Our Hometown Stories: Roger Roberge: Behind Closed Doors...
Not long ago, San Fernando Road became Newhall Avenue. Though the name has changed, it still remains the same stretch of road that I navigate at least twice a day on my cross-valley excursions.
It is a given that if you take in the scenery on Newhall Avenue you will observe day laborers hoping for work, a deputy hiding with a radar gun and commuters tapping their steering wheels waiting for that elusive green light at Railroad Avenue.
In my travels between Sierra Highway and Lyons Avenue, I enjoy seeing the progress of Old Town Newhall and I love the quiet beauty of Veterans Plaza.
Newhall Avenue is a quiet street where nothing unexpected happens.
No wonder I did a double take last week when I saw a cobalt blue sign that proudly announced a new business in town.
I pulled over to the curb to make sure I was reading the sign correctly; "Wholesale Casket Warehouse/Custom Caskets and Airbrushing."
Oh my, with my Halloween heart bursting, I knew then and there that I had found my next Hometown Story.
The non-descript warehouse was two stories of pale green corrugated metal, not a window to be had which meant there was no way for me to cup my hands and peer in.
I showed up unannounced, which could have been a little dicey....I had no idea who would be opening that unadorned door....
I knocked tentatively; ready to bolt if I needed to... the door was opened by a handsome man with a huge smile.
Maybe deep down I was a bit disappointed....no Bella Lugosi, no black and white movie set, and no Gothic crypts of crumbling concrete.
Just the upbeat presence of Roger Roberge, proprietor of Wholesale Casket Warehouse and Easy Rider Productions.
Roger Roberge is an east coast transplant. He grew up in the land of his favorite football team, the New England Patriots and attended the University of Massachusetts. He graduated with a double major in Business and Music.
While I can barely comprehend "Hot Cross Buns" on my son's third grade "recorder" instrument, Roger is a doubly talented musician; a trumpeter whose fingers grace the trumpet valves like Dizzy Gillespie one moment and then can sail across the 88 ivories like Liberace the next.
With his degree in hand, Roger remembered, "I had dreams of moving to Hollywood and opening a recording studio."
Sometimes reality gets in the way though; "When I got to Southern California, it seemed like everyone had a recording studio, so that plan was put on permanent hold."
Roger pounded the pavement and possibly strolled by Grauman's Chinese Theatre comparing his footprints to John Wayne's....
It wasn't long before he found work as an actor and stuntman. But living the stereotyped life of a "starving actor" was not what he had moved across the country for.
Blessed with an entrepreneurial spirit, not only can Roger see an opportunity, but he also has the drive, determination and ambition to create his own.
His biggest undertaking was to launch and run "Fun & Games," a magazine geared towards the entertainment industry. At one point, their circulation reached 80,000. "That was a lot of work," Roger pointed out, "so I was happy to sell it in 1993."
Plan B happened by chance.
"In the early 90's, I had a friend who thought it would be cool to buy an old tour bus to use as party central. He wasn't monetarily sound, so I agreed to finance a motor home with him."
Playing the part of roadies on tour was fun, but Roger was already thinking ahead. He had made solid contacts in the entertainment industry, and with his business savvy, figured out a way to make a lot of money.
Roger explained, "I was good at carpentry so I rigged out the party motor home and turned it into a first rate ‘star wagon.' I outfitted it with a living area, along with a hair, make-up and wardrobe station. The studios rented it for $1000 per day."
Easy Rider Productions was born.
One became two and two became four and so on and so on.... Roger now owns over 50 pieces of equipment that he rents out to production houses and studios.
It is an impressive collection of heavy metal, ranging from motor homes, tractor-trailers and generator trucks.
Storage for his Easy Rider empire was what brought Rogerto the wide-open spaces of the Santa Clarita Valley in 2001. The reasonable price along with the available land and buildings were just what he was looking for.
The movie industry of 2009 in Southern California is not recession proof, so Roger once again answered the door to an opportunity. Granted, the door he was walking through may have creeped out a lesser man....
The three acres that Easy Rider Productions occupies on Newhall Avenue, has now become the perfect climate controlled storage facility for his newest business endeavor...Caskets.
This was not a sideline that was born of a love of the macabre, but from an out of the blue phone call from Uncle Bob, owner of Manufacturers Discount Casket Outlet, located in Massachusetts.
Roger remembered the call when Uncle Bob told him, "One of my buddies is ill and has all of these caskets. California is a big place and you can help people and make some money."
Roger paused and pondered while Uncle Bob continued, "You will never see casket prices like these again. You can offer people a really great deal."
It was only a short time later that an 18-wheel semi truck bearing Massachusetts plates and laden with sixty coffins of wood and metal arrived at the Easy Rider Productions warehouse.
A few of the caskets arrived with nicks and scratches. Patrick, an airbrush artist who has done work for the Easy Rider trailers, was hired to do some touch-ups.
Patrick suggested that he paint some clouds and doves on one of the caskets to give it a customized look. Roger agreed and the final product is beautiful.
Roger shared, "Customization is a nice thing to offer people." Patrick has since painted a Harley themed casket with flames, but the most interesting was a call they received about airbrushing the decedents face across the top of the casket.
Roger walked me into his enormous warehouse past a full size Hummer converted into a driving gasoline pump, pieces of antique furniture that look like Victorian era props and truck parts the size of a Smart Car.
It was when we stopped in a long hallway stacked from floor to ceiling with cardboard encased coffins, that I realized I was about to enter the "casket showroom."
Roger has converted a room within the warehouse into a display area. I was a bit lost when he spoke of "half couches, half open and full open models." He must have been paying attention during Uncle Bob's tutoring sessions.
Roger showed me the Lamborghini of caskets. A dark polished hard wood casket, with the depiction of The Last Supper carved on copper and then inlaid on the corners and side. This casket would retail for almost $7,500, but Roger is selling it for $2,500. His prices are far below retail.
It was an odd sensation to wind down our meeting discussing death, caskets and free delivery.
Eight years ago, when Roger ventured northbound on the 5 Freeway, over the hill into the Santa Clarita Valley he knew he was making the right move.
As it turns out, not only did he luck out with finding the perfect warehouse and property, he found the perfect wife too.
Pia Roberge was a Hart High School graduate and successful local realtor. The two have been married for 3 years and live in Circle J Ranch.
This once longhaired self-proclaimed crazy guy has traded his world of fast cars and the fast lane for "Elmo's World" and Hot wheels. Roger and Pia spend their weekends with his best production to date, their two-year old son Jonah Paul
Life is full of twists and turns and we do not have the ability to see around corners at what may lie ahead. Regret lies in looking back at missed chances.
Milton Berle said, "If opportunity doesn't knock, build a door."
Meet Roger Roberge, builder of doors.
Wholesale Casket Warehouse
(661) 287 3275
23919 Newhall Avenue, Unit B,
Newhall, CA 91321
Call for an appointment to view the showroom........