From Silent Movies to Synagogues
Organist and pianist Bob Mitchell, 84, is ending his 24 years at a Northridge synagogue, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to put his feet up and play “Goodnight Irene.”
Mitchell still performs Sunday mornings--at a Religious Science church in Redondo Beach. And Sunday nights--at an Italian Catholic parish in Chinatown.
So what is his own religious allegiance? “I’m a nominal Roman Catholic,” he declared at Temple Ahavat Shalom, his longest current gig.
Still, newcomers at the Reform synagogue--which will honor him with a retirement dinner Friday --often assume he’s Jewish because he wears a yarmulke and prayer shawl and sings in Hebrew, which he taught himself when working for other synagogues.
“Once a gentleman in the congregation introduced his wife to me, adding that ‘she’s not of our faith,’ and another time a new member named Bob Mitchell told me, ‘It’s so unusual to meet another Jew with our name,’ ” Mitchell recalled with a smile.
It’s not unusual for keyboardists to be of a different faith than their congregation--or not religious at all. They are professional musicians, after all, and this can be steady--if part-time--work, some jobs paying a performer like Mitchell more than $1,000 a month.
In addition to his work at houses of worship, his career has included movies, radio, television and four seasons as the Dodgers organist, starting in the 1960s when Dodger Stadium opened.
“That was a sweet job--no rehearsals and high pay,” he said.
But he is best known for his Mitchell Singing Boys, a choir whose film credits stretch over nearly six decades.
Mitchell began performing before audiences in 1924, at age 12, when he played the organ to accompany silent movies in matinees at a Pasadena theater. He won music scholarships in New York state and earned degrees from London’s Trinity College and what is now Cal State Los Angeles.
He became organist and choirmaster at St. Brendan Catholic Church in Los Angeles and in 1935 formed a boys choir that also performed locally and on radio. In 1936, the Mitchell Singing Boys appeared in their first movie, “That Girl From Paris,” starring Lily Pons and Jack Oakie.
Over the years, the choir sang in more than 150 films, the last time in 1994 as part of the soundtrack of the remake of “Miracle on 34th Street.”
At present, the choir is down to five boys, but it has been as large as 20. Their ages range from 9 to 14, and they receive their musical and academic training in a special private school in Hollywood.
Among the 800 or so alumni are members of the Sandpipers and the Lettermen, Steve Rossi (of Allen and Rossi) and arranger-conductor Alan Copeland.
The group’s most famous appearance was as orphans in “Going My Way,” which won the Oscar as the best picture of 1944.
“Bing Crosby selected the boys to sing in several of his movies,” Mitchell said, though he himself was serving in the Navy in the Pacific when “Going My Way” was filmed. He was brought back in 1945 by Meredith Willson, who formed the Armed Forces Orchestra.
Discharged in 1946, Willson returned to his prewar job as a staff organist and pianist at KFI radio, but also was involved in network radio with the likes of singer Mel Torme and the Hollywood Canteen.
Movie appearances continued with “The Jolson Story” (1946), starring Larry Parks, and “The Bishop’s Wife” (1947), starring Cary Grant.
During the postwar years, Mitchell continued playing on weekends at religious services as well as at weddings, concerts and bar mitzvahs.
“The United Jewish Appeal in 1948 asked my choir to sing in Hebrew,” he said. “I went over to Fairfax Avenue and got some books to learn how to read and pronounce Hebrew.”
With his makeshift ability in the language, Mitchell began substituting as an organist at Temple Emanuel of Hollywood, and later was a regular at Sinai Temple in Westwood.
Meanwhile, he was still playing at St. Brendan Catholic parish near Hancock Park--a tenure that would last 55 years--and added duties at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Beverly Hills, where he worked 40 years. “I played for the funerals of Carmen Miranda and a lot of stars at the Beverly Hills parish,” he said.
At times, Mitchell brings his boys along for musical numbers at congregations where he plays. He has performed for more than a dozen years now at the two Sunday morning services at the Redondo Beach Church of Religious Science, sometimes getting up at 5:45 a.m. to squeeze in rehearsal time when the boys come with him.
Mitchell said his will leaves the Mitchell Singing Boys enterprise and his home to Vincent Morton, who sang with the group in 1945 and has taken the group on two overseas tours.
“He [Morton] can step right in,” the 84-year-old organist said. “He’s well able to play, direct and discipline the boys.”
Mitchell’s role at Northridge’s 700-family Temple Ahavat Shalom has been winding down since July 1, when he stopped doing Friday night services. He helped out during September’s High Holy Days, however, and will be doing bar and bat mitzvahs until the end of this year.
Though he will get a generous pension, Mitchell wasn’t eager to leave the temple. Frankly speaking, he said, “I’m being laid off.”
Patti Linsky, the cantor at Ahavat Shalom, said that synagogue leaders urged Mitchell to retire because they were worried about his health and the long commute to Northridge from his home in Hollywood. Linsky--the third cantor he’s worked for there--praised his creativity as a musician.
“I’ve always learned from his creative musical ideas,” she said. “He pulls chords out of the air, and for a silent meditation comes up with a mini-composition that works perfectly.” Health permitting, Mitchell wants to continue playing.
In another job that brings him full circle to his earliest experiences, he plays every Wednesday night at the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax Avenue in Hollywood.
It was not until last year, he confided, that he finally saw Rudolph Valentino’s “The Sheik,” the silent film classic that was considered too risque for a youngster like him when it was a hit back in the 1920s, even though he was already playing at the old Strand Theater in Pasadena.
“I can see why they didn’t let me see it,” he said.