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Rosa Rio, movie organist, dead at 107

May 16, 2010 at 11:37 AM   |   Comments

SUN CITY CENTER, Fla., May 16 (UPI) -- Rosa Rio, who began playing the organ at silent movies in 1912 when William Howard Taft was U.S. president, has died just short of her 108th birthday.

Rio's professional musical career, which began at age 10, ended last summer when she accompanied a screening of Buster Keaton's 1920 silent film "One Week" in Tampa, Fla. She broke her hip in March but still practiced on her grand piano despite an infection and the flu, The Washington Post reported. She died at home Thursday at 107.

After studying film accompaniment at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., in the 1920s, at the age of 18 she was hired at a movie house in Syracuse for $40 a week.

"I worked every day from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., and I thought I was the luckiest girl in the world," she said in a 2006 National Public Radio interview.

Rio witnessed the birth of talking pictures in 1927 when Al Jolson appeared in the first synchronized sound film "The Jazz Singer" while she was playing at the Saenger Theatre in her hometown of New Orleans.

"One day Al Jolson comes in and sings 'Mammy,' and I'm out," she said.

She continued working for next 80 years at such movie palaces as the Fox Theatre in New York's Brooklyn borough, Lowes Burnside Theater in the Bronx and at NBC, performing themes and incidental music for "The Shadow," "The Bob and Ray Show," "The Goldbergs," and 24 soap operas.

When radio and television shows no longer needed incidental music from a mighty Wurlitzer, she taught organ, piano and voice, and in the 1980s performed soundtracks for nearly 400 silent films re-released on videocassette.

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