Tag Archives: los angeles

Missing Mr. Mitchell

We’re rushing up on the 4th of July again, which means more to me than just a day off. On a high note, the fourth is my birthday, but at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, it also marks the second anniversary of the passing of our buddy, the legendary organist and choir director Bob Mitchell, who died at the age of 96 in 2009.

The term "legendary" is kicked around carelessly in Hollywood, but that’s the only way to describe Bob. He first tickled the ivories at the age of four way back in 1916, and by the time he was 12(!) he was proficient enough at the organ to accompany silent films in theaters. This gig lasted until the talkies hit the scene four years later. He then became a choir director – a position he held in one fashion or another for the next 80 years!

Along the way he founded the "Robert Mitchell Choir Boys" troupe, which appeared in 100 films, and was the subject of an Academy Award-nominated short.

After a stint in World War II, he returned to Los Angeles and worked for many years as a staff organist for classic radio shows.  In his later years, he returned to his roots to accompany silent films all around the Los Angeles area. This is how Bob came into our lives.

I had been a fan of Bob’s for years, but I had never met him until he agreed to accompany Buster Keaton’s The General for us at our film series in Newhall in 2007. Bob’s star power brought the folks out in droves, and for the rest of his life he played for us in front of packed houses. He would be driven to Newhall by his good friends Dr. Gene Toon and Dee Perkins. Sometimes it would take several minutes for him to go from the car to the organ, but once there, he would transform into a young man.

He would play for the next hour or more, with no sheet music, composing as he watched the screen. Occasionally, he would even sing along to the music, or comment about one of the stars on screen that he had worked with personally over the years. Everyone ate it up.

We got to spend some time together away from the shows. I had a special experience at the end of one year when I drove Bob back to his assisted living home in Hollywood. He was a very caring and religious man, and asked me to stay while he lead Hanukkah prayers for the two of us. Now, neither of us were Jewish, but there we were wearing yarmulkes and lighting candles because Bob wanted to honor all of his friends of the Jewish faith.

Bob had a special love for Kimi and would light up whenever she entered the room (just like me). Kimi gave him a birthday cake at one of our shows while he set at the organ, and Bob hugged her like she was a favorite granddaughter.

It’s ironic to say that the death of a 96-year-old was unexpected, but for me it was. Bob, despite a few health problems, was never in a hurry to leave this life. I asked him if he was interested in playing a show for us on his 100th birthday in 2012, and he said, "Let’s book it!"

But it was not to be. We were on our way to visit him at the hospital last year when we got word that he had passed away.

A year ago at this time, the Los Angeles Conservancy presented the 1924 silent film Peter Pan as part of their "Last Remaining Seats" series at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown L.A. The show was hosted by Leonard Maltin and the near-capacity crowd was treated to a wonderful evening of entertainment. The night was dedicated to Bob who had played for the conservancy for over 20 years.

Before the show, a documentary that we made was played in a continuous loop in a side room. It was of the night in 2008 when we took Bob to Dodger Stadium to play the organ for the 7th inning stretch. See, another item on Bob’s resume was being the very first organist at Dodger Stadium when it opened in 1962.

Do you see why the term legendary fits?

The Capital of the 22nd Century?

Mojave. California's next supercity?

If I was in possession of that gizmo that got the cellphone talker back to 1928 to be at Charlie Chaplin’s premier of The Circus, I would be tempted to dial the knob back a bit farther to take a look at Hollywood and the rest of Los Angeles when it was still a backwater village. Urban sprawl has transformed what was once a sparsely populated region into a burgeoning megalopolis of over 15 million people. And it all happened in only about a century and a half.

I have a suspicion that if we stop back in and check on things in California in 2160, L.A. will have a new super-sister city 100 miles to the north, centered around what is now the tiny town of Mojave.

Mojave? The next California supercity? That bump in the road? Really?!

Once the western terminus for the twenty-mule team borax wagons coming from Death Valley, Mojave today serves as a graveyard for derelict airliners, and as a fueling stop for drivers motoring to and from Vegas. Its 4000 inhabitants live 25 lonely miles to the north of the “boomburbs” of Lancaster and Palmdale, surrounded by hundreds of square miles of emptiness; a place so sparse that space shuttles have been landing nearby for nearly thirty years.

