Friday, January 29, 2016


This past December I watched the movie 'The Bishop's Wife' straight through from beginning to end for the first time.  Most of you have probably seen it (and if you haven't, you should).  David Niven plays a bishop trying to raise money to build a magnificent cathedral for his flock with mixed results.  Loretta Young plays the bishop's wife.  Niven's prayers are answered when he is sent an angel (Cary Grant) named Dudley to help him along the way.  It is a cute movie with good actors and a happy ending.  And who wouldn't like an angel to help them with life's difficulties?

In one of the scenes they are trying to put together a boy's choir to sing for the Christmas services.  At the beginning there are only one or two scruffy-looking boys trying hard to sing.  Then Dudley the angel arrives and each time he waves his arms, more and more boys come in to fill the seats.  Finally all the seats are filled with boys singing beautifully and they have their choir for Christmas.  In the credits it states that the choir was cast with members of the Mitchell Boychoir.  This, of course, is the internationally famous boy's choir founded by Bob Mitchell.   I want to tell you the story of my friend Bob Mitchell and how he dedicated his life to music.  (and no, I never sang in his choir - I can't carry a tune in a paper bag). 

How did I get to meet and become friends Bob Mitchell?  Bob used to tell stories and play the piano as part of the Rudolph Valentino Memorial Service held each year on August 23rd, the anniversary of Valentino's death.  The service is held in the mausoleum at Hollywood Forever Cemetery (formerly Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery).  In later years Mitchell also played the accompaniment for the Valentino film shown on the evening of the 23rd - projected on the outside wall of the mausoleum.  The first few years I attended the service, Bob brought several boys with him who sang for the service, but toward the end Bob came by himself.  So let's see what we can find out about Bob Mitchell and his choir.

Robert Bostwick ("Bob") Mitchell was born October 12, 1912 in Sierra Madre, California to Robert E. Mitchell (1869-1933) and his wife Florence nee Bostwick (1887-1938).  Bob was an only child.  

Bob's father Robert E. Mitchell had been born in Fort Benton, Montana - he was an attorney by trade.  

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

Every year during the Valentino service, Bob would relate stories of his childhood and strict upbringing.  Mitchell was the first one to say that he had no natural music talent at all.  By his own account, he came by his formidable skill as a musician with 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.  Indeed, he pointed out, a large part of the perspiration was extracted by his mother and her switch. He began his intensive study of piano at age four, where he spent hours upon hours learning every verse of every hymn in the Episcopal Hymnal.  

“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.

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
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 continue his studies of  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 used 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…”

Like other young people of that era, Bob Mitchell and his friends wanted to see all the latest movies.   In 1921 when he was nine years old, he asked permission to see Rudolph Valentino in 'The Sheik.'  His mother promptly forbade it.  Mitchell told us how all the mothers hated the Valentino craze because their sons were slicking back their hair with Vaseline, and it was almost impossible for them to wash the grease out of their sons' pillow-cases.

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."

During this period Bob expanded his musical horizons by singing in the St. Matthias boy's and men's choir.  After the talkies took away his theater organ job, Bob played pipe organs in churches, also training choirboys.  In 1930, at the age of eighteen, Mitchell was the youngest to be named "Fellow of the American Guild of Organists", (F.A.G.O.), the highest degree awarded organists in the United States by regular examination.

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.

Bob's father had died in 1933, at the age of sixty four.  After his father's death, Bob decided to return to Los Angeles to look after his mother.  Bob was an only-child, so all of the responsibility for his mother fell on his shoulders.  He and his mother decided to sell their house on Ninth Avenue, and bought a house at 149 N. Gramercy Place in Los Angeles.  

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. 

Bob's beloved mother died in 1938 at the age of fifty-one.  So by the time of the 1940 US Census, Bob was by  himself.  As stated above, he was living at 149 N. Gramercy Place in Los Angeles.  Bob had a housekeeper, sixty-one year old Edna Davis, and he was renting out two rooms to help supplement his income.  His tenants were twenty-two year old David Street, a musician with a dance orchestra, and twenty-eight year old Elon Bixby, a teacher in a "Private School."  Interestingly, all three, Edna, David and Elon told the census taker that they had been living at that same address in 1935.

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.

Mitchell was staff pianist-organist on Los Angeles stations KMTR, KEHE, KHJ, and KFI-KECA. He either appeared or played the organ for such early TV shows as "Ladies' Day", "Parlor Party", "Engineer Bill", "The Jack LaLanne Show", and "Art Linkletter's House Party."

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 1962, when the new baseball stadium at Chavez Ravine opened for all the Dodger and Angel games, he was chosen as organist - making him the only 'player' in baseball ever to play for both major leagues at the same time.

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:

I haven't been to Hollywood recently, but the next time I am there, one of the first places I will go will be to the crypt of Bob Mitchell.

Bob Mitchell - musician extraordinaire - may he rest in peace.

Besides the aforementioned 'Forty Boys and a Song' (Warner Bros.), his other screen appearances include 'The Demi-bride' (MGM),  'College Scandal' (Paramount), 'Blondie in Society' (Columbia),  'The Thorn Birds' (Feature for Television),  and 'All Night Long'  (Universal).


Just some of Bob's many awards and honors include:

Member of the Study of a Thousand Gifted California Children by Dr. Lewis Terman of Stanford University.

Silver Medal personally awarded at the Royal Palace in Monte Carlo by Prince Ranier and Princess Grace of Monaco.

Silver Beaver Medal, the highest honor awarded scoutmasters by the Boy Scouts of America.

Acclaimed a Knight of Malta with a medal from the American Melkite Archimandrite.

Honorary Tile Plaque in the Amphitheater of Temple Ahavat Shalom, Northridge, California.

Received the "Pro Papa et Ecclesia" Certificate from Pope John-Paul II.

1 comment:

  1. Your biographies are always well-researched and they answer the questions that I would have. And you add things that others may shy away from. Good job on Bob Mitchell!