Sunday, March 01, 2009

Rosa Rio, Pt. 6

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

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

Some of Rio’s fondest memories are of the comedians she worked with. They provided her with humorous, yet often tense, moments. One such incident came thanks to the famous Jimmy Durante.

“One of the last times I was on with him I was to play the Hammond organ. Now, when he was younger he had been a bit of a piano player, but he just ruined the music. That was part of his personality. He did it to make people laugh. Well, I was scheduled to go on and he was running over. I kept looking at the clock. I was on in 15 minutes, then it was ten, then five. Next thing I know I was on in one minute and he was just finishing his routine. I was terrified to say anything. How do you go to a big star like Jimmy Durante and say ‘Sorry Mr. Durante, but I’m on next’? He finally looked over and saw me and called me out onto the stage. He met me over at the organ, laid that famous hat down and said ‘I’d give a million dollars to be able to play like you.’ Later his manager came and saw me and said, ‘You know, he meant every word of that.’”

As well as Rio got along well with her co-workers and employers, she continued to face the challenges of a working woman at the time. In his book on radio history The Great American Broadcast, Leonard Maltin relates announcer Jackson Beck’s story of the time Rio had to contend with the antics of fellow announcer/actor Dorian St. George. “She’s at the Hammond organ, and she’s a very attractive talented lady, great sense of humor. And he [St. George] went up and unbuttoned her blouse while she’s playing; she had a blouse with buttons down the back. He unbuttoned the whole thing and then he undid her bra. She can’t say anything, and there’s an audience up in the visitors’ booth at NBC watching this. She waits until his middle commercial comes up and she walks up, undoes his belt, unzips his fly and drops his pants.”

Rio says the incident really happened and notes how different life was for working women back then. “They did everything they could to tease me because I had the reputation of being a good sport. You see I was the only woman and that was really something. I must say they never showed me anything but great respect, but they did love to tease me.”

- 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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