Florence Bostwick Mitchell had been born in Colorado. Florence's father Levi Bostwick and his wife Adeline had been among the pioneer families of Sierra Madre, California.
|A very young Bob Mitchell with his mother|
The 1920 US Census finds the Mitchell family at 48 W. Alegria Avenue, Sierra Madre, Pasadena Township, California.
|48 W. Alegria Avenue, Sierra Madre, CA|
As the movies became more and more popular Bob's desire to see them grew as well. One day he came up with a plan. Much to his delight, the organ played an integral part in this new form of entertainment. “(So) I told my mother, there’s a pipe organ [at the movie theater] and I really want to play it!” Despite her misgivings (she considered the movies "cheap and vulgar"), his mother took 12-year-old Robert down to the Strand Theater on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena where he was soon employed to play Christmas carols between showings of films. On Christmas Day 1924, Mitchell was playing carols on the organ when the lights went down and a movie about the Yukon went up. The 12-year-old kept playing, improvising a soundtrack. Soon he was accompanying matinee shows five times a week.
Here is a photo of thirteen year old Bob playing the organ the family had installed in their home in Sierra Madre:
Every year at the Valentino Memorial Service Bob would regale us with stories of the Valentino films he had seen while playing as an accompanist. Bob had even seen 'A Sainted Devil' - a Valentino film presumed "lost" today. He delightedly told us about not only seeing Rudolph Valentino on the screen while he was playing the accompaniment, but all the major stars of the silent era.
With the arrival of talkies and Al Jolson in the 1927 film 'The Jazz Singer,' Mitchell's first silent-movie career ended when he was 16. "My father said, 'I see they are going to have sound' " in the movies, Mitchell told CBS News in 2005. "And I said, 'Oh, that will never catch on.'. . . . But, of course, it ended the (need for an) organist right away."
The 1930 US Census shows the Mitchell family living at 2425 Ninth Avenue in Los Angeles.
|2425 Ninth Avenue, Los Angeles|
Bob's father reported that he was a lawyer for General Foods, and Bob reported his occupation as "Episcopal Church Choirmaster."
In 1932 Bob studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York on a piano scholarship. In 1933, he moved to New York City where he continued his study with a scholarship at the New York College of Music. During this time he was also a substitute organist in churches, played the piano and sang on radio station WNYC, and did nightly stints at Joe's Chateau, a popular speakeasy in Manhattan to supplement his income.
|149 N. Gramercy Place, Los Angeles|
When you compare the two houses, you'll see why they did what they did. The house on 9th Avenue is approx. 2,282 square feet. It has 3 bedrooms, but only one bathroom. The house on Gramercy is slightly smaller overall at approx. 2,428 square feet. It has four bedrooms but it also has three full bathrooms. Rooms for rent are much more attractive if the landlord can offer each roomer their own private bathroom. Let's face it, nobody likes to share a bathroom. Jobs in music are not known for paying high salaries, so Bob and his mother decided that by buying a house where rooms could be rented, they could supplement Bob's income with the rental income from the rooms if need be. Remember, this was the era before Social Security, so Bob's mother had to rely solely on the money Bob's father left her after he died.
In 1934, Bob founded "The Mitchell Choirboys." The choir would ultimately appear in over one hundred motion picture performances. In addition to films, the choir also performed in thousands of radio and television broadcasts.
On December 6, 1941, the day before Pearl Harbor, Warner Brothers released 'Forty Boys and a Song' as part of their Music Masters series. The ten minute short follows Bob and the boys through a usual day of musical instruction in the morning and regular classes and recreation the rest of the time. 'Forty Boys and a Song' was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Short Subject - One Reel category.
Then, as we all know, World War II intervened. Bob did a tour of duty in the Pacific with the Naval Reserve. Here's a photo of Bob taken at that time:
|Bob Mitchell, USNR|
During Bob's time in the military he managed to use his musical skills. He played keyboards for the Armed Forces Radio Orchestra under the direction of Meredith Willson. Here he is playing the organ for the Armed Forces Radio Service:
After the war, Bob returned to the music scene in Los Angeles as a very busy musician, and with his choir, and even found the time to be an honor student at Cal State L.A., receiving a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Music Education.
In December of 1949 Bob was honored with an episode of Ralph Edwards' "This Is Your Life," recognizing Bob's contributions to music.
In 1954 Bob Mitchell decided to establish his own school for his choirboys, employing one full-time accredited teacher. The boys received four hours of academic instruction and three hours of musical instruction daily. Mitchell modeled the academic training on his own experience as a student at the Pasadena School of Tutoring. There, headmaster George Arthur Mortimer accepted students of any age and work was adapted to individual needs. At Mitchell’s school, even after the teacher’s salary and other expenses were deducted from the choir’s earnings, each boy netted around $550 per year. Ironically, the rise in union scale wages throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s resulted in a gradual decline in the choir’s size from thirty-three to eight members. (Mitchell recalls that this was dependent on recording and traveling factors only; usually the group consisted of around thirty boys.) By the mid-1950s, when film and radio producers began to request as few as six boys, Mitchell set a minimum call of eight; six, he felt, was too few to create the proper blend of voices.
Through the years, Bob and his choir did two European tours, and one around-the-world tour. The Mitchell Choirboys gave two command performances in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome - one for Pope Pius XII in 1957 and one for Pope John XXIII in 1959.
In the 1980s Bob was asked to appear at the Valentino Memorial Services by his friend Bud Testa who hosted the services during that era.
In later years, Mitchell was called to play organ accompaniments at the Silent Movie Theater in Hollywood, where (even at 90) he was heard several times a month. Because he began pipe organ so young, it is possible that he was the last living active theater organist.
Bob Mitchell had hob-nobbed with princes and popes, but he did not let in change him. He always minimized his talent or credited it to hard work, but Bob's talent was truly great - and like most truly great men his humility shone through. When he looked at you with those piercing eyes you felt like he was truly interested in what you had to say. And one of the signs of his great talent - whether he was playing for the Valentino Service or a film at the Silent Movie Theater, he never used a piece of sheet music - he just played.
In the twilight of his life, Bob could afford to look back at all he had accomplished. He outlived fifty of his choirboys but was contacted daily by many of his living alumni. In the 1990s things were much more open then they had been years ago, so a newspaper reporter finally asked the question many had wondered about. When the reporter asked the never-married Bob if he was gay, his eyes twinkled as he replied, "My dear, I'm as gay as a garden party," but went on to say that he always looked each of his choirboys directly in the eyes, and never "southward" - and there was never a hint of scandal about either Bob Mitchell or his choir.
Bob Mitchell slipped away to direct the Heavenly Choir on the afternoon of July 4, 2009. He was just short of his ninety-seventh birthday. Bob is interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery:
Bob Mitchell - musician extraordinaire - may he rest in peace.
Just some of Bob's many awards and honors include: