Undoubtably among the greatest entertainment visionarys of all time with the longest spanning movie-making carrer of all time ... 80 decades of entertaining. ABSOLUTE GOLD! (and a film founding father pioneer!)
He was birthed on January 14th of 1882, in Elmira, New York. According to his earliest teachers, he was always full of imagination. Helping her in the one room elementary school of 32 students, tudoring through entertaining methods. I imagine Hal was a regular hoot to have as a classmate!! He lived here on Columbia Street in Elmira until the age of 16. Febuary of 1910 found young Hal in Alaska directing stage production. He loved the stage and stayed in Alaska until 1912 when he heard of the unheard of fortune one could make in the newly growing California. He wasted no time in heading in that direction.
He arrived and got work as an extra in silent film. He lived in this cushy home on Serrano Avenue . Immediatly, he began picking up jobs as an extra in comedies. There is absolutely NO denying that he was a hard worker. He had a rep of, what some would consider working TOO hard. In the days of Hollywood's humble beginnings - eeeveryone and their dogs knew that you made film by day, but there was a party to be had by night! As for Hal - he never made it to too many of them. He preferred to work .. doing for the studio boss', what they generally did!! Picking up the sets, making sure lights were turned off, salvaging props that could be salvaged, and anything else they needed done. He did this so studio bosses could go home & spend time with their families. To say the man had dedication ... would be a major, maajor understatement. He continued this for 6 1/2 years .. until the right time .. and the right time .. was the year 1919.
Armed with the knowledge, cash (most of which was from an inheritance), experience, and kahoonas to start his own studio .. he set out to do just that! Originally, he wanted to purchase land for his studio in downtown L.A., citing that's where he believed 'the place to be in the future,' was to be. However, he .. quote, "didn't count on the city of L.A. being so crude with their allotted zoning space." To L.A.'s credit .. had they NOT been so strict with zoning, (with the population being what it is today in L.A.) the city might just have capped with a population bar looong ago. Although I don't mention the history of city officials often on this site .. they were very organized and had an UNREAL foresight!! Annnyway .. Hal called up the city (I guess you could say, since it is named after him) itself.. his friend Harry Culver in nearby?? ANYONE? ANYONE?? Culver City O course! Culver met with Hal, and together they found the grounds, that the future "Laugh Factory to the World" would sit. Hal purchased his initial 10 acres at $1,000 an acre .. and the studio that would become 'Hal Roach Studios,' started being constructed.
8822 Washington Blvd. at the corner of Washington and National in Culver City. That would become the address. Construction on the studio wrapped, & opened to a world of dreams & imagination (the stuff studios were made of in those days). The studio was illustrious to say the least. It quickly developed a rep as "The Lot of Fun," and produced memorable gentle charactors such as Our Gang (which later would become The Little Rascals), Harrold Lloyd, Snub Pollard, & Laurel and Hardy. Mabel Normand also filmed her final films here. (I say it allllll the time .. but, o to be a fly on the wall!) The Hal Roach Studios thrived big time. On any given day, you could most of the time find a working employee's child on the lot, and you could ALWAYS find Hal. His biggest rival was Mack Sennett. Films were distributed by Pathé until 1927, when he went to MGM. Distribution changed hands again in 1938 to United Artists. He converted his silents to talkies in 1928 and began releasing talkie shorts early in 1929. In the days before dubbing, foreign language versions of the Roach comedies were created by re-shooting each film in the Spanish, French, and sometimes Italian and German languages. Laurel & Hardy, Charley Chase, and the Our Gang kids (some of whom had barely begun school) were required to recite the foreign dialogue phonetically, often working from blackboards hidden out of camera range. In the late 30's - Hal began experimentation with color films using Cinecolor, which would've made his studios a first to do such. Unfortunatly, he was beaten to the release with former distributor MGM's, release of "The Wizard of Oz." In 1942 .. Hal was called to military active duty. In exchange for the lending of his studio facilities to the U.S. Army .. Hal was given a go to still oversee every aspect of his studio. Army training was held at the studio, and temporarily, "The Lot of Fun," was re-nicknamed "Fort Roach." Cadets who trained there included the likes of Ronald Reagan, Alan Ladd and others. After a discharge in 1947, Hal returned ready to rejouvinate his studio in the form of 'theater production." He continued to experiment with color ... (BIG mistake). In only one year - the studio was knee deep in debt. Going a different route - Hal re-established his studio for television production, with Hal Roach, Jr. producing shows. For a time the idea was a good one .. the shows coming out of the studio were early arrivals on television. The Laurel & Hardy comedies in particular. It could have been more had Hal not sold off Our Gang to MGM in the 30s. Although never it's former self - it did releave alot of the debt.
By 1955, Hal was ready to retire from active production and sold all of the controlling interest to his son, Hal Roach, Jr. It would ultimatly prove a bad move & eventually the studio was lost to it's creditors. In a twist of fate - the studio became useless to the creditors without the brass there at the reins. Over the years several compaines tried to take the studio into rejuvinate it .. but to no avail. In 1963, The 14.5 acre studio once known as "The Lot of Fun," containing 55 buildings, in true neighboring L.A. fashion) history was torn down and replaced by light industrial buildings, businesses, and an automobile dealership, where a plaque marks the studio's location. BASTARDS!
While .. 'technically' retired, Hal continued to be a presence in Hollywood whenever called on to do so. At age 96, Hal started working on a comeback comedy (yheah..96!). After the days of having his studio - he did everything with old business partner MGM. In a great surprize gift to fans - he appeared on David Letterman talking about, 'the GOOOOD old Golden Age' days of Hollywood! Fans thought that was it .. no - he made the circuit rounds giving interviews. In 1992, Hal appeared again at the Acadamy Awards. Billy Crystal (the most UNfunny, HORRIBLY, UNtalented person on earth), made reference to Hal. He shocked em all!! 100-year-old Hal made the night when he stood up from his seat and addressed the crowd with an impromptu speech, unaware that there was no microphone in the vicinity (Crystal quipped that Roach was merely offering the TV audience a taste of what silent films were like...pssh! Crystal is a DOUCHE!)
In mid-october of 1992 - Hal came down with a case of pneumonia. Doctors were called, but, with Hal at 100, could do nothing except try to keep him comfortable. The comedy legend was at deaths door and family were called in. Dispite the fact of his age - there was shock among family & friends. He had always been healthy and was suddenly now hit with pneumonia. On the morning of November 2nd, 1992 - Hal Roach passed away with family at his side, in his Bel Air home. His passion and life had been made in California - but his heart always lay in New York. He would often excitedly take vacations to visit his family, and childhood home there. In the end, because of that fact - it ultimatly ended where it had started for Hal - as he was laid to rest in Woodland Cemetary in his hometown of Elmira.
You can visit his grave here by venue of virtualness, to leave virtual flowers and comments! RIP Hal - the legend you created in Culver - will live in the heart of Hollywood FOREVER! You were a true innovator & pioneer in the industry in which you, by proxy, helped to design!
"In those days, there was one secret to making good comedy. If it made the audience laugh, it was a good comedy."