The Legacy Of Bob Mitchell, 31 October
Oliver (firstname.lastname@example.org) from Forest
A Warner Bros. Short Subject.
The Robert Mitchell Choir School of Hollywood,
California, provides a solid education for talented
boys from ages 8 to 14, giving them the chance
to perform and excel academically & musically.
Nominated for an Academy Award, FORTY BOYS AND A SONG is an
informative & highly entertaining little film which spotlights
a premiere American musical institution from years past. We
watch the young fellows in the classroom, at play and at church.
Always, music is being taught, performed & enjoyed and
we get to hear the boys' renditions of "Home On the Range," "My
Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean" & "Shortenin' Bread."
Born October 12, 1912, Bob Mitchell showed an acute aptitude & appreciation
of music at a very early age. In 1924, when still only 12,
Bob started playing organ accompaniment to silent films, beginning
a passion for silent cinema music that would last a lifetime.
In the 1930's he started his Boys Choir, which gained much
success; the Mitchell Singing Boys would appear in scores of
films, most notably GOING MY WAY (1944) with Bing Crosby. On
his 90th birthday in 2002, Bob Mitchell was still keeping very
busy playing the organ for church and weddings, personal appearances
and silent films - delighting new audiences with his gift of
Often overlooked or neglected today, the one and two-reel short
subjects were useful to the Studios as important training grounds
for new or burgeoning talents, both in front & behind the
camera. The dynamics for creating a successful short subject
was completely different from that of a feature length film,
something akin to writing a topnotch short story rather than
a novel. Economical to produce in terms of both budget & schedule
and capable of portraying a wide range of material, short subjects
were the perfect complement to the Studios' feature films.
The first thing you notice about Bob Mitchell, 92, are
his eyes. They twinkle with an innocent delight, especially
when the conversation turns to music. He is tall and lanky,
but still one of those men that makes a dark suit and trousers
look dashing even on a hot afternoon.
The founder-leader of the Mitchell Boys Choir for more than 70
years, he belted out a couple of “popular” tunes
with his powerful voice as his long fingers nimbly danced across
the well-worn keys of his upright piano.
You see, Mitchell is one of the lucky ones; he has spent his
entire life doing what he loves most, playing music, despite
the fact that he has no natural talent at all.
By his own account, 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration was how
he came by his formidable skill as a musician. Indeed, he pointed
out, a large part of the perspiration was extracted by his mother
and her switch. She sat him down at the piano at age four, where
he spent hours upon hours learning every verse in the Episcopal
“Whenever she switched me, I knew I probably deserved it,” said
Mitchell, “and I am so thankful to my mother for doing
that for me.” She was pious, prim and very strict with
young Mitchell, but gave him the gift that has served him all
his life—the joy of music.
At age 10, tall and mature for his age, Mitchell’s mother
decided it was time for him to learn the organ so he could study
the traditional music of the Episcopal Church. The only organ
in Sierra Madre, where he grew up, was at the local parish. He
and his mother met the pastor, whom he described as a “very
stuffy” Englishman, to inquire if young Mitchell could
practice on the church’s organ.
“No, no, no, no one may play the organ in the church, but
our own organist,” Mitchell comically mimicked the condescending
pastor’s English accent. His mother’s reply was as
sharp and quick as her switch…“Well, a man of the
cloth that would not allow a child to learn an instrument needs
to praise almighty God!” The pastor quickly reversed his
position. "Well I suppose we must make an exception in this case,” Mitchell
mimicked the pastor, “but without setting any precedents…”
Not long after perfecting his skills on the organ, he also discovered
the movies, and much to his delight, the integral part that the
organ played in this then new form of entertainment. “I
told my mother, there’s a pipe organ [at the movie theatre]
and I really want to play it!” So, despite her misgivings
about the abjectness and vulgarity of “movies,” his
mother took 12-year-old Robert down to The Strand Theatre on
Colorado Blvd. in Pasadena where he was soon employed.
When “talkies” ushered out the era of silent pictures,
Mitchell made a successful career change to other burgeoning
media. Throughout the 30s he was staff organist at various times
for KMTR, KEME, KHJ and from 1940 to 1965 at KFI radio. Another
contribution the church made to his musical life also included
a love for choral music.
He subsequently formed Mitchell Boys Choir, which provided the
music for and appeared in dozens of films including “Angels
with Dirty Faces” with James Cagney and the Christmas classic, “The
His boy’s choir also recorded with Bing Crosby and Frank
Sinatra among others. His works with the boy’s choir also
garnered him several illustrious honors including a Silver Medal
from Princess Grace (Kelly) of Monaco, a Medal from the Pope
and the Boy Scouts of America.
More recently, his 90th birthday was the focus of a fittingly
lavish and affectionate celebration at LA’s Palace Theater
hosted by actor Bill Pullman and Charlie Lustman, proprietor
of the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax Ave. The fans in attendance
were treated to an episode of “This Is Your Life," honoring
Mitchell as well as a cameo by comedian Eddie Cantor, a regular
fixture on the Orpheum Theatre circuit.
As vivacious as ever, the refrain of Mitchell’s life has
come full circle 80 years later. He plays several nights a week
before his old colleagues Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and
other silent screen legends at the Silent Movie Theatre. He is
also assembling a new boy’s choir for the Christ the King
Parish on N. Rossmore Ave.
“Of course, it’s music that I live for,” says
Bob Mitchell, and so with each passing day it’s like a
full, happy lifetime in itself.