Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Rosa Rio, Pt. 2

Originally published in the February, 2009, Old Radio Times.(

Rosa Rio: the Music of the Air
Thomas P. Honsa

Despite her enthusiasm, the attitudes of the time presented Rio with difficulties in her career. Being a woman, she faced special challenges, and she realized this when she audtitoned for the job at Loew’s theaters in the New York area.

“The reason I got the job at Loew’s was that nobody else wanted it. The manger had already interviewed five other organists and they all turned it down. I was there and he began to tell me about the hours and the pay and conditions. I nodded my head and said ‘Yes, sir.’ He was finished and looked at me and said, ‘You didn’t inquire about the organ… it’s an Austin and I’ve had some of the top organists refuse to play it.’ Well, I knew the Austin wasn’t a theater organ, it was a classical organ but I wasn’t afraid of it,” she remembers. “It made me angry that the only reason he was interviewing me was because other organists had already turned him down. That was my turning point. I realized that it was a man’s world and that I’d have to fight all the way.”

From New York it was on to Louisiana. According to, by the late 1920s Rio was the featured musician at their New Orleans Strand and Saenger theaters and toured the chain’s other venues. She had recently married John Hammond, and southern theaters offered good money.

“They really wanted to get a big name for their chain, and especially a northerner. That was prestige with a capital P,” she says.

It was around that time, though, that a career change became necessary for all theater organists, thanks to Warner Brothers’ The Jazz Singer.

“When Al Jolson got down on one knee in 1927 and sang ‘Mammy’ that was the end for us,” she says. “There was nothing left to do but fulfill our union contracts. Actually, though, there were many break-downs [with the new sound equipment], so the theater owners were glad to have us to entertain the audience. But eventually they perfected it and we were through,” she remembers.

- Tom Honsa is an adjunct professor of History at Eckerd College and Manatee Community College in Florida. He recently interviewed Rosa Rio, who is still performing at the age (unofficially) of 105.


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