Making the Music for Silent Movies

Rosa Rio played live organ for silent films, then for NBC Radio, and then for TV soap operas. She still plays live organ when the Tampa Theatre in Florida holds a silent movie night. Rio tells Scott Simon about the high notes of a long career.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Rosa Rio has been in show business so long she's outlasted several artforms. She began as a theater organist during the silent film era. When talkies put her out of that business, the classically trained musician moved over to NBC Radio. She provided the soundtrack for radio shows that included The Shadow and My True Story, the 1930s through the 1950s. Then when television put radio soap operas out of business, except for the Car Guys, of course, Rosa Rio moved with them, playing the music for As the World Turns on CBS.

Rosa Rio has logged more than 60 years at the keyboard. These days, she's still playing the mighty Wurlitzer for silent films at the Tampa Theater in Florida. She's also scored more than 300 silent films for video releases. Rosa Rio joins us now from the Tampa Theater, where she's sitting at the organ.

Ms. Rio, thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. ROSA RIO (Organist) Well, thank you very much. I'm delighted to be with you. It's heavenly here being in the Tampa Theater at this wonderful organ.

SIMON: What kind of organ is it?

Ms. RIO: This is a typical theater organ that was in the days of silent pictures. And it is the last that will ever be made. This wonderful, three-manual, 15-rank organ has everything on it. It's very much like an orchestra, you see. A piano only has one keyboard. We have three keyboards. Instead of calling them keyboards, we call them manuals. Well, that's because we can have different setups on each manual. For instance, I may just have this harp on the bottom.

(Soundbite of organ music)

Ms. RIO: And I may have on the top, the brass.

(Soundbite of organ music)

Ms. RIO: And then I might have on the middle one, sort of a full organ.

(Soundbite of organ music)

Ms. RIO: Now, did I forget my feet? Well, I mustn't forget the feet because they play the pedal. Where the left hand swings down to get the bass note, my left foot just plays it.

(Soundbite of organ music)

Ms. RIO: Now, there's a string quality there, but I can bring in the brass.

(Soundbite organ music)

Ms. RIO: When I let this organ really sing out, people really - their shoulders, their feet, everything goes. They say wow!

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: The bad guy is tying the heroine to the train track and a train is approaching. What do you play?

Ms. RIO: Well, I would have to go to strings and start like this.

(Soundbite of organ music)

SIMON: Here it comes! A train!

Ms. RIO: All aboard!

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Oh, my word. How much would you know about a film, or a soap opera, before you begin to play the music? I mean, would you sometimes be playing along to a film you were seeing for the first time? Because films, after all, are not like videotapes or DVDs. It was quite a production to thread them up.

Ms. RIO: Well, in the old days, I didn't have a chance to see it in advance. We had the new film; we ran it always on Monday mornings, generally a one o'clock show. And I faked it through. Then I would run out and get my music, or get ideas that I'd write down as I played. And then the next show, I did a good job. The next show I did a better job. By the time you played three shows a day, seven days a week, at the end of the week I really had it down perfect. And that was the end. And then I'd start over, all over from Sunday night, Monday again.

With the theater here, I generally think about it. I go to bed and I'll wake up around four or five o'clock in the morning with themes running through my head. And I'd grab a piece of paper and write down enough to, what I call a springboard.

I enjoy being a part of a picture. I love going into a trance and being inspired by little tiny themes. I write out everything and memorize it. And then I get here. I look at the screen and do something different.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Ms. Rio, what was Orson Wells like?

Ms. RIO: Oh, Orson Wells was - he was a dear. He was young then. And this was his first The Shadow. And I was his first organist and we did the first radio show of that. And he was always pulling tricks on everybody after rehearsal. Everybody else went out to have a coffee or went - sat down to relax. Not Orson. He took off some character that was in the latest movie, whatever it was. It didn't make any difference to him if it was Cinderella and a broom. And he just had us just in stitches.

But he was great because he had to be on two mikes. He had to be on a regular mike and what we call a filter mike, because he had to answer himself. He had to be The Shadow on the filter mike. Then he had to be Cranston on the regular mike. So when he said something as Cranston, he had just about four steps. He would be on the other mike and change of voice, change of character, was fantastic.

(Soundbite of The Shadow)

Mr. ORSON WELLS (Actor/Director): (As Cranston) Why don't you tell them who you are, you glory seeker?

(As The Shadow): I seek no glory. My reward is the ship that men can once more safely sail the seas. The Shadow's work is done.

(Soundbite of organ music)

Mr. WELLS: (As The Shadow) The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay. The Shadow knows.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIO: He was great to work with. I understand when he went to Hollywood that he became a star and he was impossible. I didn't know him in those days. I only knew him in his young days.

SIMON: Do you remember the music from The Shadow?

Ms. RIO: Oh, I remember the theme. You want the theme?

SIMON: Yeah.

(Soundbite of The Shadow theme music)

SIMON: Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of evil men?

(Soundbite of The Shadow theme music)

SIMON: The Shadow does.

(Soundbite of The Shadow theme music)

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Ahh!

Ms. RIO: Whooo knooows?

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. Oh, that's hilarious. Miss Rio, I know you studied classical music. How did you get from that into becoming what I'll refer to as America's accompanist?

Ms. RIO: Well, you must remember that years ago, women didn't have the freedom that we have today. And as a Southern girl, my family certainly would not, and did not approve, of my thinking of going into any show business. So I was - went away to Oberlin, where I studied classical music. And I knew they gave me a good foundation. But I wasn't happy and I didn't know exactly what to do.

At the end of the year, the dean called me into the office, and said they had looked over my report of the year and they would advise me that I would never make it in the music world. That was the end of May when she told me the news. But in April, I had already made up my mind what I was going to do. I had gone into Cleveland, and we had gone to one of the great theaters that they were building at that time. They were absolutely gold-gilded, red carpet, green carpet. You name it.

Being a southerner, I had never been into such a theater. And I was just floored. I don't know what the picture was today, and I don't think I was interested. But I heard a sound I had never heard before. I saw the pinpoint of a light grow larger and a console came from out of the pit, on the right hand side of the theater. And I heard theater organ for the first time in my life.

I stayed for the second show just to hear it again. And when I walked out on the street, I looked up at the sky as if to say a prayer. I said thanks. I now know what I want to be in my life. I laugh and say, as long as I can play, lift me on the bench. I'll play. And I just couldn't be happier.

(Soundbite of organ music)

SIMON: Miss Rio, thanks so much. It's been delightful talking to you.

Ms. RIO: Well, thank you very much for having me. And I hope I'll be back next year, five years from now, 10 years from now. If you need me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Good. Good. Good. Good to know.

Rosa Rio speaking to us from the Tampa Theater in Tampa.

(Soundbite of organ music)

This WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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