The queen of soaps comes clean

Published June 7, 2007

TAMPA -- She made her entrance like always.

Rosa Rio ascended from beneath the Tampa Theatre stage floor, her fingers coaxing Everything's Coming Up Roses from the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ. Her pale pink gown sparkled under the spotlight as the audience greeted her with thick applause.

It was like any other Sunday matinee performance, except for this: After decades of coy demurrals, the legendary organist had decided at last to answer publicly the question she detests.

How old is the Queen of the Soaps?

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Loyal fans naturally wondered. They marveled at the longevity of a woman who accompanied silent films in the '20s, made her name playing the organ for soap operas and radio dramas at NBC in the '30s and '40s, scored more than 300 silent films for videocassette release -- and still provides live music for silent films at Tampa Theatre.

People guessed at her age, but their arithmetic failed them. Eighty? Ninety?

"I don't have a gray hair on my head," Rio would swoon in her genteel New Orleans accent. "I have all my teeth."

Prying reporters tried for clarification. "Old as the day is young," she told the Chicago Tribune in 1985. She told the New York Times she had made up so many lies about her age, she wasn't sure how old she really was.

A St. Petersburg Times reporter got her stock answer in 1999: "Honey, age is just a number and mine is unlisted."

At NBC in the 1940s, Rio said, she was discriminated against because she was older than other musicians, and because she is female. She was stuck with her gender. But when a business manager asked for her birth date, Rio knocked off some years.

"Nobody questioned me about it," she said.

Blessed with youthful good looks, she started dressing younger to keep up the facade, said Lou Pine, a friend who is pulling together material for a biography.

When she moved from Connecticut to Sun City Center in 1993, she gave June 2, 1914, as her birth date on her driver's license. That would make her 93 now.

But Pine has a news clipping that shows her playing professionally in New Orleans -- under her married name at the time -- in 1928. He reasons that she couldn't have been married and playing for pay at age 14.

Records from the 1930 census, unearthed Wednesday by a Times researcher, also put the lie to the 1914 birth date. The census gives a more accurate age, one Rio eventually shared with a few insiders.

Last year she confided in Tampa Theatre president John Bell, her friend for a decade.

"I was dumbfounded," he said. "But I promised to keep it a secret."

Rio and her husband, Bill Yeoman, who is also her manager, say they never celebrated birthdays. He's secretive about his age too. Public records say he's 87. This year, for no particular reason, Rio changed her tune. At a party Saturday in Sun City Center, she revealed her age, surprising even some family members.

Then came Sunday. More than 700 people gathered at the Tampa Theatre for an afternoon silent film trilogy featuring Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton.

The event was to begin with a birthday slide show tribute to the woman who began playing by ear at age 4.

Rio wavered about whether to finally reveal the truth. Ten minutes before showtime, she decided not to care anymore.

"Okay," she told Bell. "Lob me the question."

Bell delivered. Microphone in hand, Rio asked the audience to guess her age.

"Fifty-nine!" someone shouted from the balcony.

Rio grinned and blew a kiss. She paused for dramatic effect.

"One-hundred and five," she said.

The patrons gasped. When they gave a standing ovation, Rio bit her trembling lip and fought back tears. Then she slid back onto the organ bench.

She had a show to do.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

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Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes they will play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes they may be part of the news. To comment or suggest an idea for a story, contact editor Mike Wilson at mike@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2924.