In the Academy Award winning film “The Artist,” silent film actor George Valentin sees his career washed away when sound features take over, and must find a new path in life and career. Silent film accompanist Robert “Bob” Mitchell saw his avocation also swept away in 1928 when talking pictures became all the rage, but found new ways to thrive and succeed as a musician for decades before returning full circle to accompany silent movies. Mitchell also found a way to teach and inspire countless others along the way.
Photo: Robert “Bob” Mitchell conducts from the piano in “Forty Boys and a Song.”
Bob Mitchell loved music from a young age, playing piano and organ under his mother beginning at the age of four. He took part in a junior orchestra she formed in Sierra Madre, where his father was mayor, in the mid-1920s. The June 23, 1923, Los Angeles Times mentions an upcoming concert by this orchestra in conjunction with the Parent-Teacher Association, with all proceeds benefiting the recently constructed Community Playgrounds.
Around the same time, he began taking organ lessons, practicing on the Strand Theatre organ in Pasadena. He told the San Luis Obispo Tribune in 2007 that he was rehearsing Christmas carols on the theatre organ around noon, when suddenly the lights dimmed and the scheduled silent film began running. Since the regular organist wasn’t there, he began improvising along with the film and played until the end. He was 12. The theatre manager was so impressed that he hired Mitchell to play five matinees a week accompanying films. While his parents allowed him to continue to play, Mitchell noted they disliked him playing for what they considered “the lowest form of trash.”
At the age of 18, Mitchell won the fellowship degree from the American Guild of Organists in 1931. He studied at Eastman School of Music, and New York College of Music, before graduating from what became Cal State-Los Angeles. After graduation in 1934, Mitchell quickly formed a boys’ choir at St. Brendan’s Catholic Church, where he was organist and only 22 himself, from boys attending the parochial school. Their first performance was singing at the church’s Christmas Eve service that year. Mitchell focused on helping them learn music as well as social, life, and educational skills that would last a lifetime. Soon, he began focusing his attention on promoting the group rather than himself.
He also featured 25 of them in a weekly performance on radio station KMTR in 1935, where he was staff pianist and organist. They also performed during a guest spot on “Schooldays of the Air” at 8:15 pm on KFWB per the April 19, 1937, Los Angeles Times. To help pay the bills, he became staff organist at KEHE, per the January 13, 1937, Daily Variety.
Thanks to the wide audience of the radio shows, the Robert Mitchell Boys’ Choir was asked to perform in films, with “That Girl From Paris” supposedly their first. Before World War II, they would be featured or sing in such films as “Angels With Dirty Faces,” “Blondie in Society,” “Foreign Correspondent,” “30 Boys and a Girl,” and “Love Affair,” and “The Great Waltz,” along with many others.
Along with performing on the radio and film, Bob Mitchell and his choir performed for stage and vaudeville shows as well. In 1937, they played for two weeks at the Orpheum on a bill headlined by dancer Ann Pennington, singing swing numbers. Later that year, The Los Angeles Times noted that the choir headlined the “World’s Fair Gayeties,” an around the world revue, at the Shrine Auditorium at the end of October. In 1941, recognized as “the ranking organization of its kind in America,” the Mitchell Boys’ Choir performed along with opera singer Jan Kiepura, Leo Carrillo, the Merry Macs, drum and bugle corps, and music acts from over 60 cities at Southern California’s Musical Fiesta at Los Angeles’ Memorial Stadium. The Fiesta that year saluted British War Relief, with appearances by Ronald Colman, Basil Rathbone, Brian Aherne, and Jean Parker.
They also performed in Fanchon and Marco’s “Christmas Festival” stage show at the Paramount Theater in December 1938. As the Los Angeles Times stated in its December 20 story, “One of the outstanding features of the “Christmas Festival” stage show will be the appearance of Robert Mitchell and his famous St. Brendan’s Boys’ Choir. This celebrated group of youthful singers is familiar to many for its radio work and to others through screen recordings in such a film as “Angels With Dirty Faces.”
The choir also performed for plenty of charities, like the Los Angeles Welfare Fund, Sheriffs’ Fund, and religious organizations. In 1939, they performed for the Chamber of Commerce and the United Religious Conference. They also sang at plenty of Easter sunrise services, Hollywood Bowl and Forest Lawn at Glendale in 1940.
By 1941, they were famous enough to be signed to star in their own short at Warner Bros., called “Forty Boys and a Song.” A story in the February 24, 1942, Los Angeles Daily News explained that film cutter Irving Applebaum wanted to make a feature about the choir, until he spent the entire $685 he had budgeted for the film. He cut what he had into a short and showed it around the studios. Mrs. Jack Warner saw it in a private screening and loved it, recommended to her husband, who then bought it for the studio to release. It was so good, that the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Subject in 1941.