But I suspect this will be changing soon. Hidden under its desert-brown, shabby exterior, Mojave harbors forces like aerospace and renewable energy that stand ready to change the world over the next century.

Mojave has been involved in aerospace since the earliest days of flight. It was here over the skies of Edwards Air Force Base that Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier and it’s still the place where the Space Shuttle touches down when the weather is bad in Florida. The Mojave airport was home to the Rutan Voyager, the first unrefueled aircraft to fly nonstop around the world, and is today the site of the first inland spaceport in America, where in 2004 SpaceShipOne made the first private spaceflight in history.  

Mojave is also a center for renewable energy. On a recent drive through the town, we saw an entire trainload of new propellers pass by on their way to the wind generators that dot the nearby Tehachapi Mountains. And in the surrounding Mojave Desert, limitless sunshine powers some of the world’s largest solar energy plants.

Let’s not forget, Los Angeles only tumored into what it is today in just a few generations. Mojave today has the open space, and the emerging technologies that may soon make the area attractive to millions.

As a fan of the desert, and of open space, I sincerely hope I’m wrong.

A future mini-mall site?

Griffith Park: Born of a Curse?


The obelisk in the center of the picture marks the grave of Col. Griffith J. Griffith at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Griffith Park Observatory, which he donated to the city of Los Angeles, hovers overhead.

As anyone who has ever jogged there after dark can tell you, L.A.’s Griffith Park can be a pretty eerie place. But did you know that the park actually exists because of a curse?

The story begins during the Mexican era when the land that eventually became the park was part of the Rancho Los Feliz. Don Antonio Feliz inherited the property and lived on it with his blind niece Dona Petranilla. When Antonio died in 1863 the land was swindled away by a neighbor and his crooked lawyer, leaving the girl with nothing. Petranilla was said to place a curse on the chiselers as well as on the land, which she punctuated by promptly dropping dead.

If the stories are to be believed, everyone connected with the con met untimely ends and the land passed down to “Lucky” Baldwin, whose luck quickly ran out, when the ranch and dairy he started on the property went bankrupt and he was shot to death by bandits. A few years later the property passed into the hands of Col. Griffith Jenkins Griffith.

Griffith J. Griffith, a man with the same first and last names to go along with a dubious military rank, was born in Wales in 1850 and emigrated to the U.S. around the end of the Civil War. Six years later he became a publisher in San Francisco and within a short time was the mining correspondent for the newspaper Alta California. He was able to glean enough knowledge about mining to become an expert at discovering gold and silver. He netted a large fortune which he and his wife Christina used to purchase the former rancho.

Griffith created an ostrich farm on the site, which was run by a man named Frank Burkett. Sometime around 1884, there was a lightning storm which severely damaged the property, but what really frayed the ranch hands’ nerves that night was the appearance of the ghost of Don Antonio Feliz on horseback. Griffith soon closed down the farm, which enraged Burkett enough for him to shoot Griffith down before turning the gun on himself. Griffith survived, but the curse wasn’t quite through with him yet.

Griffith, trying to rid himself of the haunted property, donated it to the city of Los Angeles in 1896. After this, he became increasingly paranoid, believing that his Catholic wife was conspiring with the Pope to poison him. In 1903, while staying in Santa Monica, he shot her in the eye. She too survived, but Griffith ended up spending two years in San Quentin after pleading insanity.

After he was released from prison, the city spurned his gift-giving. It was only following his death in 1919 that the city accepted a $1.5 million fund from his estate to build the Griffith Park Observatory and the Greek Theater.

So, the next time you are out jogging past dark along the park’s equestrian trails, make sure the horse and rider ahead of you are real, and that it’s not Don Antonio out looking for some swindlers.

(FYI – Marc Wanamaker and I started work this week on an Arcadia Publishing book entitled Images of America: Griffith Park. Look for it in 2011.)