Organist Provides Sound for Films
Oct. 10, 2002
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LOS ANGELES (AP) _ A management oversight at a movie house in 1924 launched Bob Mitchell's career playing organ to accompany silent films. Seventy-eight years later, Mitchell's still at it.
One of the last accompanists from that era still playing organ regularly for silent films, Mitchell turns 90 on Saturday with a birthday bash at the Downtown Palace Theatre in Los Angeles at which he will provide music for Buster Keaton's ``Seven Chances.''
Mitchell plays one or two nights each weekend for films at the Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles, the nation's only movie house devoted to pre-talkies.
``I love to play and I love to watch movies,'' Mitchell said in an interview seated near the Hammond organ he plays at the theater. ``These works of art without sound and without color, they're like monuments, like Roman architecture. It's important that we preserve them.''
A Southern California resident most of his life, Mitchell had lined up a gig playing organ between movie screenings at the Strand theater in Pasadena on Christmas Day 1924, when he was 12.
As Mitchell was practicing one day, the theater manager failed to notice the boy was pounding away at the keyboard when the lights went down for a matinee. The screen lit up with a movie about the Yukon, and ``I just kept on playing,'' Mitchell said. ``I knew how to improvise, so I just kept it up.''
The theater's regular organist took a liking to Mitchell and let the boy sit in at the keyboard for movies whenever he wanted over the next four years, until sound films took over in the late 1920s.
Mitchell returned to film accompaniment at the Silent Movie Theatre in the early 1990s. The theater closed in 1997 after the proprietor was murdered, but it reopened in 1999 under new management, with Mitchell back for regular gigs.
``Bob told me, `Charlie, please book me every weekend. I need to play,''' said Charlie Lustman, who reopened the Silent Movie Theatre. ``It's like his medicine. That's what keeps him alive. The man feeds off playing to silent movies. That's a cool thing. We should all have something like that as we grow older.''
The first movie Mitchell performed for at the Silent Movie Theatre was ``Hands Up,'' a comedy he had accompanied back in the '20s. He has since played along to dozens of movies that he first accompanied in the silent era.
Mitchell plays organ once a month at a church and performs at weddings, film festivals and other events. In September, he played during the seventh-inning stretch at Dodger Stadium, where he was a regular organist in the early 1960s. He's doing a wedding Saturday afternoon before his birthday celebration.
Born Oct. 12, 1912, Mitchell began studying piano at age 4, thrust into it by his music-loving mother.
``They'd call it child abuse nowadays,'' Mitchell joked.
After his teen years accompanying silent films, Mitchell played for a church choir and later studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and the New York College of Music in New York City, where he also sang and played piano on the radio.
Returning to Los Angeles in 1934, Mitchell got a regular radio program and founded a boys choir whose broadcasts caught Hollywood's attention.
The Mitchell Singing Boys appeared in more than 100 movies, including ``Going My Way,'' ``The Bishop's Wife'' and ``Broadway Melody of 1938.'' In 1941, the choir was the subject of an Academy Award-nominated short film, ``Forty Boys and a Song.''
Mitchell oversaw the choir until the late 1990s, when it disbanded, but he said he's hoping to start it up again. And he has no plans to retire from his silent-movie or church jobs.
``I don't think he would stand for it,'' said Vincent Morton, a member of the boys choir from 1946-51 who helps organize Mitchell's appointments and drives him to gigs. ``He really needs it. He's a ham. He just loves the limelight.''
Health permitting, Mitchell hopes to play organ on a film tour organized by the Silent Movie Theatre, starting with a weekend in San Francisco in late December. The theater is taking a series of short comedies by Keaton, Charles Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and others on the road, which Lustman said will include stops in New York and Chicago next year, with more cities to be added later.
Mitchell, who never married, moved to a retirement home two years ago, where he practices piano each day.
``There's a saying, if you don't practice every day, you know it,'' Mitchell said. ``And if you don't practice for a week, your public knows it.''
On the Net:
Silent Movie Theatre site: http://www.silentmovietheatre.com