Thursday, February 26, 2009

Rosa Rio, Pt. 3

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

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

Rio left New Orleans and began teaching. “That led to an audition for me at NBC in New York,” she says. But just as she had in silent cinema, she had to fight for her status as a woman in show business. “I auditioned for Leopold Spitalny [then head of NBC music]. I finished and he said, ‘That was excellent. You played that beautifully.’ So I asked, ‘Did I get the job?’ He sort of hemmed and hesitated and finally said, ‘Well, stay a week and we’ll see.’ That made me mad. I said, ‘Wait a minute, did your ad say you were looking for a male or female organist? It shouldn’t make a difference. Now, if I come in on Monday, I’m staying more than a week.’ He smiled at me and said, ‘Okay.’ And I was there for the next seven years…You see, he judged me by my work and not my sex.”

The year was 1938 and Rio was assigned to NBC’s The Shadow, starring a very young, and very mischievous, Orson Welles. Welles reportedly dropped his script once while standing at the microphone at the start of a live broadcast. Radio performers of the time regularly held the scripts before them throughout the shows and audiences at home, of course, could never tell. Now Welles, before his horrified colleagues, had strewn his lines across the studio floor. Just as his they began to scramble for the scattered pages, he calmly pulled an extra, hidden copy of his lines from his coat pocket, grinned and continued the show. Rio says that was vintage Welles.

“He loved to play tricks on people and constantly kept us in stitches. We always had to watch our laughter because we were on the air. He was so remarkable, though, and so talented that the producers never said a word to him about his antics. They were so taken with his artistry...he was absolutely perfect in his timing. But you never knew what he was going to do.”

- 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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