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Vintage Hollywood Photos - Hal Roach Studios


Probably no producer brought more laughter to movie and television audiences than movie pioneer Hal Roach.  Born on January 14, 1892 in Elmira, New York, he drifted into films in 1913 after migrating down from Alaska where worked as a laborer.  He began his career after answering an ad for western extras at Universal where he performed as a stuntman and minor actor in westerns and action films.  Later he he became an assistant director responsible for various production duties.  It was here he met and befriended Harold Lloyd who he thought had great potential as a comedian.  Shortly thereafter, Lloyd went to Keystone to hone his skills while Roach left Universal to strike out on his own.  

Rolin Film Co.

In July 23, 1914, he incorporated he Rolin Film Company. He derived the name from the first initials of the last name of  Roach and his partner, Dan Linthicum. 

They rented space at the former Bradbury mansion at 206 Court Street in Los Angeles.  The building had a side entrance that led to the offices and the open-air stage in the backyard.  

On a shoe-string budget, they began producing one reel comedies directed by Roach and with a cast made up of friends, including Harold Lloyd. However, when submitted to film distributors, the movies were deemed to be “amateurish” and not worthy of distribution. It wasn’t long before the situation at Rolin was becoming grim.  The company had nothing but red ink and a stack of unsold films for its nine months of production.  

Charles Chaplin

Shortly after Roach rented space at the Bradbury mansion, Charlie Chaplin’s production unit also became a tenant.  Chaplin was making two-reel comedies while under contract to Essanay, whose main studio was in Niles, California.  While making films for his own Rolin company, he also directed several Essanay one-reelers using the cast members that Chaplin wasn’t using for his unit.  Roach resumed producing for himself  when Chaplin moved to another studio at 651 Fairview Avenue, also in Los Angeles. Roach began developing a series of comedies featuring a Chaplin look-a-like named Willie Wonk, starring Lloyd.  After some favorable reviews, it was decided to change Willie’s name to Lonesome Luke and develop an entire series of one reelers around this character.  The films were an enormous success.  A couple of years later, Lloyd was tired of playing Lonesome Luke and decided to develop a new screen character that was more like himself.  Wearing owl shaped glasses and a bow tie, his new character was the average guy, the boy next door.  His new “glasses” character became so popular, it made Lloyd one of the biggest stars of the day. 

Needing larger quarters in the summer of 1915, they rented space at the Norbig Film Manufacturing Company located at 1745 Allesandro in Edendale, between the Selig and Keystone studios.  Nine months later, they relocated to the Pacific Laboratory in Hollywood.  By 1917, the studio operation moved back to the Bradbury mansion at 206 Court Street in Los Angeles.  Production began increasing at a rapid space.  From producing only about a dozen one-reel films in 1914, the Rolin Company made nineteen in 1915, thirty-four in 1916 and 1917, forty-nine in 1918 and fifty-five in 1919. By mid-1919,the Rolin company was again in desperate need of larger quarters.

New Studio in Culver City

Roach purchased several acres in Culver City, California from Harry Culver, the same man who sold Thomas Ince the land for his two studios.  In April 1920, he moved into his new studio at 8822 Washington Boulevard.  Having just bought out his partner, he changed the name of the company to Hal E. Roach Studios.

By the early 20s and 30s, he was devoting less time to directing and more time to the organization of his growing company and to the supervision of its increasing output.  His stable of talent rapidly expanded to include such comedy stars as Harry “Snub” Pollard, Will Rogers, Charlie Chase, Edgar Kennedy and the  inimitable Laurel and Hardy.  He entrusted their direction to such gifted men as Fred Newmeyer, Alf Goulding, Gilbert Pratt, Leo McCarthy and other great talents.  Roach diversified his products in the 20s to include features films, dramas as well as comedies.  He then began weeding out his least profitable series and concentrated on developing his three major attractions -- the Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chase and Our Gang comedies, all of which were swiftly becoming extremely popular. 

By the mid-30s, Roach realized that two reel shorts were being edged out of the market by the increasing popularity of second features on a double-feature bill so he gradually shifted to feature production.  The company enjoyed renewed prosperity with its new productions, such as “One Million BC” and “Of Mice And Men.”

When Roach was called to active duty during WW II,  he was stationed on the East coast and leased his studio to the Army Air Force’s first motion picture unit.  Commonly referred to as “Fort Roach”, the studio was used to make training and propaganda films.

Roach Enters Television

Upon his return to his studio, after the war, he resumed the production of feature films.  However, the studio began to suffer financially and by 1949, it was on the verge of bankruptcy. Having no other choice, the decision was made to invite television production companies to lease space at the studio.  By the early 50s, the activity and amount of production was explosive!  Hal Roach Sr. put his son, Hal Jr. in charge of the studio and let him “run with the ball.”  Some of the earliest television programs, including the “Gale Storm Show”, “My Little Margie”, “The Lone Ranger”, Amos ‘n’ Andy” and “The Life Of Riley” were produced there.

With television production expanding, Hal Jr. bought out his father’s interest in the studio for $2,526,236.50, payable in equal installments over thirty years.  However, within two years, the studio was again experiencing a financial crisis. Not because of poor management, but due to the large payments on outstanding loans and the installment payments to Roach Sr. for the studio purchase.  At the same time, television production began to decline because of competition from other studios.  

On May 27, 1958, Hal Jr. announced he was selling Hal Roach Studios to the Scranton Company but remained on as president and executive producer. However, the infusion of new capital wasn’t successful and in early 1959, the Hal Roach Studio ceased operation and the last tenant moved out.  On April 29, 1959, the Scranton Company and Hal Roach Studios filed for Chapter 10 bankruptcy. Three years later, the studio was sold to Ponty-Fenmore Realty Fund for $1,323,000 and in the summer of 1963, the studio was demolished to make way for commercial buildings and an auto dealership.

Hal Roach, one of the visionary pioneers of the film industry, passed away on November 2, 1992, at the age of one hundred.

Vintage Hollywood Photos

The website has many photos of the Hal Roach Studio. All the photographs are available for purchase.


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