The film pointed out how magnanimous and supportive Mitchell was to his boys. The singers attended a private school set up by Mitchell at 654 N. New Hampshire Avenue with four hours of academic instruction daily, along with three hours of music instruction. They also received six hours of supervised play at Griffith Park each week, and would stay in their own special dormitory whenever they had late or special engagements, and Mitchell helped pay or find financing for those boys who came from poor homes. They received good educations as well as singing skills. A December 12, 1954, Los Angeles Times story reported that the boys earned $10 each for personal appearances, $45 to $70 each for movie and TV appearances, earning approximately $550 each after expenses, with each paying $25 a month towards Mitchell’s salary. Choir work was a hobby for Mitchell, even though he coordinated all appearances and arranged and composed the music. This work barely broke even with him, and he supplemented this income with playing the piano and organ for radio and television shows.
At the 1941 commencement for the choir, composer Meredith Willson presented musical awards, Jackie Cooper passed out the scholastic awards, and Arthur Lake offered the athletic awards. Among the guests attending the ceremony per “The Los Angeles Times” were the Ronald Reagans, Bonita Granville, and Penny Singleton.
March 24, 1940: The Times publishes a photo of the Robert Mitchell Boychoir for Easter.
The boys continued to make film and radio appearances while Mitchell served in the Navy as a Seaman Second Class during World War II, performing keyboards for the Armed Forces Radio Orchestra under Meredith Willson, directed a sailor chorus called “Men of Note,” and wrote songs and music for revues. Their film appearances during this time included “Going My Way,” “Bells of Rosarita,” “Sweet Rosie O’Grady,” “The Al Jolson Story,” and “The Bishop’s Wife,” and “The Babe Ruth Story,” along with such shorts as “The Little Church Mouse” cartoon and “Peace on Earth,” along with “The Bishop’s Wife” premiere at the Carthay Circle Theatre. The Mitchell Boys’ Choir appeared in over 70 films, as well as Bing Crosby’s first television appearance and in an episode of Crosby’s TV show in 1964 called “What’s a Buddy For?”
Hedda Hopper noted in her March 30, 1945, Los Angeles Times column that “The Andrew Sisters are lucky. They have the Robert Mitchell Boys’ Choir for their Easter show.” The group remained popular, appearing at the 36th National Boy Scout Jamboree with Roy Rogers in 1946, and appearing on their own episode of Ralph Edwards “This Is Your Life” in 1949. They performed for the 150th anniversary of the San Fernando Mission, as well as at special Lenten screenings of the 1951 Fox film “The Great Commandment.”
A 1953 Los Angeles Times story quoted one of the parents as saying that the kids thought Mitchell was great, and “Every one of them would tell you that Mitchell is their best adult friend. His secret seems to be in exercising the necessary discipline while appealing to their spirit–giving them something they can do, but that requires plenty of effort.” Ginger Rogers said about them, “Real angels’ voices couldn’t be sweeter,” and Bing Crosby also called them “the best choir in the world.” As Mitchell himself noted in the article, “There is no better way to develop a sense of discipline, teamwork and co-operation in the young fellows.”
More than 600 boys passed through the choir, from a high of 34 in the 1930s to only 8-12 by the 1950s, many going on to music careers, such as John Smith, star of television shows “Laramie” and “Cimarron City,” Tony Butala of the Lettermen, the Sandpipers, the Modernaires, Alan Copeland, Steve Rossi, and Chris Warfield.
Along with public appearances, the choir also performed for weddings and funerals. They sang for Marilyn Brant’s and Otis Chandler’s wedding in 1951 and at the wedding of one of Lawrence Welk’s daughters, as well as Dixie Lee Crosby’s high funeral Mass in 1952 and Charles Laughton’s funeral in 1962.
Mitchell began performing for more radio and television shows in the 1950s and 1960s, such as the Jack LaLanne show, Art Linkletter’s House Party, the Mitchell Choirboys’ Show, and for radio stations KFI, KHJ, KFMU, and KECA.
In 1962, Mitchell was hired as organist for both the Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles Angels at Dodger Stadium from 1962-1965, and in 1963, recorded and released the album “Baseball’s Best.”
By the 1960s, he was playing for multiple church services along with shepherding the Boy’s Choir, including at Temple Beth Hillel on Riverside Drive in North Hollywood, St. James Episcopal Church, Religious Science Church in Redondo Beach, a Catholic Church in Chinatown, Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Beverly Hills for 40 years, and for 24 years at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge.
Mitchell resumed playing for silent films at the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax Avenue in 1992, continuing on until his death in 2009. He also accompanied films for Los Angeles Conservancy’s Last Remaining Seats, the Santa Clarita Historical Society, Old Town Music Hall, and even on a song for one of Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys’ CDs. Mitchell remained active until just a few weeks before his death at age 96 in 2009.
Robert “Bob” Mitchell remained a man of great faith until the very end, maintaining, “Whatever talent I have, God has given me, and I have no right to take credit for it.”