|Princeton Personality by Jean Stratton|
Combining Acting, Teaching, and Real Estate Is Special Talent of Karl Light
In the summer
of 1946, I went to New York and saw the Old Vic Company. It was
a double bill: Oedipus Rex and Richard Brinsley Sheridan's,
The Critic. Laurence Olivier was the original Old Vic Company's
leading player. I came out of the theater transformed. To see
that man do those two disparate roles it was exceptional."
Karl Light may not have known it then, but those performances set the stage for what was to become an abiding passion and a successful career. In time, he added teaching and real estate to his portfolio, but the love of acting, once discovered, has informed his life.
It wasn't always the case. In his early
years, he didn't think about the theater. He was too busy with
sports, clubs, and debating.
"I had a wonderful
childhood, so warm and loving," he recalls. "I had great
parents, who always encouraged me. Also, as I've gotten older,
I've grown to admire my father more and more. He was so straight-forward.
He told it like it is."
the days of the Depression, radio and movies were huge sources
of entertainment, and Karl was a big fan of both.
A good student, Karl looked forward to attending a special summer program for high school students at Northwestern University. "I worked in a shoe store in Trenton after school to earn money to do that. The program included debate, music and theater. Among the people there was Cloris Leachman, who was in the theater program. I was involved in debating, but I also got to play the violin in the play they did."
In 1943, Karl achieved a long-held goal and entered nearby Princeton University as a freshman. It was the middle of World War II, however, and his stay was short-lived.
"In October 1944, we were shipped to France
and Germany, and sailed on the first Queen Elizabeth. The British
ships Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary became troop ships because
they could outrun the German U-boats."
"I was in a reinforced battalion, and ended up being a lecturer," he explains. "My subject was what it's like to be an occupying army, how to behave, etc. I was about 20 years old!
"My original outfit, from which I had been transferred, had been set to go home on leave and then go to the Pacific, but fortunately, the war ended. I met a lot of very interesting G.I.s. One was a teacher, another a musician, another a painter, and one a hopeful actor. It was a real cross-section of people."
Back home in 1946, he re-entered Princeton (after also being offered enrollment at Harvard), and it was here that the magic of the stage cast its spell.
"Theater Intime was starting to reorganize then," he recalls. "It had been on a hiatus during the war. The first production was going to be The Critic, which I had just seen Olivier do in New York. I tried out and got the part. I wasn't very good, but I was 'bitten.'
"I wanted to be involved and became a member of Theatre Intime. We did four or five productions a year, and it was a total undergraduate operation. Performed, sponsored, and financed by undergraduates."
made a few early mistakes in life, one of which was putting me
in things," remembers Mr. Duncan, with a laugh. "I am
a far better critic than actor. Karl, however, is a very good
actor. He starts with a very, very good voice. He has never over-emoted.
He manages to keep his characters well within reality. He really
trained in what was considered to be the classical style."
"I had a wonderful four years at Princeton, with memorable professors," he recalls. "There was Roy Welch in the music department, James Smith in philosophy, and Carlos Baker in English. I majored in English literature, but I also took courses in the American Civilization program, a specialty of the Humanities department. My advisor, Willard Thorpe was one of the creators of the American Civilization program. It crossed boundaries, including philosophy, art, and literature."
He also remembers another teacher who took a special interest in him when he was at the University.
"This was Elizabeth Dillon, head of the drama department at Trenton Central High School. She had cast me in the senior play, and although that was all I had done in high school, she came to see every play we did at Theatre Intime. She was very supportive."
While he was at Princeton, Mr. Light had the opportunity to meet T.S. Eliot, who was then in residence at The Institute for Advanced Study.
"It was very exciting when he was here," remembers Mr. Light. "We were doing a production of a Gertrude Stein play, Yes Is For A Very Young Man, and Mr. Eliot came to see it. He came backstage to speak to us, and made a comment we didn't understand then: 'It's a 2-dimensional play, isn't it?' I think he meant it didn't have the depth of character found in his plays.
By the time he graduated in 1950, Mr. Light knew the theater was the life for him. "We had a last season the summer after graduation, and I was set on a career in the theater. I had also had some luck as an undergraduate. Norris Houghton, Princeton Class of '31, was a producer. He often came back to Princeton and saw some of our plays. Also, Ezra Stone, the original Henry Aldrich on radio, was helpful to me."
