Arts & Entertainment

Last living, working organist of silent-movie era dies

Bob Mitchell was the resident organist at the Fairfax District's Silent Movie Theatre.
Bob Mitchell was the resident organist at the Fairfax District's Silent Movie Theatre.
Patricia Nazario/KPCC

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A world-renowned musician has died. This is not another story about Michael Jackson. It’s about Bob Mitchell – the last living, working organist from the silent-movie era. KPCC's Patricia Nazario attended a recent tribute for the accompanist, whose funeral is scheduled today.

Patricia Nazario: The Silent Movie Theatre in L.A.’s Fairfax District draws a cult following to its black-and-white film screenings. Many people show up in period outfits – ladies wear sculpted hats and fire-engine red lipstick.

["Enjoy the show..."]

Nazario: Before Wednesday's Greta Garbo feature, the Silent Movie Theatre offered a 20-minute video tribute to its resident organist and industry veteran, Bob Mitchell. Mitchell began playing the organ for silent films during the 1920s when was just 12 years old.

[Sound of video tribute]

Nazario: Hadrian Belove is the theater’s head programmer. He told the audience that he and others organized the video after they learned Bob Mitchell passed away on July 4th. He was 96 years old.

Hadrian Belove: He, actually, a couple of times, would bring sheet music that he'd actually saved, because sometimes the movies would come with an actually score or a hit song that had been written to be released with it.

Nazario: Belove said Mitchell maintained sharp timing and a real sense of the way to accompany movies – he studied under masterful musicians back in the day. Mitchell's vast knowledge and smooth melodic transitions could still captivate modern-day audiences.

In an interview with KPCC eight years ago, Mitchell disclosed part of his secret.

Bob Mitchell: I always make it a policy in scoring – I'll play songs that were popular at the time, but I'll never play anything that was published after the time.

Dee Perkins: He was marvelous.

Nazario: Seventy-seven-year-old Dee Perkins and her long-time companion became good friends with Bob Mitchell in his last decade. The couple often gave the musician a lift to gigs around Southern California. Perkins said Michael Jackson's death just days before her friend's overshadowed Mitchell's musical legacy.

Perkins: I'm afraid that he's kinda fallen by the wayside this week, because of all the hoopla. I'm not bitter, but I just feel like Bob is not getting the real accounting that he should.

Ferris Gluck: I have hours and hours of footage – probably interviewed him six or seven times.

Nazario: Ferris Gluck is a composer, musician, and she's adding filmmaker to her list of credits. She said that seeing Mitchell perform at the Silent Movie Theatre inspired her to make a documentary on the art of playing music for silent films. Her upcoming production features Bob Mitchell.

Gluck: He had more work in Hollywood than anybody I know and he was 96. For him to be gone leaves a huge gap on the music scene. It really does.

Nazario: The Silent Movie Theatre's head programmer Hadrian Belove shared a similar sentiment with the audience before he started the video tribute.

Belove: There's really not going to be another resource like Bob for us.

Nazario: The audience seemed to appreciate seeing Bob Mitchell sitting at the wooden bench, hunched over an organ one last time – if only on the big screen.

[Sound of applause at end of tribute]

Nazario: Then they took a break and returned for the feature film. The projectionist rolled...

[Sound of projection room]

Nazario: ... and another musician sat in Mitchell's place at the front left corner of the dark theater.

Cliff Retallick: I saw Mr. Mitchell play a few times.

Nazario: Cliff Retallick is one of the youngest musicians in the silent movie business. He's 35 years old.

Retallick: When I watch Bob play, he definitely had all of these go-to melodies. He would play popular songs from the day. I'm the exact opposite of that. You know what? I just make it up, completely, as I go. I just need to be in control like that.

Nazario: Fans of these films, and people who treasured Bob Mitchell, wouldn’t expect any less.

[Ending film and organ accompaniment]