by Warren M. Sherk
Having previously written about Tiomkin’s collaboration with African American choral directors Hall Johnson and Jester Hairston, this month we take a closer look at Tiomkin’s lengthy association with the choral director Robert Mitchell. (Coincidentally, both the Robert Mitchell choir and the Jester Hairston choir appeared in the World Brotherhood through the Arts concert on the same night in 1955.) From 1938 to 1955, whenever Tiomkin needed a youthful sound for a song of any type—classical, sacred, patriotic, folk, traditional—he called on a stable of singers trained by Mitchell.
Mitchell’s first boys choir was organized at St. Brendan’s Catholic Church, in the Windsor Square neighborhood of Los Angeles’s mid-Wilshire district, where Tiomkin lived. Mitchell selected eleven boys, ages 12 to 16, from the parish’s parochial school and rehearsed them for a month prior to their debut at the church’s 1934 Christmas Eve service. To raise money for the church, Mitchell produced and directed a string of concerts at the Ebell Club of Los Angeles featuring the choir. At its peak size in the late 1930s, with thirty-three members, the choir performed at a variety of church and civic events. Many of the unique three-part arrangements were written by Mitchell.
Tiomkin first hired Mitchell and the St. Brendan’s Boys Choir during the scoring of The Great Waltz in August and September of 1938. This biographical musical depicting the life of Johann Strauss II includes a lengthy six-minute vocal performance of the Strauss waltz “Tales from the Vienna Woods,” arranged by Tiomkin. The boys can be heard among the 100 mixed voices. According to Mitchell, Tiomkin was also interested in recording a Strauss waltz using Latin words taken from a hymn. Two years later, in August 1940, Tiomkin hired Mitchell for the Frank Capra film Meet John Doe. In the film, the choir can be heard singing a Christmas carol.
Due to the success of these and other high-profile films, public awareness of the St. Brendan’s Boys Choir grew rapidly. A 1940 Warner Bros. Melody Masters Series short film by film editor Irving Applebaum, Forty Boys and a Song, documents the group training and performing. The ten-minute film was nominated for an Academy Award in 1941 in the Short Subject category for one-reelers. By this time a sign announcing the Robert Mitchell Choir School had been erected at St. Brendan’s, a nod to Mitchell’s influential role. At the boys’ 1942 commencement and graduation party, composer Meredith Willson and former child actor Jackie Cooper were presenters, with Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman as guests.
In August 1942, Tiomkin called on Mitchell’s group for a climactic musical number for San Pietro, a war documentary produced, directed, and narrated by John Huston. The choir, whose voices can be heard on track 19 of the Film Music Society CD The World War II Documentary Music of Dimitri Tiomkin, received main title billing.
One month after recording wrapped on San Pietro, in Farragut, Idaho, the U.S. Navy welcomed its first recruits to what would become the second largest U.S. naval training station in the world. Among the California recruits was Robert Mitchell, who went on to serve as director of the U.S. Naval Choir at Farragut. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the St. Brendan’s Boys Choir had been tapped to perform onscreen in Going My Way. In the memorable musical number “Swinging on a Star,” the boys, dressed as neighborhood kids, appear alongside the film’s star, Bing Crosby. Mitchell attended the rehearsal and filming. The 1944 film went on to win seven Academy Awards, including best song.
In 1944 Bertha Keller Mann bought the Hollywood Conservatory of Music and Arts, founded in 1925, and changed the name to the Hollywood Professional School to reflect the course of study that, ironically, eventually ceased including music or art. After Mitchell’s return to Los Angeles following the war, the members of his choir attended the Hollywood Professional School. This private school was designed for children in show business, allowing them to attend classes solely in the morning—made possible by omitting physical education and lunch—so they could work in the afternoon. In addition to their morning studies and working with Mitchell in the afternoon, the boys continued to sing Mass at St. Brendan’s.
The group soon resumed its film work. Tiomkin recorded the “El Bolero” number in Duel in the Sun with the choir in November 1946. Upon the film’s initial release, Mitchell and the choir attended a screening at the Egyptian Theater. Mitchell recalls an awkward moment, not long after, when a St. Brendan’s priest called on the congregation during Mass to promise not to see the risqué Western film. By and large, however, the church did not interfere with the choir’s work, although a film’s subject matter may have come under consideration and there were a few parents who forbade their children from seeing movies. Even though the group had its origins at St. Brendan’s, Mitchell always recruited the best talent regardless of religious background. (He draws an analogy to the Notre Dame football team.) As the group grew to be more closely identified with its founder and director, it became known as the Robert Mitchell Boy (or Boys) Choir, though Mitchell himself prefers the Robert Mitchell Choirboys.
