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Last of the movie organists; updated

Matt Schudel

Word has reached us from Florida that Rosa Rio, the last of the silent-movie organists, has died at the magnificent age of 107. (She would have been 108 in less than three weeks.)

After I posted this blog on Friday, we decided that Rosa Rio's story was just too good not to share with everyone, so I prepared a full-length obituary of her on Saturday to run Sunday.

She began playing piano in her native New Orleans at 4 and was appearing in theaters when she was 10 -- in 1912, in other words -- and gave her final public concert last year. She was still playing piano at home a week before she died. I think it's safe to say that her professional career of 97 years has to be among the longest in show-business history.

Until she turned 105 in 2007, Miss Rio never revealed her age, saying, "Honey, age is just a number and mine is unlisted."

She was trained at the Oberlin and Eastman conservatories but was better known for perfomring the themes and incidental music for radio soap operas, comedies and mysteries, including "The Shadow," with Orson Welles, "The Bob and Ray Show," "Cavalcade of America" and "The Goldbergs." She worked for NBC and later played for TV soap operas. In a 2006 interview with NPR, Miss Rio played the theme of "The Shadow" from memory.

She lived in Connecticut for many years, continued playing and teaching music and wrote scores for more than 100 silent movies. In 1996, she moved to Florida and became the regular organist at the historic Tampa Theatre. As it happens, I've actually been in the Tampa Theatre and have seen and heard its 1,400-pipe Wurlitzer organ. I didn't see Miss Rio perform there, but I have seen the stage open up and the organ rise from the depths of the theater like a subterranean force unleased on the world. The sound, rumbling and brilliant, like a combination of trumpets and thunder, shakes the entire building and every bone in your body.

Here's a remarkable clip of Miss Rio playing that organ in Tampa, as it rises through the floor. She was, amazingly, 105 years old when this video was recorded:

By Matt Schudel  |  May 14, 2010; 1:08 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  | Tags: Arts, NBC, New Orleans, Organ, Orson Welles, Rosa Rio, Silent film, Wurlitzer  
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