Roscoe (“Rocky”) Karns lived in Ajijic with his wife 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. He died in Ajijic on 5 February 2000 at the age of 79.
Karns initially wanted to become a newspaper reporter and attended the University of Southern California for a year, before changing his mind towards acting after taking part in a local theater production. He studied acting under Max Weinhart and made his movie debut in 1941 in Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary (1941). The following year he had roles in Eagle Squadron and The Courtship of Andy Hardy.
His movie career was interrupted by four years service in the Army during World War II. The story of his marriage, while still in service, in 1944 was delightfully recounted seventy years later by his widow Katherine Karns (née Flaten) in an interview with journalist Mike Johnston.
The couple first met while they were both serving in the U.S. Army Air Force at a base in New Mexico; Kate was a corporal in the Women’s Army Corps and Rocky was a lieutenant directing a program to rehabilitate injured flight crew. Fraternizing between ranks was strictly prohibited by military regulations, so they had to date secretly off base. Rocky would drive through the camp checkpoint with Kate hiding in the trunk of the car.
The couple married on the spur of the moment in Eddy, New Mexico, on Sunday, 27 February 1944. Kate was court-martialed shortly afterwards for marrying an officer and sent to a different base where she worked in public relations.
Their marriage easily survived this temporary setback. After the war, when Rocky was assigned to work in Los Angeles as a military recruiter, they 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. At the end of the movie, Harry returns a hero from World War II and utters a memorable toast to his brother: “To my big brother, George. The richest man in town!” 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, who had visited Mexico numerous times in his bachelor days, retired from the company and moved with Kate to Ajijic. During his “retirement”, Karns focused on his painting, and on directing local theater shows.
The New York Times obituary for Karns claims, erroneously, that, shortly after moving to Ajijic in 1971, Karns and his wife had “opened the Lakeside Little Theater, an English-language theater where Mr. Karns produced and directed for three decades.” Actually, the Lakeside Little Theater (LLT) had been operating for at least six years by the time Todd and Katherine arrived, though he did direct the first play presented in its new playhouse in January 1988.
Karns directed numerous plays at LLT, beginning in 1973 with Barefoot In The Park and The Pleasure of his Company and ending in November 1998 with the world premiere of Jack Bateman’s Caldo Michi. (Writer-architect Jack Bateman and his family moved to Ajijic in the early 1950s). 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. According to journalist Hubbard Keavy, Karns had produced his very first painting in January 1948, after he “started dabbling with a box of 10-cent store water colors his daughter, Tina, two, got for Christmas, 1947”. Lacking any formal art training or classes, Karns produced charming naïf paintings that immediately sold well.
As Keavy wrote, “Todd is a primitive, that is, his style is strictly his own and bears no resemblance to anything ever heard in an art class or put in a book. His groups of people, for example, look like what they’re supposed to, but on close examination they resemble leaning hairpins.” Karns’ painting style is somewhat reminiscent of the British artist L.S. Lowry. Karns found he could complete a painting a day and supplement his acting income by about $500 a month from art sales.
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 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 naivitee, do occasionally turn up in online auctions.
- Anon. Undated. “Todd Karns (Harry Bailey) – Artist” The Seneca Falls ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Museum.
- Hubbard Keavy. 1949. “‘Anybody Can Paint’ – Todd’s Record Reveals”. The Decatur Herald (Illinois), 13 March 1949, p 8.
- El Ojo del Lago: March 1985; January 1989.
- Guadalajara Reporter: 4 January 1975; 15 March 1975; 28 February 1976.
- Mike Johnston. 2014. “Local woman has ties to classic 1946 Christmas movie“. Daily Record (Ellensburg, Washington), 24 December 2014.
- New York Times. “Todd Karns, 79, Who Played Brother in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life'” (obituary). New York Times, 20 February 2000.
- Santa 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).