Karel Kaiser was born in Domažlice in 1932 and grew up in nearby Kdyně. In 1938, he moved to Prague with his father and two older sisters – Karel’s mother had died shortly prior to the move. Upon graduation from high school, he studied architecture at Charles University for one year, but was then expelled because of his father’s position as a self-employed tailor. During a brigáda [work brigade] in Ostrava, where he was employed as a builder, Karel met his future wife, Vlasta, who was working as a secretary. The couple moved back to Prague, married and had two daughters, Miroslava and Iveta (who later Americanized her name to Yvette). Karel began his career in theatre as a writer, but soon transitioned into the technical arts, working on sound, lighting, and set design. At Divadlo Na zábradlí he worked with Václav Havel and, while at D 34 (now known as Divadlo Archa), Karel met Josef Svoboda, a renowned architect and scenographer. In 1959, Svoboda invited Karel to join his Laterna Magika project, a non-verbal theatre which had enjoyed great international success the previous year at Expo ’58 in Brussels. Working as a theatre technician for Laterna Magika’s eastern touring company, Karel traveled extensively throughout the Eastern Bloc, visiting Hungary, Poland, and the Soviet Union.
Karel says that the idea to leave Czechoslovakia had been germinating for a while, due to his treatment at university and his hope for his daughters to have a better life. But, he says, he was waiting for a ‘safe chance’ to move his family. In January 1968, he traveled to San Antonio, Texas, with the western touring company of Laterna Magika for HemisFair ’68. Following the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968, Karel traveled back to Prague for a short visit, during which time he and his wife made a ‘quick decision’ that the family would leave the country. After he returned to the United States, Karel sent his wife an affidavit and she began securing visas and passports. In late December 1968, his wife and daughters traveled to England to stay with his sister for one month. They arrived in Dallas, Texas, on January 25, 1969. The family found a small apartment in the Highland Park neighborhood of Dallas and Karel found a job in construction. In 1971, he found employment at the Venetian Room in the Fairmont Hotel as a light and sound designer, while also working nights as a janitor. After 12 years, he became head electrician at the Hotel Anatole, also in Dallas. In 1999, Karel and his wife retired and moved back to Prague. Vlasta died in 2005 and Karel returned to the United States. He currently lives in Chicago with his daughter Yvette and her husband, Tim.
Theatre in Prague
“All this time, 40 years, theatre was a hiding place for people like Havel. Matter of fact, I worked with Havel. We worked together in a little theatre called Na zábradlí.”
What kind of work did you do together?
“We did everything, because this was a little theatre and it was funny, this theatre was founded as a co-op. They didn’t get any money from the state or the government. We did all the manual [labor]. Actors did it. Everybody worked at what had to be done.”
“I started working in the D 34 theatre [today’s Divadlo Archa] which was a Communist theatre, highly Communist – the repertoire, but not people. I met architect [Josef] Svoboda. He was the main designer for the National Theatre and he created Laterna Magika. So he asked me if I wanted to go work with him; this was ’59. I was probably the first technical employee practically in Laterna. I worked with the directors [Alfred] Radok, Miloš Forman. After a few years, theatre was popular, so State Film took over, new management, new Communist management. So Radok got fired, Miloš Forman got fired…”
Adapting to America
“For me it wasn’t too bad because I was traveling. I spent with theatre, from ’58 to ’68 – I was most of the time out of the country. I was in Poland twice, in Russia twice. In Russia, I was there a year and a half. To Bulgaria; I was in Hungary twice. Paris, one month in ’67. Paris was a jump to Miami.”