Published On: Tue, Feb 2nd, 2021

Florida’s ‘First Lady of Musical Theater’ Jan McArt passes away

By: Dale King

Jan McArt, the beloved devotee of musical theater, the gracious lady who made Boca Raton her home amidst her travels from world stages on Broadway, in London and throughout the Orient, passed away on Sunday, Jan. 31, at her home.  

Jan McArt (Photo courtesy of Lynn University)

Dubbed “The First Lady of Florida’s Musical Theatre” by decree of two Sunshine State governors, she leaves an indelible mark on Boca Raton’s cultural landscape and a legacy of developing the talents of aspiring artists.

McArt’s remarkable career spanned Broadway, the San Francisco Opera on national talk shows including the Merv Griffin Show and the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. She was a pioneer of the South Florida theater scene through her Royal Palm Center Production Company in Boca Raton. Her Royal Palm Dinner Theatre in Royal Palm Place operated for nearly 25 years and racked up 278 Carbonell nominations.

For that quarter-center, the indominable Ms. McArt – whose spirited career is often compared to the lead character in The Unsinkable Molly Brown – toiled for 52 weeks a year to deliver the goods to an arts-hungry community that found her performance venue a veritable font of entertainment.

Early in the 21st century, McArt heard the call of academia. She joined the faculty of Lynn University in 2004 as its first director of theater arts program development. To the campus of the exclusive education center, she brought an infectious enthusiasm that would lay the groundwork for an incredible era of performing arts. 

Lead benefactor Elaine J. Wold collaborated with Jan to bring the Keith C. and Elaine Johnson Wold Performing Arts Center to the Military Trail campus. To this day, the exquisitely appointed performance spot provides a world-class venue that has transformed Boca Raton’s cultural offerings while enhancing arts programming at Lynn. 

Jan McArt found a new theatrical home in the Wold Center, where she founded and produced Libby Dodson’s Live at Lynn series to honor one of Boca’s most renowned benefactors. 

The leading lady of the stage brought Tony Award winners and Hollywood stars to the campus and created a staged play-reading series to help local playwrights and young artists hone their skills and develop original works for the future. 

Not only did her programs entertain, educate and inspire, they boosted the careers of several writers and performers who crafted their skills on the college campus within the borders of Boca Raton. Two productions, Stuart Meltzer’s The Goldberg Variations, and Michael McKeever’s Daniel’s Husband, would later receive full, Carbonell-winning productions; the latter even made it to Broadway.

“She was a beloved member of Lynn’s community, and her endearing smile and vivacious personality will be greatly missed,” said a tribute placed on the Lynn University website.

While still a teen, Jan – who, like a true lady, never disclosed her age — was hired by Rodgers and Hammerstein in New York for the lead in Oklahoma. Her beloved brother, Don McArt, nicknamed “Bunny,” took her hand and led her to the Great White Way where she joined the cast of the fabled musical.

Jan and Don were as close as any siblings could be. Don’s first show was with legendary director George Abbott in Kiss ‘n Tell. Both McArts were constantly working in New York, Hollywood, Europe and the Orient.

Don took time out from his work in L.A. in 1977 to do the comic lead in The Merry Widow that opened Jan’s Royal Palm Dinner Theatre, and, in 1990, they finally worked together when Don moved to Boca Raton and became a steady comedy star in all of Jan’s five theatres — Key West, Fort Lauderdale, Miami Beach and two in Boca Raton. 

He quickly became an audience favorite and, after that, portrayed George Burns in Say Good Night Gracie, on tour and as part of the “Live at Lynn” series. 

As a Columbia concert artist, Jan became a favorite guest performer with symphonies across the country and in Saudi Arabia, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Bangkok. She appeared at the St. Regis and Pierre Hotels in New York, the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles, and the Colony and Society in London. McArt premiered Prince of Central Park in her Key West venue and later brought it to the Belasco Theatre on Broadway. 

Ms. McArt also created the Little Palm Theater, where Boca’s tots and teens received their first exposure to the arts. Youngsters like Kevin Ross, now president of Lynn University, and Ariana Grande, pop vocalist-turned-mega star, were among the children who honed their abilities on her stage.

Throughout her career, McArt has earned awards and recognitions that include being listed in the Palm Beach Post’s “One of the 100 Most Influential People in Florida for This Century.”

Just before the 2016-17 school year ended, before diplomas were handed out and before classrooms were vacated for the hot Florida summer, Lynn University dedicated an evening to McArt – for her many seasons of bringing song and dance into the world, and for boosting the acting credentials and achievements of Lynn’s theater arts program.

A few years ago, McArt worked with theater faculty at Lynn to create a new Bachelor of Fine Arts course in the school’s curriculum, a course which involves periodic presentations of plays. 

On a warm evening in May 2017 at the Wold Performing Arts Center, fans, family and friends gathered for a “Grand Night for Singing, A Tribute to Jan McArt,” a musical revue of hit songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein shows like CarouselOklahoma! The King and I and The Sound of Music

Organized by Lynn President-emeritus Donald Ross and his wife, Helen (parents of Lynn’s current chief executive), with support from dozens of McArt’s admirers, the evening not only honored her years of sharing her talents and abilities with students at Lynn, but also recounted McArt’s multitude of personal accomplishments.

Lots of friends crowded the Wold Performing Arts Center to honor Jan. One of Boca’s most elegant performance venues, the site has hosted stars like Tommy Tune, Mitzi Gaynor and Lucie Arnaz and was the site of the third presidential debate between former President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in October 2012. 

Terribly missed at the evening’s celebration was Jan’s favorite stage companion, Don “Bunny” McArt, who passed away in November 2012.

Jan McArt’s special night at Lynn brought some very special students to the local arts venue – more than two dozen of them – from the American College Dublin to perform the full production of “A Grand Night for Singing.” 

McArt helped develop the Dublin school’s theater program, the only one in Ireland that offers a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in fine arts, with a specialization in musical theater.

“Jan has been phenomenal, much more than a consultant,” said Donald Ross. “She has been so generous with her time and talent, even teaching master classes when she’s visited the college in Ireland. It’s fitting to now offer Lynn students the chance to study in the program she helped develop.”

If two-dozen-plus theater students from Dublin flew across the Atlantic for the singular purpose of serenading you with Rodgers and Hammerstein show tunes, what would you do? Jan replied, humbly: “I’m a little embarrassed by all of the attention, but who can resist Rodgers and Hammerstein?”

The students’ beautiful vocals and smooth moves delighted guests of all ages.

Barely a year ago, McArt produced and directed the classic Broadway hit musical, Gigi, featuring Palm Beach philanthropist Lois Pope in the tune-filled show that was presented three times during March 2019 in the Wold Performing Arts Center. The appearance by Pope, widow of National Enquirer publisher Generoso Pope, reprising talents from her days as a stage performer, helped celebrate the 10th anniversary of the on-campus showplace.

McArt is survived by a daughter, Debbie Lahr Lawlor; grandson Evan and granddaughter, Katharine. A private family service has been scheduled, but no viewing or funeral.

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