A LOCAL LIFE: ANTHONY A. MITCHELL, 91
He Served His Country With Music
Sunday, March 29, 2009
At the last minute, Anthony A. Mitchell was told he would not have to fly from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro. He was the third-highest-ranking member of the Navy Band and had planned to join the band's string section at a reception for President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek on Feb. 25, 1960.
As the Navy transport plane approached Rio de Janeiro in a dense fog, it collided in midair with a Brazilian airliner above the city's harbor, not far from the landmark Sugarloaf Mountain. Among the 61 people killed were 19 members of the Navy Band, including the assistant leader, J. Harold Fultz, and most of the string section. Three U.S. sailors playing cards at the back of the airplane were the only survivors.
"My dad was supposed to have been on that trip," his son Anthony E. Mitchell recalled. "Pop and Mr. Fultz had been out to dinner, and as they came up the gangplank to the ship where they were staying, that's when Mr. Fultz said, 'Mitch, I don't need you tomorrow. Why don't you stay here?' "
The crash devastated the remaining members of the band, but Navy officials ordered the musicians to continue with their South American tour as if nothing had happened.
"Boys, I want you to know that your playing in South America may stop the Russians from coming with guns," an admiral told the band members, columnist Drew Pearson reported. "This is part of the cold war."
"The only thing stopping the Russians from coming here with guns isn't the Navy Band," one member replied. "It is the Strategic Air Command, and we both know it."
Many musicians left the band, its longtime leader was eased out, and by 1962 Anthony Mitchell was in charge. He reached the rank of lieutenant commander as the third leader -- the band's term for music director -- since the Navy Band was formed in 1924.
Cmdr. Mitchell, who died Jan. 20 of complications from lupus at age 91, had come to Washington in 1936 to study at the Navy School of Music. By then, he already had a thorough musical education, learned at his father's side.
Antonio Alberto Miceli was born on Aug. 26, 1917, in Clearfield, Pa. When his father, a Sicilian immigrant, changed the family name to Mitchell a year later, Antonio became Anthony.
Cmdr. Mitchell's father worked as a house painter and decorator, but his true calling was music. He led the town band and started each of his 12 children -- Anthony was the oldest -- on instruments by age 6. The house had two pianos and was filled with clarinets, saxophones, violins, mandolins, trombones, trumpets and drums.
"There was always music in the house," recalled one of Cmdr. Mitchell's younger brothers, Gordon Mitchell, who played trumpet and sang with the Navy Band. "One of my sisters would sit down at the piano, someone would pick up a violin, and we'd all join in. It was like in the movies."
Cmdr. Mitchell was for many years the Navy Band's clarinet soloist and dance-band leader. He modeled his playing after that of Artie Shaw, the swing era clarinet star, and was equally adept at jazz, marches, patriotic songs, classical concertos and dance tunes-- all of which the band had to be prepared to play. (Another brother, Russell, was the longtime clarinet soloist with the Air Force Band.)
When he turned to conducting in the 1950s, he followed the example of another of his musical idols. Like Arturo Toscanini, conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, Cmdr. Mitchell prided himself on being able to conduct the thousands of tunes in his band's repertoire entirely from memory, without using a musical score.
He made recordings with the Navy Band, directed its weekly performances on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, introduced a series of children's concerts and led the band's first appearance at New York's Carnegie Hall. He also composed the official march of the District of Columbia, "Our Nation's Capital," as well as marches to honor national parks and the opening of the Kennedy Center.
At the funeral of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Cmdr. Mitchell strode alongside his bandsmen during their slow march from the Capitol to Arlington National Cemetery, playing dirgelike music all the way.
He graduated from Catholic University in 1946 and lived for 71 years in Southeast Washington, where he gave his five children their first music lessons.
After retiring from the Navy Band in 1968, he taught at a Prince George's County junior high school and worked as a guest clinician and music contest judge. His wife of 63 years, Helen Rittenhouse Mitchell, died in 2005.
Cmdr. Mitchell last led the Navy Band in 2006, when he was 89. He conducted without using a score.