The thing that impressed me most about my late friend Rosa Rio wasn’t her incredible musical talents. Of course, she could play anything in any key. She was a clever and inventive silent film organist, always finding the right melody for the right moment.
When she played a Gershwin medley on our Steinway, she made it her own. I was lucky enough to sing with her over the course of five or six shows at Tampa Theatre, Hillsborough Community College and the Palladium.
Even though her hearing was going at age 106, she still was my favorite accompanist – setting an easy rhythm, filling in around the vocals and tossing off a nice instrumental improvisation before I came back with the bridge. I think it was all those decades of listening that kicked in even though she couldn’t hear very well herself anymore.
But what always amazed me about Rosa was her memory. She didn’t just remember incidents. She remembered all the details. What Eleanor Roosevelt was wearing when Rosa popped in to the green room at NBC to meet her. Or the time Jimmy Durante, who was not bad on the keyboards himself, told Rosa he’d give “a million bucks” if her could play like her.
Or the night she and a young hopeful named Mary Martin auditioned for Cole Porter at his Waldorf Astoria apartment at midnight. Porter sat in shadow. He was crippled from a riding accident and his piano had no pedals. When Rosa struggled a bit with it, he apologized.
“Miss Rio, I’ve heard you play and I know what you can do,” he said.
Mary Martin aced the audition and was soon singing “My Heart Belongs To Daddy,” on Broadway. It launched her career. She and Rosa remained friends for life.
Rosa remembered it all. particularly the bawdy and fun parts.
During her shows and rehearsals here, her laugh would echo through our dressing rooms and the theater.
When she played her first show for us in 2008 she was 105. She arrived at 5 p.m. for her 7:30 show. A tiny, slender woman, Rosa arrived in a glittering top and brought her soft slip-ons for working the pedals.
When Damon Dougherty, our production manager, explained that he’d be helping her onto the organ that night, Rosa didn’t miss a beat: “And whose organ will I be getting on?”
While Damon’s face turned bright red, Rosa’s throaty laugh filled the room.
That night she played for a Buster Keaton silent film. She took a dozen questions from the audience. We sang Gershwin and Porter and she played a bit of Rhapsody In Blue, merging into I Got Rhythm and The Man I Love. The show lasted almost two hours.
After the show, she greeted everyone who stood in a long line to say hello.
By the time it was over, it was almost 11 p.m. I asked if she was ready to be driven home.
“Home?” Rosa asked, incredulously. “Let’s go get a drink.”
We went for dinner and drinks at Park Shore Grill. She drank Scotch and had a pork chop. It was almost 1 when we put her in the car.
I stood on the curb. Rosa was in the back seat. She smiled like a happy child. I remember her waving madly at me as the car pulled away – good night! Good night!
Good night, Rosa. We miss you already.
To see a video recording of the show she presented that night in 2008 go to You Tube and search for Rosa Rio and the Palladium. Thanks to Jeremy Peplow, of St. Petersburg College, and his crew for capturing that magical night at the Palladium.