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The final note for Newhall fixture

Silent film, Dodger Stadium organist dead at 96

Posted: July 6, 2009 9:42 p.m.
Updated: July 7, 2009 8:00 a.m.

Bob Mitchell, the first organist for Dodger Stadium, played the organ for silent-film screenings at Heritage Junction in Newhall. Mitchell died Saturday at a Hancock Park nursing home. He was 96.

 

Bob Mitchell, one of the last surviving organists of the silent film era and the first organist for Dodger Stadium, died Saturday at a Hancock Park nursing home after battling pneumonia for several weeks.

He was 96 years old.

The Hollywood resident had become a Newhall fixture over the last two years, playing organ for the "Friday Night Flickers" silent-film screenings at Heritage Junction.

"He was a performer to the end. Just give him an audience and he'd just turn on," said E.J. Stephens, who organizes the screenings, now called "Flickers at the Junction."

"(When he'd play) his eyes were the eyes of a 5-year-old at Christmas," Stephens said.

The Canyon Country resident said he was a fan of Mitchell's for some time, having heard him play at the Silent Movie Theater in Hollywood.

When organizing the film series at Heritage Junction, he turned to the veteran organist.

"He was just really wonderful to spend time with," Stephens said. "He kind of became my grandfather figure."

Mitchell was born in Sierra Madre, started playing organ at age 4 and played for silent movies from age 12 until the advent of sound in motion pictures.

He founded the Mitchell Choirboys in 1934, who performed in 100 motion pictures - notably "Carefree," with Fred Astaire; "Angels with Dirty Faces," with Pat O'Brien; "Going My Way," with Bing Crosby; and "The Bishop's Wife," with Cary Grant.

Mitchell was musical director for several churches: St. Ann, St. Brendan, St. Kevin and St. Peter in Los Angeles, and Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills.

"He was amazingly busy," Stephens said. "He hated to miss a performance."

Indeed, Stephens said Mitchell tried in the weeks before his death to check himself out of the hospital for a performance.

Mitchell had also been a fixture at the Silent Movie Theater in Hollywood since the late 1980s.

"He was a human time capsule," said Hadrian Belove, head program director for the theater. "You don't really replace somebody like Bob Mitchell.

"You were getting to witness a master of the form."

Last summer, Mitchell returned to Dodger Stadium for the 50th anniversary of its opening after Stephens made a few phone calls.
Mitchell announced the start of the game, and played the organ for the seventh-inning stretch.

He first played for the Dodgers in 1962, spending four years with the team.

"To the day he died, he knew nothing about baseball," Stephens quipped.

"I never saw him more childlike than he was at Dodger Stadium last year," he said. "He had a blast."

Stephens was not aware of any family members who survive Mitchell.

Mitchell's funeral is set for 9:30 a.m. Friday at Christ the King Roman Catholic Church in Los Angeles, and he will be buried at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Stephens said he still plans to screen Buster Keaton's "The General" at Heritage Junction this Saturday, leaving the first minute of the film without musical accompaniment as a tribute to Mitchell.

Mitchell was surrounded by a few close friends in his final moments, Stephens said.

Someone put on a live recording of Mitchell playing organ, he said, and it was during the applause that the musician breathed his last breath.

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