By 1954 Mitchell had established his own school, employing one full-time accredited teacher. The boys received four hours of academic instruction and three hours of musical instruction daily. Mitchell modeled the academic training on his own experience as a student at the Pasadena School of Tutoring. There, headmaster George Arthur Mortimer accepted students of any age and work was adapted to individual needs. At Mitchell’s school, even after the teacher’s salary and other expenses were deducted from the choir’s earnings, each boy netted around $550 per year. Ironically, the rise in union scale wages throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s resulted in a gradual decline in the choir’s size from thirty-three to eight members. (Mitchell recalls that this was dependent on recording and traveling factors only; usually the group consisted of around thirty boys.) By the mid-1950s, when film and radio producers began to request as few as six boys, Mitchell set a minimum call of eight; six, he felt, was too few to create the proper blend of voices.
Two mid-1950s Tiomkin films featuring the choir are Strange Lady in Town (1955) and Giant (1956). For Strange Lady the boys sang two Spanish-language songs, “La Golondrina” and “Las Chiapanecas.” Giant was the first film they worked on to use separate sound controls to record each of the three choir parts. Prior to this, the group had been recorded on a single track and the three-part harmony was balanced as part of the performance. To that end, Mitchell preferred to place the boys singing the melody in the middle of the group, with the second (harmony) part on the right, and the low (bass) part on the left. The recording engineers on Giant explained to Mitchell, as they set up to record the “Star Spangled Banner,” that they controlled the parts. Feeling mischievous, Mitchell quietly instructed the harmony part of the choir to sing louder than the melody part to show that he, the conductor, “controlled” the balance—his way of proving artistry over technology.
Tiomkin, always on the lookout for ways to expand the sonic palette available to him in Hollywood, chose the Mitchell choir for its unusual combination of musicianship, artistry, and versatility. Another Hollywood boy choir, the St. Luke’s Choristers of Long Beach, was popular in the 1940s; however, they excluded popular music from their repertoire and were forbidden by their church to appear in some pictures, including gangster films, which were seen as glorifying violence. In contrast, the Mitchell boys were taught pop and swing music. The tonal quality and range of boy choirs was conducive to film sound recording, particularly in the days before stereo, with the added benefit that onscreen appearances were sure to appeal to audiences.
A Los Angeles native, Robert Mitchell (b. 1912) studied piano and pipe organ in L.A. and New York. As a youth in the 1920s, he provided musical accompaniment for films. With the advent of sound films, he turned his attention to church organ and choir training. For the latter, he drew on his experience as a teenage choirboy at St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. There, Mitchell learned how to sing the high soprano part, how to manage a choir, and how to select repertoire. In spite of his active role directing the boys in as many as 100 motion picture performances, Mitchell primarily made his living as a radio organist.
Updated February 2009
- “Robert Mitchell Boy Choir,” Pacific Coast Musician (December 16, 1939), p. 6
- “The Robert Mitchell Boychoir,” by Henry M. Legler Jr., Catholic Digest (February 1947), pp. 57–61
- “Hollywood’s Boy Choirs,” Film Music Notes (November–December 1947)
- “The Robert Mitchell Boys Choir”
- “From Silents to Sound: The Robert Mitchell Story,” with Philip Scorza, Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, April 4, 2008
- “Bob Mitchell,” by Ron Oliver, accessed June 26, 2008
- The Los Angeles Times accessed via Proquest
- “Hollywood Professional School” history, accessed June 26, 2008
- Hollywood Professional School on Wikipedia
- Robert Mitchell, telephone conversations, February 7 and 8, 2009
Sadly, we have learned that Bob Mitchell has passed away in Los Angeles. He was interviewed earlier this year for our feature article (above) examining his work on numerous Tiomkin films. Since that article was posted, we have discovered—thanks to Ned Comstock—a vocal manuscript for “El Balero” [sic] from Duel in the Sun, dated April 16, 1946, in the Dimitri Tiomkin Collection at the USC Cinematic Arts Library. Mitchell arranged the three-part chorus and verse.
In addition to his legacy as a theater organist, choral director, and arranger, Mitchell was the first organist for the Los Angeles Dodgers when Dodger Stadium opened in 1962. See the Los Angeles Times blog, “The Daily Mirror,” for more and for information on services.
Posted July 7, 2009