Bob Mitchell dies at 96; silent-movie organist was house musician for Dodgers

Bob Mitchell improvised soundtracks for silent movies, starting when he was 12 years old at Strand Theater in Pasadena.
(George Wilhelm / Los Angeles Times)

Bob Mitchell, an organist who was the first such house musician at Dodger Stadium and the last surviving working accompanist from the silent-film era, has died. He was 96.

Mitchell died Saturday from congestive heart failure at Hancock Park Rehabilitation Center in Los Angeles, said his caregiver, Vincent Morton.

When the Dodgers debuted in 1962 at their stadium in Chavez Ravine, so did Mitchell -- on a Wurlitzer double-keyboard organ with a 25-note pedal board. At the time, he was best known as founder and director of a group often called the Robert Mitchell Boys Choir, which would appear in more than 100 movies.

Bob Mitchell obituary: The obituary of organist Bob Mitchell in the July 9 Section A said he was the last surviving working accompanist from the silent-film era. Organist Rosa Rio, 107, still accompanies silent movies at the Tampa Theatre in Florida. —

His career as choir director was framed by two stints as a silent-movie organist, played out more than 60 years apart. One of his last performances was in early June at the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax Avenue, where he was first featured in 1992.

He helped create “a true revival of cinema on the highest level,” said Charlie Lustman, who owned the theater from 1999 to 2006. “That you could walk into a classic theater and see a classic movie accompanied by a man who had done it way back when. . . .”

On Christmas Day 1924, Mitchell was practicing carols on the organ at the Strand Theater in Pasadena 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.

He played for films such as the romantic wartime drama “What Price Glory,” the action-adventure “Beau Geste” and the Fritz Lang futuristic fantasy “Metropolis.”

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 organist right away.”

After being hired in 1934 as the organist at St. Brendan’s Catholic Church in Los Angeles, he organized a boys’ choir that he oversaw for 66 years. In the early days, the choir sang at Catholic Masses that aired on the radio. The singers were cast in their first film, 1936’s “That Girl From Paris,” after the casting director heard one such performance.

The group -- also known as the Mitchell Singing Boys -- sang “Ave Maria” with Bing Crosby in the 1944 film “Going My Way” and was conducted on-screen by Cary Grant in 1947’s “The Bishop’s Wife.” Mitchell appeared on screen with the ensemble in 1941’s “Blondie in Society.”

The choir was also the subject of a 1941 short film, “Forty Boys and a Song,” that was nominated for an Academy Award.

Because some choir members were poor, Mitchell poured most of the money he earned back into the endeavor, CBS reported in 2005. He set up a private school, paid for braces and sometimes even college.

Over the decades, more than 600 boys between the ages of about 8 and 16 passed through the choir. Alumni include members of the Lettermen, the Modernaires and the Sandpipers, said Morton, a 1946 choir member who returned 10 years ago to care for Mitchell.

A Los Angeles native, Robert Bostwick Mitchell was born Oct. 12, 1912, to Robert Mitchell and the former Florence Bostwick. His father was mayor of Sierra Madre from 1918 to 1924 and his mother was a schoolteacher and musician.

At 4, Mitchell started taking piano lessons and by 10 he was studying the organ.

He attended the New York College of Music but returned to Los Angeles in 1934 because his father was ill. Eventually, he graduated from what is now Cal State L.A. and Trinity College London, Morton said.

During World War II, Mitchell served in the Navy and played keyboards for the Armed Forces Radio Orchestra under the direction of Meredith Willson, who would write “The Music Man.”

Mitchell once said that the four years he spent as the organist for the Dodgers brought him the most fame. He also was the organist for the Angels when they called the stadium home from 1962 to 1965.

He once said he knew nothing about baseball and had to be told which team won the game.

In 1963, Mitchell released a rarity for an organist, a record called “Baseball’s Best,” said Mark Langill, Dodger team historian.

“It captured the spirit of what the ballpark sounded like then,” Langill said, and included “California Here We Come” to reflect the Dodgers then-recent move west.

Although Mitchell’s career as a movie-house organist was revived in 1992, it came to a dramatic halt five years later when Larry Austin, then the proprietor of the Silent Movie Theatre, was gunned down in 1997 in the theater’s lobby. He was the target of a hired gunman.

When Lustman reopened the theater in 1999, he rehired Mitchell, who played weekly.

“He loved watching the picture and then the music just came out of him, completely improvised,” Lustman said. “There was no score with Bob Mitchell, ever. Bob loved to watch the movie.”

For years, Mitchell played for the Los Angeles Conservancy’s “Last Remaining Seats” series, which presents vintage films. On May 27, he opened this year’s series at the Orpheum Theatre downtown, said Cindy Olnick, a conservancy spokeswoman.

“No matter how old he got,” Olnick said, “once he sat down at the organ and started playing, it was like he was 30 years old again.”

Mitchell is survived by several cousins.

A memorial service will be held at 9:30 a.m. Friday at Christ the King Catholic Church, 624 N. Rossmore Ave., Los Angeles.