She improvs with age 

A gift for improvisation has carried organist Rosa Rio through a century of change.

Beyond the Rocks with live, original accompaniment by Rosa Rio on the Mighty Wurlitzer theater organ

click to enlarge ALWAYS AT THE KEYBOARD: Rosa today (seated at Tampa Theatre's Mighty Wurlitzer), and at Brooklyn's Fox Theatre in 1934 (below). - WAYNE GARCIA
  • Wayne Garcia
  • ALWAYS AT THE KEYBOARD: Rosa today (seated at Tampa Theatre's Mighty Wurlitzer), and at Brooklyn's Fox Theatre in 1934 (below).

Legendary organist Rosa Rio sits at the concert grand piano in her living room and plays a buoyant tune she's written for a scene in Beyond the Rocks, a long-lost silent film.

Rosa has an expert touch on the piano and is focused as she plays, as if lost in thought. The piece of music she's rehearsing is in fact an improvisation, based on notes she made while watching a folk dance in the film.

"It came to me right away," she says. "So I ran quickly and ran down a notation. Once I have a start, it's like you pushed someone down with a sledge."

Rosa is a master of improvisation, a gift that's followed her throughout her career -- from accompanying pictures in the silent film era, to playing intros and interludes before and after talkies, to accompanying ballet and vocalists, to radio work, to television, and now back to silent films -- a span of more than 80 years.

"Nothing is lost," she says of her ability to improvise. And of its necessity to her work, she says, "Fundamentally, that part didn't change."

She's watched Beyond the Rocks several times now on DVD and is putting together her cue sheet, a list of cues and scenes and their respective themes. She won't be following sheet music when she accompanies the film at the Tampa Theatre on Sunday. Her method is to memorize the first few bars of the themes she creates and then to improvise as the scenes play out.

"Hence," she says, "my eyes stay on the screen and not on the music rack."

Beyond the Rocks is a 1922 melodrama starring Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson. Directed by Sam Wood, it was one of the first studio pictures to pair two marquee names. For more than 75 years, the film's only surviving fragment was a one-minute nitrate strip -- until 2003, when film cataloguers at the Nederlands Filmmuseum discovered a complete set of nitrate reels among vintage prints bequeathed by a collector. Only two minutes of the six-act feature were irrecoverable due to nitrate damage.

click to enlarge arts_feature1-2.jpg

The museum restored the prints carefully with support from patrons such as Martin Scorsese, who also lent the film a brief on-camera introduction, in which he calls Beyond the Rocks "a precious gift." The restored version made its international premiere at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, where it was celebrated as a reminder of the pleasures of silent filmmaking.

The film itself centers on a woman who falls in love with a younger man during her honeymoon. And for Valentino, who plays the morally upstanding younger man, it's a departure from The Sheik (1921) and the more seductive, heartthrob roles for which he's famous.

"I'm going to have to stretch my imagination," Rosa says. "He's very coy in this picture. Swanson is just the opposite. So this time I didn't look at my repertoire."

Rosa has a bit of gypsy charm to her features. Her eyes are perceptive, her manner engaging -- at once witty, modest and willful. And it's all there when she smiles.

When talking with her in person, you must face her directly and speak at the same volume you would to someone in a packed bar. Time, of course, is partly responsible for the erosion of her hearing, but so is a lifetime spent in and around the orchestra pit.

Rosa keeps her age a secret. Most likely she's somewhere in her 90s. Her stock response, when asked, is simply, "Age is nothing but a number, and mine's unlisted." It's a cheeky thing to say, but for her it's something of a creed.

She lives with her husband Bill Yeoman in Sun City Center, FL, a community of retirement subdivisions south of Brandon. Its arterial highway, State Road 674, is so sleepy that residents motor across it in golf carts.

But Rosa is hardly a retiree.

"I get up every day and have something to do," she says. "I must do this, I must do that. I never have a day that I feel like I accomplished as much as I'd like to do."

In her Florida room she has an exercise bike and a Reebok step. Every Sunday she goes to the community pool and swims a lap. She keeps several books going, mostly on metaphysics.

click to enlarge RUN, ROSA, RUN: During her days accompanying radio soap operas, she had less than a minute to run from one studio to the next in Rockefeller Center.
  • RUN, ROSA, RUN: During her days accompanying radio soap operas, she had less than a minute to run from one studio to the next in Rockefeller Center.

