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Sunday, August 19, 2007

His Mother Called Him “Harry” - Elmira’s Little Rascal

by Diane Janowski
©2006 All rights reserved by author

Harold “Hal” Roach was an Elmira, New York boy, born the son of Charles and Mabel Roach of Columbia Street on January 14, 1892. Although others called him “Hal,” his mother called him “Harry.” Young Hal’s first job was as a newspaper deliverer. One of his customers lived on East Hill at Quarry Farm - Samuel Clemens, affectionately known as Mark Twain..

In several newspaper interviews, Hal said his childhood in Elmira was a happy one. In one interview Hal said, “Elmira was a fine place for a boy to grow up.” He recalled playing in Grove Park as a child. After his death in 1992, Elmira renamed the park pavilion in his honor.      

Hal claimed to have “attended and been kicked out of almost every school in Elmira.” St. Patrick’s, Booth, and Elmira Free Academy schools officially claim him as a former student. He attended EFA for a short period and played football on its team. After his EFA expulsion in 1908 at age 16, Hal’s father “strongly suggested” that Hal leave home in hopes that “travelling would help him grow up.”

Roach went as far from Elmira as he could - Alaska. He mined for gold and when that did not prove advantageous, he delivered mail for two years in “Uncle Sam’s service” (in Alaska) riding a horse for long distances through the wilderness. After nearly losing one foot to frostbite, Hal decided upon a less strenuous job. While on vacation in Los Angeles, he happened to meet some people connected with the motion picture business, and because of his riding skills learned while delivering mail, he secured himself a job as an extra in a movie. As an extra, the director placed him in a gambling den scene. The director did not know the game nor did the other extras, but Hal did. Hal straightened out some details, and the director rewarded him a regular job.

Hal worked hard and finally became the assistant director. Eventually in 1915, he formed a company with Dan Linthicum. Dan supplied the money, while Hal supplied the brains. They took the first letters of their names, R-O-L-I-N, as their company name. The companies who bought their movies went broke and with Rolin’s capital down to zero, Roach decided to risk it all on one last effort. Their next movie had no story, or “rhyme or reason.” Hal called it “Just Nuts” and sent it to the Pathè Movie Company. Pathè bought it and asked for several more. Hal’s company had several good players - Harold Lloyd, Harry Pollard, Bebe Daniels, and others.

Rolin had its own studio, several directors and all the money it needed. Hal worked hard for his success. Elmira’s Regent Theater (red arrow in the photo marks the theater on Elmira's East Water Street) made famous his “Lonesome Luke” comedies locally. In 1919, Roach formed Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, California.

Neither Mr. Roach bought nor wrote any scenario. He thought out comedy situations, outlined his ideas to his company, and put his crew to it. This method proved successful.

Under Roach's creativity, his studio produced the Our Gang/ Little Rascals short film comedy series beginning in 1922 with silent shorts, then sound short films beginning in 1929. the series continued until 1938. Roach's Little Rascals were unlike most other films with children in lead roles, in that they portrayed children as real children - not imitating adults. Roach's children characters often were in positions of poor versus rich. The Little Rascals also included female children and African-American children (although portrayed steriotypically) as lead characters.

In 1937, Mrs. Roach visited Elmira to renew acquaintances with her old friends. She told the Elmira Star-Gazette that since she moved to California in 1916, she had met Joan Crawford, Mary Pickford, Claudette Colbert, and Jean Harlow. Mrs. Roach said that she was proud of her son, and that she and her husband were reluctant to leave Elmira when Hal coaxed them to move to California “where there was real living.” She said that she did not regret moving west although she missed her friends in Elmira. She lived at her son’s studio in Culver City, California until her death.

Elmira Advertiser, September 15, 1916.
Elmira Star-Gazette, June 13, 1937.
Elmira Star-Gazette, January 12, 1992.

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