Page Farrell, Lorenzo Jones, My True Story, The Shadowand When a Girl Marries.
During World War II she had her own radio show, Rosa Rio Rhythms. On some occasions, she went right from one program to another, as when Lorenzo Jones and Bob and Ray were both adjacent on NBC's schedule during the early 1950s. Sometimes, she had less than 50 seconds to run from one NBC studio to another.
Television and videos
Rosa made a smooth transition into television, playing for shows such as As the World Turns and The Today Show.However, television offered fewer opportunities for work in comparison to radio, so Rosa Rio moved to Connecticut where she opened a school of music teaching singing, the organ and piano.
During the 1980s, she provided scores and Hammond organ accompaniment to more than 370 silent films released on video by Video Yesteryear.
In 1993, she moved to Hillsborough County in Florida, where she provided accompaniment to silent films at the Tampa Theatre. It was from the stage of the Tampa Theatre in 2007 that she first publicly gave her real age, which she kept to herself for decades due to age discrimination dating back to her network radio years. Because Rio never celebrated birthdays, some of the members of family weren't aware of her age until the night before her Tampa Theatre "confession". She celebrated her 107th birthday in June 2009. Her organ arrangements are still in print and available from Michael's Music Service.
Rio died on May 13, 2010, just three weeks short of her 108th birthday.