Friday, February 27, 2009

Rosa Rio, Pt. 4

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

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

One thing Rio still remembers fondly about The Shadow is the professionalism exhibited by the stars and staff. Even then, she says, she could spot Welles’ genius.

“I remember Orson Welles had two microphones. He, of course, was two characters, the detective Lamont Cranston and the Shadow. He would run from the first microphone to the second to do the different voices. He was simply amazing and could completely change character in those three or four steps.”

Radio drama had an unpredictability that Rio had trained well for with her work in silent film. Often, she says, actors would rehearse a scene one way and then would broadcast it another, changing the tenor of the whole show. And she had to adjust on the go.

“I think I did that an awful lot unconsciously. You had to follow the actors, and the actors would read the script one way the first time and the next time it was a little different. They may change their entire character by the time we were on the air.”

This knack for what Rio calls “instant composing” was a source of her long success in the business, and she credits not only natural talent, but formal training as well.

“The people who employed me to do The Shadow were very impressed with my ability to do impromptu music. I could match the playing with the mood of the script. It seems something I was born with and I had for years done it in silent pictures. I did it right, too. A lot of the guys were faking when they tried to impromptu, but I never faked. I had a good musical background.”

That flexibility was not only a factor in her success, says Rio, but was critical to the success of radio drama as a whole. “In radio,” she says, “everybody listening has a different picture of what’s going on. The music creates the feeling for the situation, though. The music creates the mood while the mind creates the pictures… your audience imagines how you looked. You had only the voices and the listener was in their own little heaven.”

Rio’s success on The Shadow led to more work on other big-name shows such as Cavalcade of America and Town Hall Tonight. Along the way she had the opportunity to work with some of the biggest names in American entertainment. Kirk Douglas, she says, was especially impressive.

“We used to say Kirk Douglas was on stage all the time. From the moment he would pick up the script and start to rehearse he was already acting. He was remarkable...full of ‘hot vinegar’ as we used to say. It didn’t matter what the show was, he could be convincing on any story.”

- 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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