Todd “Rocky” Karns – enterprising Hollywood actor and artist – painted and directed stage shows in Ajijic for close to thirty years
Roscoe (“Rocky”) Karns lived in Ajijic with his wife (Kate Karns) and family from 1971 until his death on 5 February 2000. Karns had retired from careers in acting and sales and devoted himself in Ajijic to his painting and working as producer and director on shows at the Lakeside Little Theater.
Roscoe (“Rocky”) Todd Karns Jr., was born in Hollywood, California, on 15 January 1921, to character actor and comedian Roscoe Karns and his wife Mary Fraso.
Karns’ movie career was interrupted by four years service in the Army during World War II.
After the war, when Rocky was assigned to work in Los Angeles as a military recruiter, he and his wife, Kate, established their home in Hollywood and Rocky began to build his acting career even as they started a family.
Rocky’s most significant movie role was as “Harry Bailey” in the classic Christmas holiday movie It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), starring Jimmy Stewart (playing Harry’s elder brother “George Bailey”) and Donna Reed.
The movie was nominated for five Academy Awards including best picture. Though it did not do terribly well when it was released, it has gained popularity in recent years and has now made the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best American films ever made.
Karns had minor roles on several other films, including My Foolish Heart (1949), It’s a Small World (1950, Battle Zone (1952), Invaders from Mars (1953), China Venture (1953) and The Caine Mutiny (1954).
He also worked in television, co-starring with Helen Chapman in a sitcom entitled Jackson and Jill (1949). In 1950, he also worked alongside his father, the star of a popular cop series, Rocky King, Private Detective.
Karns retired from acting in about 1954 and began a 17-year career in sales and public relations for the North American Philips Corporation, eventually becoming its West Coast manager. In 1971, Karns retired from the company and moved to Ajijic. During his “retirement”, Karns focused on his painting, and on directing local theater shows.
Karns directed numerous plays at the Lakeside Little Theater (LLT) , beginning in 1973 with Barefoot In The Park and The Pleasure of his Company. Other plays directed by Karns at LLT included the comedies Sauce For The Goose, Squabbles, Marriage-Go-Round, Noel Coward In Two Keys, The Gin Game and Last Of The Red Hot Lovers, as well as the fantasy A Visit To A Small Planet, the thriller Wait Until Dark, and the drama On Golden Pond.
Karns’ art career in Ajijic enjoyed similar success. Karns had begun painting shortly after the end of World War II.
After moving to Ajijic, Karns soon began to exhibit and sell his art at local shows. In December 1974, for example, one of his paintings was auctioned in a charity fund-raiser organized at the San Antonio Tlayacapan home of Frank and Rowena Kirkpatrick, alongside works by Rowena Kirkpatrick, Sidney Schwartzman and Antonio Santibañez.
In March the following year Karns joined Gail Michaels and Synnove Shaffer (Pettersen) for a three-person show at the Villa Montecarlo in Chapala.
Karns was an active participant in the Clique Ajijic, a group of eight artists who formed a loosely-organized collective for three or four years in the mid-1970s. The other members of Clique Ajijic were Sidney Schwartzman, Adolfo Riestra, Gail Michaels, Hubert Harmon, Synnove (Shaffer) Pettersen, Tom Faloon and John K. Peterson (the only member of Clique Ajijic who had been a member of the earlier Grupo 68).
In December 1976, Karns had work in a group show organized by Katie Goodridge Ingram for the Jalisco Department of Bellas Artes and Tourism, held at Plaza de la Hermandad (IMPI building) in Puerto Vallarta. The show ran from 4-21 December and also included works by Jean Caragonne; Conrado Contreras; Daniel de Simone; John Frost; Richard Frush; Hubert Harmon; Jim Marthai; Gail Michel; Bob Neathery; David Olaf; John K. Peterson; Georg Rauch; and Sylvia Salmi.
In 1989, Karns was accorded the honor of a solo show by Sidney Schwartzman, owner of the Schwartzman Galería in Ajijic. Karns was quite a prolific artist and his works, with their charming naiveté, do occasionally turn up in online auctions.
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- El Ojo del Lago: March 1985; January 1989.
- Guadalajara Reporter: 4 January 1975; 15 March 1975; 28 February 1976.
- anta Cruz Sentinel. “Local Theatre Attractions”, Santa Cruz Sentinel (California), 9 March 1941, p 10.
- Vincent Terrace. 2011. Encyclopedia of Television Shows, 1925 through 2010. McFarland & Company.
Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.
Tony Burton’s books include “Lake Chapala: A Postcard History” (2022), “Foreign Footprints in Ajijic” (2022), “If Walls Could Talk: Chapala’s historic buildings and their former occupants” (2020), (available in translation as “Si Las Paredes Hablaran”), “Mexican Kaleidoscope” (2016), and “Lake Chapala Through the Ages” (2008).
I notice Sidney Schwartzman’s name is spelled several different ways in this one piece.
Sidney Schwartzman is the correct form.
Sorry about that (I blame the Australians). Name now corrected. Thanks for letting me know.
Returned to Mn. in the mid 70s and sub leased The Karns’ apt. overlooking lake of the Isles.for 6 months.They were returning to Mexico. His wife introduced me as he was painting in this attic apt..I remember this time so fondly.