Getting Personal: Karma Ibsen

Getting Personal is an email Q&A with a local personality. Here, Melissa Merli chats with Karma Ibsen, a retired professor of theater and professional actor. Getting Personal appears first in print, in Sunday editions of The News-Gazette. In the March 11 newspaper, we'll have a chat with Kimberlie Kranich, director of community content and engagement at Illinois Public Media.     

What time do you typically get up? What do you do the first hour of the morning?

I'm up at 7:30 usually. I feed my two rescue dogs, read The News-Gazette, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, drink two cups of coffee and surf the news.

What did you have for lunch today? Where? With whom?

I had some vegetable soup my husband made. I ate at home with my two dogs, Max and Scarlet, while I prepared sound cues for a show.

Best high school memory.

I was water-skiing at Gavens Point Dam on the South Dakota and Nebraska border with four of my best friends. I was skiing when the large motor fell off the boat and hung by its gas lines. Two of my friends took the only two life preservers and swam to the Nebraska side. We were in the boat for about seven hours with water seeping into the hole the motor had chipped into the bottom of the boat. But we were all rescued before the tornado struck the lake at 1 a.m. One of my nine lives. It's my best memory because we lived through it and celebrate it at high school reunions.

Tell me about your favorite pair of shoes.

I have a pair of 4-inch high-heeled, black leather, gorgeous shoes that I keep on our mannequin, Laura, whom I salvaged from the old downtown Robeson Department Store. My husband bought the shoes for me as a very special valentine gift in Lincoln Square back in about 1979. They were very expensive, and I had them for two days, when my golden retriever puppy chewed one almost in half. I took the hopelessly chewed-up shoe to a repair shop in Lincoln Square, and the young 'cobbler' looked at it and said, 'I'm gonna try some new stuff on this shoe.' It was a small miracle; it came back looking like new. I have only worn Birkenstocks for the past 20 years and would never be able to walk in these heels again. But I can still look at them. My Birkenstocks have served me well. I traveled a lot during the 1990s in my Birkenstocks all over eastern Europe, the Balkans, Europe, South America and China. I marveled at the freedom from sexual harassment that I felt and gave my shoes the credit rather than my advanced age. I thought of writing a travel book called 'Prostitutes Don't Wear Birkenstocks.' Now wearing my favorite shoes on the mannequin would have been a very different story, or so I think.

What does a perfect Sunday afternoon include?

Newspapers, a classic movie on TV or time spent with my grandson.

Was there one book you read as a child that you still cherish? Own? Read?

Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales have the story 'Big Claus and Little Claus.' I went to a hypnotist when I was in my 30s to quit smoking. She also asked me this same question and told me that this favorite story contains my 'patterns of behavior' in life, both good and bad. In order to overcome my obstacles, I had to break the pattern that caused me problems, and I had to embrace the patterns that helped me achieve my goals. I own it, and I read it at least once a year. I also think it's a very funny story. My dad used to read it to me out of a particularly wonderful translation from the Danish language.

Where on earth are you dying to go? Why?

I would like to go to the Marquesas Islands in the Pacific. They are simply gorgeous according to everything I have read about them.

Tell me about your favorite pet.

Copper, my golden retriever who ate my favorite shoes, lived until she was 18 years old. My youngest daughter, Thais, found her at Lincoln Square at a pet show, and we made a deal that if she ate very little sugar and avoided artificial dyes, she could have the puppy. Eighteen years later, Copper's vet closed his shop and came to my home to put her down when she was dying of kidney failure. He cried with me because he, too, had fallen in love with her. I had her cremated, and my three daughters and I would fight over who got to hold the box of ashes. My husband had enough of that, and we buried the box in the backyard two years after she died.

Have you discovered that you are becoming like one of your parents? Which one and how?

I have vocal inflections that sound exactly like my mother, but I am more like my father, who became sedentary as he aged. I can hear my father's DNA in my body pushing me to jump in the recliner and watch 'Bonanza' reruns.

What would you order for your last meal?

Anything my husband cooks.

What can you not live without?

Books.

Who do you have on your iPod?

Mozart. Hours of it. Left over from directing 'Amadeus' in California last year.

What's the happiest memory of your life?

My daughter, Kirsten, won a gold medal at the International Special Olympics in gymnastics. She had just been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes and attending the games was iffy. My mother and I had lunch with the Kennedys and numerous Hollywood stars after Mary Lou Retton awarded her, and mother turned to me and said, 'Out of all my grandchildren, who would have thought it would be Kirsten who would get me to meet the Kennedys and Oprah?'

If you could host a dinner party with any three living people in the world, whom would you invite?

This is too hard. My mental list keeps having people who have died, like Christopher Hitchens. So, forget famous people. I want my neighbors over — Joe and Phyllis Williams and Joan Price. We'll have a bottle of white wine and play dominoes after dinner and have a blast.

What's your best piece of advice?

Floss.

What was your first job and how much did you make an hour?

My first paying job was to be the echo at military funerals. I would be in the back of an old pickup truck with veterans from World War I and II from the time I was in sixth grade and drive out to a cemetery near our small town. I was a very good trumpet player, and I would take my trumpet and climb out of the truck in a South Dakota cemetery and pick out a tombstone. I'd hide behind it and wait for my cue. I got $2, which amounted to about 50 cents an hour. It was a nonunion job.

What was a pivotal decision in your career and how did you arrive at that decision?

I was acting with Robert Reed (the 'Brady Bunch' dad) in Chicago when I realized that I, as an actor, could not raise my three daughters. I accepted a position at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and began a 20-year teaching career.

Do you have a bad habit? What is it?

Not having enough habits. I have a strong distaste for repeating boring tasks, and this has led to a great deal of disorganization in my life. Routine is important.

How do you handle a stressful situation?

About two years ago, a wonderful friend of mine, Danny Sullivan, asked me to join him in Margaret DeCardy's watercolor class. I am still studying with Margaret and have discovered that painting is just as exciting as the theater. I have a large white canvas and poof! Now I have a marvelous herd of stampeding yaks — my most recent watercolor achievement. Give me a blank anything from which I can create something. I'm certainly not a great musician, but I love to compose music and have written several children's musicals. My favorite song I wrote is about the Sandman turning into a kleptomaniac. My children grew up with these songs, and when they were little, we'd gather around the piano and sing them. They thought everybody knew these songs, and their requests at school were met with teachers' and classmates' blank stares. Once, at a Christmas Eve concert, one of my daughters requested the congregation sing the song about the bad little witch who swore. The creative process relieves what I call reality stress. I thrive on creative stress, which is problem solving. A simpler answer might be my addiction to crossword puzzles. This is a recent hobby as I read it's good for the fact that my brain seems to be shrinking.

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