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Tampa Theatre organ pauses in silence with passing of Rosa Rio

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By Mitch Traphagen

SUN CITY CENTER ­— Famed theater organist Rosa Rio passed away in her Sun City Center home on May 13. She was 107 years old.
Ms. Rio witnessed the entire spectrum of the modern entertainment industry. She began her career in silent movies and for the past 14 years has worked with the historic Tampa Theatre.
A Tampa Theatre press release said that since 1996, Ms. Rio performed for more than 30 silent films to full houses while seated at the theater’s 1,400-pipe Mighty Wurlitzer Theater Organ. Her last performance was on August 30, 2009, performing for a Buster Keaton silent comedy film.
Tara Schroeder, the director of programming and marketing for the Tampa Theatre had become friends with Ms. Rio over the years.

Rosa Rio at Tampa Theatre’s Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ on May 28, 2006.
Photo courtesy of the Tampa
“I feel so fortunate to have become so close to her. She is a testament to the will of spirit,” Schroeder said. “Rosa was part of our family here, but also a big part of the Sun City Center family.”
Tampa Theatre president and CEO John Bell said, “We were so fortunate to have Rosa as part of the Tampa Theatre family for the past 14 years. She was an amazing woman with remarkable talent who introduced tens of thousands of people to the magic of silent films and the theatre organ. While I am very saddened by her passing, I am so thankful that she was able to share her musical talents throughout her long and fulfilling life. She was an inspiration to so many people, young and old.”
According to an obituary by Margalit Fox in the Sunday New York Times, Rosa had a strong reaction to seeing the film, “The Jazz Singer” on October 6, 1927. “Rosa Rio broke down and wept. Al Jolson was talking and the very sound of him, she knew, would put her out of business.”
Her fears proved unfounded as she continued for another 82 years performing through radio shows, into television soap operas and finally at the Tampa Theatre.
Rosa Rio is survived by her husband, Bill Yeoman.
The Tampa Theatre is planning a celebration of the life of Rosa Rio on Saturday, June 5, at 11 a.m. The event is open to the public at no charge. For more information, visit www.tampatheatre.org.
Condolences may be sent to: Tampa Theatre, Attn: Rosa’s Family, 711 N. Franklin St., Tampa, FL 33602.

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