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Famed organist Bob Mitchell: Tribute from a friend

Thinking History

Posted: July 8, 2009 10:28 a.m.
Updated: July 8, 2009 10:59 a.m.
Bob Mitchell at the organ. Bob Mitchell at the organ.
Bob Mitchell at the organ.
I had a birthday on July 4. As I get older I find that birthdays are less a cause for joy and more a reminder of our own mortality. I certainly didn't need any additional reflection this year with the passing of Michael Jackson, Farah Fawcett, Ed McMahon, Karl Malden, Steve McNair, Billy Mays and my wife's aunt over the preceding days.

But it seemed this year that life failed to check the news and decided to hit me with another loss that day. That was when my good friend Bob Mitchell died.

Bob had done many things during his life. He had played the organ for millions of people; had served as a choir director for eighty years; had appeared in dozens of films during Hollywood's Golden Era; and had been the very first organist at Dodger Stadium. And for the past two years he dazzled Santa Clarita Valley audiences at the "Flickers at the Junction" film series, which I host.

Yes, Bob had accomplished much - you can do amazing things if you live to be 96 and happen to be immensely talented - but he had never gotten around to dying. That is, until the afternoon of the Fourth of July.

I had been a fan of Bob's for many years due to my interest in silent films. The L.A. silent film community is a fairly close-knit group, and it was inevitable that any fan of the genre would eventually attend a screening where Bob performed. He was one of the last people on earth (if not the last) who was still playing for silent films today as he had in the 1920s.

One of my first encounters with him was at his 90th birthday party, which was held in the Palace Theater in downtown L.A. It was a huge event that revealed just how many fans he had acquired over the years. I was also surprised to learn that many of the attendees were well known. The event was hosted by actor Bill Pullman, and I got to meet another famous organist, Ray Manzarek of the Doors, in the lobby after the show.

I had never actually spoken to him until 2007, when I hired him to play for the silent film series that the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society had recently agreed to sponsor. Our first "Flickers" proved so successful that he continued in the role for the next two years.

A couple of weeks earlier my lovely wife Kim and I went to meet him at the assisted-living facility in Hollywood where he lived. I had somehow gotten the impression that he, like many musicians, was shy away from his keyboards. But when we actually set down with him, we quickly learned that nothing could be further from the truth.

I asked him to give me a brief history of his career. His answer filled up a good part of the afternoon. He kept us laughing with stories from decades earlier, often mimicking voices that only he, of all of earth's residents, could remember.

He began by telling us of his early years in Sierra Madre, and of beginning lessons at the age of four on an organ that his mother was able to purchase for one dollar (and it cost his father ten dollars to have moved to their home). He told us how his strict mother would sit at his side forcing him to practice for one hour a day. It apparently paid off, because by the age of 12 he was proficient enough to accompany silent films for a theater in Pasadena.

At 16 he was put out of work by the arrival of "talkies," but he was soon able to find employment at a Catholic church as choir director. He would make this a career for most of the rest of his life. As leader of the "Robert Mitchell Choir Boys," he led his troupe around the world and performed for heads of state and the pope.

They appeared in 100 films, including the 1944 Best Picture winner "Going My Way." Three years earlier Bob and the choir boys were the subject of a their own Academy Award nominated film called "Forty Boys and a Song."

Bob later spent some time as a sailor in World War II, and then returned to Los Angeles to become an organist and voice for several popular radio programs around town. This career led to a job as the organist for Dodger Stadium when it opened in 1962.

He served in this role for four years, during which time he also played the organ for the Los Angeles Angels, who were sharing the stadium at the time, despite the fact that he knew nothing about baseball.

"I had to have someone tell me when something good happened on the field," he once told me.

After leaving the Dodgers in 1966, he kept busy playing for churches, synagogues, weddings, restaurants, and an increasing number of funerals as he started outliving his friends. He also served as a major force in bringing back silent films to the Los Angeles area - first at the Silent Theater in Hollywood, and then at special presentations at large performing halls around the area.

Until recently, Bob possessed what can only be described as "boundless energy" for a man his age.

