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From the glamorous to the grim

Posted: August 14, 2009 10:07 p.m.
Updated: August 15, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Roberge polishes a casket of poplar wood with Pietá corners and decorations depicting The Last Supper. Roberge recently opened Wholesale Casket Warehouse on the advice of relatives, after business began to sag at Easy Riders, his entertainment-industry equipment rental company.

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When Hollywood went dead, Roger Roberge got into caskets.

The 44-year-old owner of Easy Riders entertainment-industry equipment rental company isn’t making a killing in show business at a time when studios are leaving California to film in less expensive locales.

So, following a relative’s advice, a couple of weeks ago the Saugus man bought about 64 caskets and put up a small blue sign reading “Wholesale Casket Warehouse” on Newhall Avenue.

“Within two days I got a lot of calls,” said Roberge, who runs the business with his wife, Pia Roberge.

Unlike the movie industry, his casket business promises a steady flow of potential customers.

“People — they die every minute, around the world,” he said.

Roberge’s warehouse is tucked behind a nursery on Newhall Avenue in the shadow of Eternal Valley Memorial Park. Trailers and a mish-mash of other filming equipment fill most of the floor space.

A small side room, however, looks like something out of a vampire movie: Dozens of coffins — some metal, some wood, many still in cardboard boxes — were stacked along the walls.

Roberge and his wife seemed to take some measure of pride in the fact there wasn’t any fancy showroom. It keeps the overhead low, they said.

“We could provide a service with a little compassion and not take advantage of people,” Pia Roberge said. “That’s really our goal.”

Grieving relatives don’t tend to bargain shop when they’re looking for caskets in which to bury or cremate their loved ones, Roberge said. But the couple said they’re offering some caskets for a third of the price some funeral parlors ask.

They also contract with an airbrush artist who can paint murals on the caskets.

Roberge is something of a serial entrepreneur who has owned a small magazine and a coupon-printing company before he started Easy Riders. In that business, he used to have constant work providing equipment for movie sets.

Lately he said he’s been doing work for television reality shows because major productions are leaving the state.

In an effort to staunch the flow of fleeing production, California this year authorized $100 million a year in tax credits through 2014.

But the benefits are meager compared to some other states’ perks, critics have said.

Roberge acknowledged his new career is a bit grim. He said he tries to stay upbeat about it.

“I feel bad for the people,” he said. “But, you know, we’re all going to go there one of these days.”

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