Princeton Personality by Jean Stratton

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LIGHT SHOW: "I've been in Princeton for more than 50 years, and it continues to be a fascinating place. There is so much to do here. You can choose to do or choose not to do. You get the opportunity to make the choice or to do nothing. This is very appealing." Karl Light, actor, teacher, and real estate broker, stands beside a 1930s family photo of his parents, sister, and Karl at age 10. end of caption

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.
Born and brought up in Trenton, Karl was the only son of Benjamin and Berta Light. At the age of 11, his father emigrated to Trenton from Lithuania. A native of Poland, his mother arrived in Hoboken when she was 16. The family, including older sister Rose, was close, and Mr. Light has very happy childhood memories.

"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."
Karl was very active, playing the violin in the school orchestra, joining a variety of clubs, and participating in sports.

Big Fan
"I always loved sports, especially basketball," he remembers. "We played a lot of basketball. I was also in all kinds of clubs, including the Historical Society and the Forum Club. In high school, I was a debater and public speaker, and I was in the senior play, a musical, but I didn't take it too seriously."

In the days of the Depression, radio and movies were huge sources of entertainment, and Karl was a big fan of both.

"I loved movies and went every Saturday. I especially admired the cowboy movie star, Tom Mix, and I saw all his movies. I also looked up to the actor Paul Muni.
"Radio was our principal source of entertainment, and after school, I'd come home and listen to Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy and The Lone Ranger. At night, we'd listen to the Jack Benny Show and Bob Hope. I also very much admired Lowell Thomas, the radio news commentator."

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.

Basic Training
"After two months, I enlisted in the army," he reports, "and they sent me to Harvard! I hadn't turned 18 yet, and there was this specialized progam of basic engineering at Harvard. I stayed for one semester, and then when I was 18, I was sent for basic training in the infantry at Fort Benning, Georgia.

"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."

Private Light saw combat both in France and Germany, fortunately was not wounded, and after the war ended, was stationed in Germany.

"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."

Major Role
Mr. Light's friend of 55 years, Princeton resident and theater reviewer Stuart Duncan also remembers those heady days with Theatre Intime. "We did summer stock, too, on campus, and called it the University Players. It included actors from all different schools. The important thing was that we did a play a week. Karl would direct one week and play a major role the next week. That provided such great training that very quickly, he went to Broadway.

"Karl 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."

Mr. Light played a variety of roles at Theatre Intime, from classical to contemporary. Favorites include Richard II and the male lead in She Stoops to Conquer.

"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.

New Play
"He and I ended up having a small correspondence. One of my instructors in creative writing, Richard Blackmer, was a respected critic. He told me that Eliot was working on a new play at the Institute, and maybe Intime could do it. He introduced the idea to Eliot, who was delighted. But then he wrote back and said it had been optioned for Broadway. It was The Confidential Clerk."

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.

Lot of Fun
"I really backed into real estate," he recalls. "I started to sell it, and I found that it was a lot of fun meeting people and helping them solve their housing problems. I made a lot of good friends, and in 1959, we established our own business, K.M. Light Real Estate."

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."

He 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 his effort to combine three demanding jobs – real estate, acting, and teaching – Mr. Light was a very busy man.

"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."

Resident Company
At this point in the early 1960s, changes began to occur at McCarter Theater, adds Mr. Light.

"In 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.

"I performed there for almost every artistic director, including Milton Lyon, Michael Kahn, Nagel Jackson, and Emily Mann. I also enjoyed being on the board of trustees at McCarter, and am now an honorary member.
"The productions at McCarter are of a very high calibre, as good as anywhere in the world. It is a very fine company."

Mr. Light has also performed frequently at the Off-Broadstreet Theatre in Hopewell. He recently directed a production, Dr. Cook's Garden, which will play there through August 16.

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.

Ability to Listen
"So much of acting springs from the unconscious," he adds. "The most important quality is the ability to listen to what is being said and allow yourself to react. There is a lot you can learn, but one thing that can't be taught is how to relax. And, of course, there is talent, and there is lack of talent."

Mr. Light's ability to continue his career in the theater while teaching and running a real estate company has impressed those who know him.

"It is amazing how he has conducted a full-time real estate business with a career in teaching and acting," remarks Princeton resident and retired physician, Dr. Benjamin Wright.

"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."

Adds his friend Stuart Duncan: "My feeling was that Broadway lost a real talent when Karl decided to turn his hand to real estate, but of course, he never really gave up the profession. And, we have kept our friendship over these many years. Karl is a very good man, a very solid person."

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
"This came about when one of our sales people, Marcy Crimmins, came to me and said, 'I'd like to do something for the community. Could we get a job managing affordable housing developments?'

"I 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."

As a Princeton presence for more than 50 years, Mr. Light has not only lived here, but has observed the town from his unique vantage point as actor, real estate broker, and teacher. Change is inevitable, and Princeton is no exception, he notes.
He is particularly struck by one aspect of the Princeton scene. "The biggest change is tourism. People are coming here from all over, and of course, the traffic is horrendous. I'd love to get rid of the cars! But overall, I think the development in Princeton has been careful."

Mr. Light remarried in 1981, and he and his wife, Lucy James especially enjoy traveling.

"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."

Very Busy
His life continues to be very busy, but when he has the chance, he enjoys reading and listening to music, including classical and jazz. And family is always important.
"I look forward to seeing my children and grandchildren (11 of the latter) as often as possible," he adds.

"Fortunately, 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!


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