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story/story.php?storyId=127530994 - June 7, 2010
silent film classic
theater organist > Rosa Rio
“The Jazz Singer”
Oct. 6, 1927
The National Film Preservation Foundation
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Tiffany Productions > flapper comedies
Model From Paris” (1926)
and “The First Night” (1927)
early sound films
New York: Metropolitan Print Company, for Raff
Prints and Photographs Division
Library of Congress (155)
Frederica Sagor Maas,
The New York Times
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
She told of
Hollywood moguls chasing naked would-be starlets, the women shrieking with
laughter. She recounted how Joan Crawford, new to the movies, relied on her to
pick clothes. Almost obsessively, she complained about how many of her story
ideas and scripts were stolen and credited to others.
Frederica Sagor Maas told all — and maybe more — in interviews and in her
memoirs, which she published in 1999 at the age of 99. Before dying on Jan. 5 in
La Mesa, Calif., at 111, Mrs. Maas was one of the last living links to cinema’s
silent era. She wrote dozens of stories, adaptations and scripts, sat with Greta
Garbo at the famed long table in MGM’s commissary, and adapted to sound in the
movies, and then to color.
Perhaps most satisfying, Mrs. Maas outlived pretty much anybody who might have
disagreed with her version of things. “I can get my payback now,” she said in an
interview with Salon in 1999. “I’m alive and thriving and, well, you S.O.B.’s
are all below.”
(She was also the 44th-oldest person in the world, according to the Gerontology
Research Group, which keeps records of such things and which announced her
Mrs. Maas’s life was like the plot of an old-fashioned movie. She dropped out of
college to scout Broadway for movie ideas. She moved to Hollywood, rejected
encouragement to be an actress and wrote for the Universal, MGM, Paramount and
Fox studios. After the industry had no further use for her work, she almost
Much later, after giving up on Hollywood, Mrs. Maas said she would have
preferred to be a “wash lady.”
Still, Hollywood gave her stories to tell: about meeting Crawford, whom she
called “a gum-chewing dame,” and helping her find the sort of tailored clothes
she herself favored; about seeing Clara Bow dancing naked on a table at a Jazz
Age blowout. Sex, she wrote, became as “humdrum as washing your face or
cleansing your teeth.”
Frederica Sagor, one of four daughters, was born on July 6, 1900, in a
cold-water railroad flat at 101st Street near Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Her
parents, Jewish immigrants from Russia, shortened their name from Zagosky.
Frederica gave up plans to be a doctor and studied journalism at Columbia. She
worked a summer as a copy girl for The New York Globe.
She joined the movie industry, and left school, after answering a want ad for an
assistant to the story editor at Universal Pictures in New York. Getting the
job, she learned about movies by seeing ones she liked three or four times,
studying them frame by frame.
“I was fierce in my passion for this new medium,” she wrote in her memoir, “The
Shocking Miss Pilgrim: A Writer in Early Hollywood.”
In 1924, Frederica Sagor moved to Hollywood to write for Preferred Pictures. She
helped adapt “The Plastic Age,” a popular novel about collegiate life, for a
1925 movie that was a hit for Clara Bow. (Five years older than Bow, she
outlived her by more than 46.) After that success, she signed with MGM, where,
she said, others took credit for her work. In a studio system with armies of
writers, she added, that was not unusual.
“Unless you wanted to quit the business, you just kept your mouth shut,” she
She moved on to Tiffany Productions, where she got credit for the flapper
comedies “That Model From Paris” (1926) and “The First Night” (1927).
She married a screenwriter, Ernest Maas, in 1927, and went on to write scripts
both with him and by herself. For her story for “Rolled Stockings” (1927),
starring Louise Brooks, she was credited not only on the screen but on the
poster as well, a rarity then.
The couple’s lives began a downward spiral when they lost $10,000 in the 1929
stock market crash. They survived by writing movie reviews and turned out
screenplays, but all but one were rejected. The exception was a joint effort,
“The Shocking Miss Pilgrim,” a 1947 release from which Mrs. Maas took the title
for her memoir. The film was about a young stenographer who becomes the first
woman ever hired by a Boston shipping office, but even that was twisted by the
Hollywood homogenizers. Written as a study of a woman’s empowerment, “Miss
Pilgrim” was turned into a frothy musical starring Betty Grable.
Impoverished and disillusioned, the couple drove to an isolated hilltop at
sunset in 1950 with the intention of asphyxiating themselves. But they could not
go through with it, Mrs. Maas said. Suddenly clutching each other, they cried
and turned off the ignition.
“We had each other and we were alive,” Mrs. Maas told the online magazine Salon.
The couple had no children, and Mrs. Maas left no immediate survivors. Mr. Maas
died at 94 in 1986.
Neither of the two returned to the industry. To get a job as a typist in an
insurance agency, Mrs. Maas lied about her age, saying she was 40 when she was
actually 50. She advanced to adjuster.
As for movies, Mrs. Maas stopped going. “I think the product they’re making
today,” she said in 1999, “is even worse than the product we made in the early
Frederica Sagor Maas, Silent-Era Scriptwriter, Dies at 111,
Organist From Silent Films
to Soap Operas,
May 14, 2010
The New York Times
By MARGALIT FOX
On Oct. 6, 1927, the day “The Jazz Singer” splashed noisily across American
movie screens, Rosa Rio broke down and wept. Al Jolson was talking, and the very
sound of him, she knew, would put her out of business.
But Miss Rio’s fears went unrealized, and for the next eight decades — until her
final performance, last year — she built a career as one of the country’s
premier theater organists.
Miss Rio was undoubtedly among the very last to have played the silent-picture
houses, accompanying the likes of Chaplin, Keaton and Pickford on the Mighty
Wurlitzer amid velvet draperies, gilded rococo walls and vaulted ceilings awash
in stars. She was also one of the few women to have made her way in a field
dominated by men.