Throughout the interview, Bill is in and out of the room, rejoining the conversation and affectionately giving her a hard time. He also helps to pick up the thread of different stories she's telling. Some responses she seems to recite. Others have an element of, well, improvisation.

Rosa got her first paying gig when she was about 10 years old, when she filled in for a friend who played organ at a neighborhood theater in her hometown of New Orleans. The projector was in the same room as the screen, and her instructions were, "Play loud and don't stop." It paid five cents an hour.

In the midst of playing, Rosa felt her father's hand on the back of her neck. He removed her from the bench, telling her that no daughter of his would do that kind of work.

"I was not encouraged," she says. "If you wanted to play in the parlor, you could. But I wanted to play for people. When I was adamant about what I wanted to do -- that or else -- then I got a little support. But just a little."

Rosa studied music at Oberlin College after high school, and then enrolled at the Eastman School of Music, where she struggled financially while studying accompaniment to motion pictures.

Upon graduation, she took her first full-time job, making $40 a week, as organist at the System Theatre in Syracuse.

"I was the only organist," she says. "I worked every day from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., and I thought I was the luckiest girl in the world."

When asked what year that was, she says, "Gosh, I don't remember little things like that."

click to enlarge NOT SO SHEIK: Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson in Beyond the Rocks, which Rosa accompanies Sunday at Tampa Theatre.
  • NOT SO SHEIK: Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson in Beyond the Rocks, which Rosa accompanies Sunday at Tampa Theatre.

Memory has a way of retaining only what's necessary.

Later, for instance, again at the piano, she plays "Stardust," beautifully, from memory. It was one of the songs most requested, she says, by soldiers during World War II.

One year Rosa can't forget is 1927. She was living in New Orleans, performing at the Saenger Theatre and other Saenger houses throughout the South. That October, Warner Brothers released The Jazz Singer, the first major motion picture with sound. Theaters instantly thinned their orchestras.

"We just all got together and cried," she says.

Many theaters went under simply trying to afford sound, and Rosa was forced to adapt her talents to other fields.

In 1938, she became the first female staff organist hired by NBC radio. Her first show was The Shadow, starring Orson Welles. Those eerie strains of Theremin-like background music? Rosa.

She provided accompaniment for 24 radio soap operas and dramas during the next 22 years, playing an average of five to seven shows per day, sometimes with less than a minute to get from one studio to the next.

At the advent of television, Rosa took jobs playing for incarnations of As the World Turns and The Today Show, but she didn't take to TV work, so she and Bill (married in 1948) moved to Connecticut and opened Rosa Rio Studio, where she began teaching organ, piano and voice.

"What has been interesting about my life -- but I can't say I loved it -- but every time I found something that I loved and thought that I'd be doing it for the rest of my life, something always came and took it away. I'm a theater organist accompanying movies, and it's wonderful. Then one day Al Jolson comes in and sings 'Mami,' and I'm out. Then I'm in radio. One morning we wake up, television took over."

In 1984, Video Yesteryears hired Rosa to score 365 silent films for its VHS collection, a project she completed within six years, performing each soundtrack on a Hammond organ.

And now things have come full circle with her performances as feature organist at the Tampa Theatre. Her favorite films are the ones she can really get her teeth into, like Charlie Chaplin's City Lights (1931). "It gives me so much to do," she says. "I work myself up in a frenzy."

Sometimes, Rosa says, "I wear myself out being a part of the movie."

"Not only that," Bill says, "but she's been in love with Valentino for years."

"I invite people to applaud in the middle of the picture," Rosa says, "to yell if they feel like it." Which is how audiences commonly behaved during the silent film era.

The applause matters.

Like any good performer, Rosa feeds off of the energy and gives it back. "I can't explain it," she says. "When I'm on stage there, I'm like a kid again."

Tampa Theatre, 711 Franklin St., Tampa, 813-274-8981. Sun., Feb. 26, 3 p.m. $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, students and military.

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