It was common for him to play for one of our evening "Flickers" shows, and then to keep his friends up for several more hours talking at an all-night café. He kept an amazingly busy schedule, and I was forced to book him several months in advance for our shows.

Several months ago I feared the worst when I was unable to reach him for a week. It turned out that he had flown to Seattle during that time to play for a silent film festival.

Bob never tired of performing. Although he was suffering from respiratory problems, he nearly checked himself out of the hospital last week to play for a scheduled gig. He was to appear this coming Saturday night at our "Flickers" show in Newhall where he would have accompanied Buster Keaton's "The General." I was told by his friend Dr. Gene Toon that when the nurse asked him a few days before his death if he needed anything, his response was, "Yes, an audience!"

Even in his mid-90s, Bob was still planning for the future. About a year ago, he mentioned to me that he wanted to go on tour again. We were also in contact with a producer from "The Bonnie Hunt Show" who wanted him to appear on the program at some point.

These two plans never came to fruition, but I was very proud to have helped coordinate a special evening for Bob last July.
On that night, Bob's good friends Dr. Toon, Dee Perkins, and Kim and I took him back to Dodger Stadium to help the team celebrate their 50th season in L.A..

Before the game, we were escorted to the Vin Scully Pressbox where Bob introduced us to his old friends Nancy Bea Hefley, the Dodgers' current organist, and to the pressbox's namesake, Vin Scully. We were then led back onto the field where Bob announced the start of the game from homeplate with a rousing cheer of "It's time for Dodger baseball!"

Later, during the 7th Inning Stretch, Bob returned to his familiar perch behind the organ in the pressbox, and accompanied 55,000 fans with two verses of "Take Me Out To The Ballgame!"

It was a magical experience for everyone in the stadium, and when Bob proudly displayed the free tub of popcorn the Dodgers gave him back in the stands, I never saw a 95-year-old look so childlike.

It was easy to admire Bob for his unquestioned talent, energy, and longevity. But I think what impressed me most were two things he told me on our initial meeting. He said that he had never "washed a plate," which was his way of saying that he only worked at the career of his choice and never had to be a wage slave to make ends meet.

But even more surprising was his belief that he possessed absolutely no natural musical talent - that all of his accomplishments came from hard work alone! And that anyone willing to put in the effort could become a great musician. (This statement made me want to immediately sign up for piano lessons.)

Bob was a very religious man who respected all faiths equally. I remember one talk we had as I drove him back to his home in Hollywood after "Flickers" late one December night. He told me he respected Catholicism because he saw a priest in World War II deliver last rites to fallen Allied and Axis troops.

But later that same night he displayed his ecumenical beliefs when he asked me to stay with him while he, a non-Jew, read Hanukkah prayers and lit menorah candles to honor his many friends in the Jewish faith.

Bob was a true performer, and he knew as much as anyone who ever lived that "the show must go on."

With this in mind, "Flickers at the Junction" will still take place on Saturday, July 11, where we will show "The General" to an outdoor audience. "The General" is my all-time favorite film, and I had the pleasure of hearing Bob accompany it on two other occasions.

At the start of each showing, Bob arrived at the hall minutes before the film was to begin and asked me to remind him what we would be showing that evening. When I would say that it was "The General," he would laugh and recall that he wasn't allowed to play for Buster Keaton films when he was a boy because Pasadena audiences found Keaton to be "too vulgar."

He would then be led to the keyboards and for the next ninety minutes bring an eighty-year-old film from a dormant genre back to life for a twenty-first century audience. Bob never used sheet music during his performances, choosing to compose on the fly.

And his playing was so convincing that when the lights came back up at the end of the film the audience was reminded that their emotions for the previous hour-and-a-half had been controlled by a genius at the keyboard, and not by a pre-recorded soundtrack.
"Silent films were never silent," Bob often reminded me. "They were loaded with sound!"

We are not yet sure if we will have a guest organist perform on Saturday night, or if we will simply broadcast the soundtrack from the film. Either way, the first minute of "The General" will be shown with no sound as a reminder to everyone that with the passing of our good friend Bob Mitchell, silent films will never sound quite the same again.


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