EXPIRED: 05/13/10 – Rosa Rio, 107, kept her age a secret until recently. Even her family didn’t really know how old she was. Why? She didn’t want age discrimination to limit her job opportunities, and in her line of work jobs were few and far between as it were.
You see, Rio was an organist who played alongside movie screens to accompany silent films. It was she, who musically framed the actions of such stars as Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton and Mary Pickford, as they flickered on film. And this wasn’t an easy job. It was a real profession. Rio went to school for it, earning a degree in the Art of Film Accompaniment at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. She worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, and took home $40 a week.
And on Oct. 6, 1927 — the day the first “talking movie picture” in film history, “The Jazz Singer,” appeared across American movie screens — Rosa Rio broke down and wept.
The reason? She knew then that her career had a limited lifespan.
“One day Al Jolson comes in and sings ‘Mammy,’ and I’m out,” she recalled in 2006.
So when her film opportunities faded, she turned to radio playing the dramatic underlying scores for “The Shadow,” “As the World Turns” and other live radio soap operas.
They called her “The Queen of the Soaps.”
In the 80’s, when silent movies were put on Video Cassette tapes, Rio was called on again to reprise her role as musical accompaniment. But, when that work dried up she moved to Florida.
Then in 1993, Rio found work providing live musical accompaniment to dozens of silent films at the historic Tampa Theatre, reprising what she had done more than 80 years earlier, when movies were new – and silent.
In August, at the age of 107, she was still at the keyboard at the historic Tampa Theatre, providing accompaniment for a screening of Buster Keaton’s silent film “One Week.” The movie was made in 1920, when Rio was already a seasoned musician of 18.
Rio was born Elizabeth Raub, but she took the stage name of Rosa Rio because it fit easily on a theater marquee. That marquee is dark now. She died at home just 3 weeks shy of her 108th birthday.