Bob Mitchell

The Legacy Of Bob Mitchell, 31 October 2002
Author: Ron Oliver ( from Forest Ranch, CA

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 music.


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 hymn book.

“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 Bishop’s Wife."

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.


Last Update: March 6, 2000

Back Next