Miss Rio died on Thursday, less than three weeks before her 108th birthday. The
death, at her home in Sun City Center, Fla., was confirmed by her husband, Bill
For the silents, Miss Rio provided music — often improvised — to set moods that
images alone could not: the footsteps of a cat burglar, the sighs of young
lovers and the dreadful roar of the oncoming train as the heroine flailed on the
tracks. When silents gave way to talkies, she became a ubiquitous presence on
the radio; when radio yielded to television, she played for daytime serials. The
Queen of the Soaps, the newspapers called her.
In Miss Rio’s career one can trace the entire history of entertainment
technology in the 20th century. After all, she was alive, and playing, for
nearly all of it.
Midcentury Americans could scarcely touch a dial without hearing Miss Rio. As
the staff organist of the NBC radio network from the late 1930s to 1960, and an
occasional organist for ABC Radio, she provided live music for a spate of
popular shows, including “The Shadow,” starring a trim Orson Welles, and “The
Bob and Ray Show.” Her television credits include “As the World Turns” and the
In recent years, long after television dispensed with live organists, Miss Rio
accompanied silent films at some of the nation’s tenderly restored movie houses.
She was most closely associated with the Tampa Theater in Florida, a lavish
picture palace built in 1926.
Several times a year Miss Rio would rise from beneath the stage there, seated at
the organ in sequined evening gown, diamond rings and gold lamé slippers. As she
wafted majestically upward, the room shook with her signature tune,
“Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” or, as she much preferred to call it,
“Everything’s Coming Up Rosa.”
Borne on a wave of cinematic nostalgia, Miss Rio had come blissfully full
Miss Rio was born on June 2, 1902. Her maiden name and birthplace have been lost
to time; her given name was Elizabeth and she was reared in New Orleans. She
began calling herself Rosa Rio — a name narrow enough to fit neatly on a theater
marquee — early in her career.
At 8, Elizabeth began piano lessons and immediately decided on a show business
career. This, her parents made clear, was no fit occupation for a proper
She persevered, and her parents relented a little. Playing in church would be
fine, they decided. So would the genteel life of a children’s piano teacher.
With these callings in mind, Elizabeth entered the Oberlin College Conservatory
She chafed there until the day she visited a Cleveland movie palace and heard a
theater organ for the first time. Not long afterward, she transferred to the
Eastman School of Music in Rochester, which had a program in silent-film
Miss Rio’s first marriage, to John Hammond, an organist, ended in divorce. She
is survived by her second husband, Mr. Yeoman, whom she married in 1947; three
grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. A son, John Hammond III, died
several years ago.
In the 1920s, Miss Rio played in movie houses around the country before being
hired by the Fox Theater in Brooklyn. Then came Jolson, and she found
supplementary work as an accompanist and vocal coach. One of her clients was an
unknown singer named Mary Martin, whom Miss Rio accompanied on her successful
audition for the Cole Porter musical “Leave It to Me!” (1938), Martin’s Broadway
At NBC, Miss Rio played for as many as two dozen radio shows a week, often with
just 60 seconds between shows to bolt from one studio to another. On Sept. 1,
1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, she was summoned to work at 2 a.m. For the
next 10 hours, she performed somber music between news bulletins. After the
United States entered the war, she had her own show, “Rosa Rio Rhythms,”
broadcast to American troops overseas.
Radio of the period was a rough-and-tumble world — a man’s world. Miss Rio gave
as good as she got.
As recounted in Leonard Maltin’s book “The Great American Broadcast: A
Celebration of Radio’s Golden Age” (Dutton, 1997), she was playing a show at NBC
one day when the announcer, Dorian St. George, crept up behind her, undid the
buttons down the back of her blouse and unhooked her bra. Miss Rio, performing
live before a gallery of visitors, could do nothing but play on.
When the music stopped, Mr. St. George stepped up to the microphone to do a
commercial. As he intoned plummily with the gallery looking on, Miss Rio stole
up behind him, unbuckled his belt, unzipped his fly and neatly dropped his
trousers. Then, according to Mr. Maltin’s book, she started on his undershorts.
What happened next is unrecorded.
Rosa Rio, Organist From
Silent Films to Soap Operas, Dies at 107,
On This Day - August 17, 1960
From The Times Archive
Buster Keaton is now regarded
greatest comic of the silent movie era.
His modern reputation was much helped
the discovery and restoration
of his films in Europe in the late 1950s
MR BUSTER KEATON, the legendary “frozen-faced”
comedian of silent pictures, sped through London earlier this month on his way
back to America after a European tour. Now aged 64, he has the appearance of a
tough, leathery veteran. He is a short, stocky man, nut-brown in complexion, and
when he speaks it is with punchy, gravel-throated directness.
After explaining why so many of his films had found their way into European
collections, Mr Keaton embarked on more personal recollections.
“I began in vaudeville, on the stage: I was playing in the Palace Theatre in
Shaftesbury Avenue in 1909 — my first trip to this country. And it was on the
stage I learnt not to smile. I found that if I laughed at my own gags nobody
else did: so I stopped laughing. I went into movies during the war. I never went
into the Broadway show, and I’ve never been back on stage since.”
As his own director, changing his leading lady from film to film, Mr Keaton set
his image on these comedies as “the great stone face” and as the master of such
pieces of mechanical wizardry as the locomotive race in The General.
“Action. That’s what went out when the talkies came in. When talking pictures
arrived the edict went around Hollywood — they all have to talk. The script
writers got an upper hand and action got left out.”
The Times Archive > On This Day - August 17, 1960, Times, 17.8.2005.
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