Reel Culver City
by Marc Wanamaker
One of Culver City’s lost landmarks was the Hal Roach Studios, originally located at 8822 West Washington Blvd. (at the corner of Washington & National Blvds.). In 1980, the site was marked with an historical plaque as one of the City’s most famous and important studios.
FORMED IN 1914
The Hal Roach Company was formed in 1914 and had leased several studio sites in the Los Angeles area until finally settling in Culver City. The original name for Roach’s company was “Rolin” – named after Hal Roach and financial backer Dan Linthicum. After a couple of company closures, Roach’s friend, comedian Harold Lloyd, became the fledgling studio’s lead star, ensuring the small company’s success.
THE 1920S USHERS IN A NEW ERA
In 1920, Hal Roach formed a new company called “Hal Roach Studios” and a new era began. At this time, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chase, Snub Pollard and Ruth Roland were among e top stars of the company.
By April 1920, the studio consisted of the administration building on Washington Blvd., one large open stage and an enclosed stage, a set storage building, a laboratory and department bungalows. There was a back lot with various types of sets that were used over and over again. By May, there was a ‘pool’ water tank installed and some other departmental buildings.
In January of 1922, actress Ruth Roland was making Roach “serial chapter plays” while a new concrete stage was being built. In September, the first of the Our Gang comedies was produced and by 1923, famed vaudevillian Will Rogers was signed to star in a series of comedies.
Throughout the 1920s, such stars as Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chase, Will Rogers, Snub Pollard and the Our Gang gang dominated the Roach output – along with Harold Lloyd until he left the company in 1924.
In May of 1923, Hal Roach purchased a 10-acre ranch near the studio at what is now Robertson Blvd, where he shot films on ‘location.’ [see CCHS Fall 2005 issue for a personal account from the Moselle family on the Roach ‘ranch.’]
Hal Roach employed a variety of ‘actors,’ including the star of one of his favorite films: The Devil Horse (1926) starring Max “The Wonder Horse.” And it was in September of 1926 that Laurel and Hardy were officially teamed for the film, Duck Soup.
By January of 1927, all Roach productions were distributed by MGM Studios, making the Hal Roach Studio the comedy unit of MGM. With the coming of sound pictures, the Hal Roach Company was in the forefront of sound technology and all Roach films became ‘sound’ pictures, made in newly constructed ‘sound’ stages.
THE GOLDEN ERA OF THE 1930s
The 1930s was the golden era for the Roach studios with a star line-up that included some of the most popular comedians around: Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chase, Our Gang, Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts.
In 1937, Roach began production of feature films, the first being the classic Topper, starring Constance Bennett and Cary Grant. By the end of the 1930s, Roach had produced such films as: Zenobia starring Oliver Hardy, Captain Fury with June Lang, Of Mice and Men starring Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr., and The Housekeeper’s Daughter with Joan Bennett.
The Roach Studios continued making feature films into the 1940s until the Army-Air Force took over the entire lot, nicknaming it “Fort Roach.” Here, training and propaganda films were made – by many of the Hollywood set, including a popular young actor named Ronald Reagan.
Following the war, the Roach Studios resumed its feature film production activity with the construction of new stages and facilities. Other production companies also located on the lot. Hal Roach, Jr. led the company into television production, overseeing such productions as Life With the Erwins, My Little Margie, Racket Squad and Amos and Andy.
AN ERA OF FILM HISTORY ENDS
In April of 1959, the Hal Roach Studios was closed due to bankruptcy. Hal, Sr. came back to try and get the studio rolling again, but by December of 1962, the studio was permanently closed. In August 1963, the studio was finally demolished after several auctions and sales of the company’s assets.
Though Hal Roach, Sr. would live to see his 100th birthday, the final demise of his “Laugh Factory” was truly the end of a remarkable era of film history.