"Both Norry and Ez asked some of us what we intended to do after graduation. I said I hoped for a career in the theater, and they said to get in touch. Ezra was directing a lot of live television then, and he immediately gave me walk-on parts. Sometimes, I had lines, sometimes, I didn't, but I made some money.
"Also," he continues, "a lot of Broadway shows were preparing for try-out tours. I called Norry and asked if he could help me get into the try-outs, and I auditioned for Romeo and Juliet and also for a new play by Arthur Koestler, Darkness At Noon. In 1951, I got a part in Romeo and Juliet, my first Broadway role. I played Balthazar, whose principal part is to tell Romeo that Juliet is dead. It was a mix of English and American actors, including Olivia de Havilland as Juliet."
During the early and mid-1950s, Mr. Light worked in the theater and also in live television. A special event occurred in 1955, when he appeared on Broadway in 'Inherit the Wind' with his boyhood hero, Paul Muni. The play dramatizes the famous Scopes Trial of the 1920s, and Mr. Light played the role of the teacher based on John T. Scopes.
"I played the part for a year, but then left in 1956 because I was interested in doing some other things," reports Mr. Light. "But I hit a dry period then, and found I needed to earn some money."
Mr. Light had married in May of his senior year at Princeton, and by now there were three children, Deborah (Derry), Brita, and Stephen Ripley (Rip), and a step-daughter, Pennelope. The family later expanded to include daughters Corey and Holly.
After a year in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan early in his career, Mr. Light and the family moved back to Princeton. In 1957, he made a decision that would enable him to combine acting with a new career in real estate and be successful in both.
He was able to arrange his schedule so that he could travel to New York for roles, and his commute to the city led to still another career move.
"In 1958, I was invited to teach at the Princeton Theological Seminary," he notes. "When I was commuting, I met a guy who ran the speech department at the Seminary. He asked if I'd like to teach a speech course, and I said yes. I taught four classes a week and was there until 1990."
enjoyed this new career, and was dedicated to helping the students
develop and improve their public speaking skills. "Watching
the effect on the students was especially satisfying," he
says. "It was exciting to see them blossom and be able to
speak more comfortably and convincingly."
"In the early '60s, my television career began to take off," he notes. "At that point, with teaching, selling real estate, and acting, it was fortunate I had a lot of energy. I was doing a lot of soaps, including The Doctors (live), Love Is A Many Splendored Thing, and I had a good long run on Guiding Light. I was able to arrange my TV shows back to back on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then had the rest of the week here."
1962, McCarter started a visiting company of professionals, and
then a year later, artistic director Milton Lyon established a
resident company. I was an Equity member, and I did two shows,
including Julius Caesar, with that company in 1963. I had
also earlier done a production of Oedipus Rex and then
later, I had a wonderful time in The Alchemist.
Directing is almost as big a pleasure as acting, he reports. "I started directing in college. The most important thing for the director is to be able to let the actors evolve. To guide them, but to give them the opportunity to have the part grow. It is very rewarding to see the work of the actors come to life in the performance.
Light's ability to continue his career in the theater while teaching
and running a real estate company has impressed those who know
"I admire anyone who has the intelligence,
imagination, energy, and ability to do and does
three different lines of work at an exceedingly high level. In
a town where you have to be pretty damn good to be recognized,
Karl has achieved that in three areas."
Mr. Light's real estate business took a different turn in 1992, he explains. "I enjoyed being a sales person in real estate, but in later years, we gave up sales altogether. Now we manage three affordable housing developments Griggs Farm, Princeton Community Village, and Elm Court for seniors.
For the Community
had to think about it," he continues. "I had managed
individual properties before, including a multi-unit building,
but this was different, and involved HUD, New Jersey Housing,
the IRS a lot of government agencies. I decided to go ahead,
however, and it has become very rewarding, more and more so as
time goes on."
"Italy is a favorite place," he says, "and
we're going to Berlin in October. When we travel, we go to the
theater if we can, and certainly in London."
two of my daughters, Derry and Corey, live in Princeton. None
of my children has gone into the theater professionally, but Holly
writes music and sings professionally.
"Also, about five years ago, at the Off-Broadstreet Theatre, I performed in Death of A Salesman with my son Rip, playing Biff. And I had fun playing with my daughter Derry and her son Caleb in On Golden Pond, also at Off-Broadstreet. Performing with your kids adds a whole new dimension."
Acting is indeed about dimension and scope. Layers of experiences, events, and moments come together to create and communicate a character. Mr. Light's diverse experiences bring additional dimension to his performances, and there's more ahead. All those roles yet to come. Stay tuned!