To paraphrase a famous quote by Jerome Kern about Irving Berlin: “Jan McArt has no place in South Florida theater. She is South Florida theater.”
Certainly she was producing and appearing in stage shows from Key West to Boca Raton when there was no other theater in the region to speak of. Most particularly, she built and ran the Royal Palm Dinner Theatre in Boca for 24 years, from 1977 to 2001, a prominent fixture on the local entertainment scene that presented scores of warhorse musicals and gave many an area performer their start in the industry and eventually their Actors Equity membership.
Then, after the red ink-stained balance sheet forced the theater-in-the-round, chow-and-show institution to close, McArt reinvented herself as an academic, joining the faculty of Lynn University, where she raised the funds to build the 750-seat Wold Performing Arts Center, where she presented national acts and fostered young talent and emerging playwrights.
McArt, a genuine force of nature, died this weekend, belying the belief that she would outlive us all. Guessing at her age – a closely guarded secret – was a frequent pastime for theater journalists. I joined the hunt for her birthdate when I arrived in South Florida in the early 1990s. Although I had access to Department of Motor Vehicles records as a reporter for The Palm Beach Post, she – to put it delicately – fudged her age there by a couple of decades.
So during one of the many encounters I had with McArt over the years, I asked her on the record how old she was. In late summer of 1997, she turned the question into a three-act play.
“My age? You want to know my age?,” she responded with mock incredulity. With a dramatic flourish, she sidled up to me, lowered her voice and whispered, “I’m 23. See, I think age is a state of mind. And in my mind, I’m 23.” So, OK, without agreeing with her math, let’s just say that she was and will always be ageless, even if she passed away in her late 80s or so.
A native of Ohio who was raised in Indiana, she knew she was destined for a stage career from her early teens. Her big break came when she visited one of her brothers in Los Angeles where she heard that Rodgers and Hammerstein were casting a national tour of Oklahoma! And the raven-haired beauty with a clarion soprano voice auditioned and landed the leading role of Laurie.
Word of her standout performance in the show got back to Broadway, where she appeared with odds-beating regularity from the mid-1950s through the late 1970s, in such shows as Mother of Us All, The Golden Apple, Here’s Love, Around the World in 80 Days and a revival of Anything Goes in the role originated by Ethel Merman. In fact, the great composer-lyricist Frank Loesser is quoted as calling McArt “a baby Ethel Merman.”
Her life changed, however, when her mother’s failing health brought McArt to Palm Beach County from New York in the late 1970s. As her visits became more frequent, she considered starting a small business down here so she could write off her travel expenses. And when she came upon a cafeteria in Boca Raton’s Royal Palm Plaza, the idea of started a dinner theater in this cultural wasteland came to her.
She was not planning to run the theater until she crunched the numbers and realized that was the only way it could work. As she said in 1993. “What began as an easy idea soon became swimming upstream. And I’ve been doing it ever since, trying to get my original $25,000 investment back.”
Over the years, she opened – and closed – other dinner theaters in Fort Lauderdale, Miami Beach and Key West. In 1989, she took one of her Key West shows, The Prince of Central Park, to Broadway. It starred JoAnne Worley with – guess who? – McArt as her standby. It was a short-lived assignment since the show lasted only four performances in New York, a $2 million loss.
Undaunted by momentary failure, McArt returned to the Royal Palm, schmoozing with the clientele, reveling in her pre-show warm-up talks and frequently headlining the productions, in such roles as French club owner Pistache in Can-Can, larger-than-life foster parent Mame Dennis in Mame, Mama Rose in Gypsy and bordello manager Miss Mona in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and many, many others.
She was not always age-appropriate for these roles, but that did not prevent her from giving bravura performances that ignored any sense of her miscasting.
In my first year at the Palm Beach Post, I invented the Hapster Awards, a way of recapping the year akin to Esquire magazine’s Dubious Achievement Awards. Naturally, McArt was one of the first recipients, and she posed proudly with the statuette for a photograph, just before I pulled it away from her. There was only one physical award, you see, so she was not allowed to keep it. And whenever I would see her thereafter, she invariably greeted me with “Where’s my Hapster Award?”
The face McArt showed to the public was pure glamor, always perfectly coiffed, usually clad in a killer gown with the appropriate jewelry to accompany it. But for a feature story, I once followed McArt around for a 12-hour day, from paying bills and answering phone calls to rehearsals for an upcoming show to micro-managing the menu at the Royal Palm. It was anything but glamorous, but she handled it all tirelessly.
Nor did she ever let on – well, to me at least – about the stresses of running her theater. Stresses that led to two divorces, setbacks like a fire that destroyed the theater in 1993, from which the Royal Palm never fully recovered even though it was up and running four months after the blaze.
McArt was nothing if not a survivor, and somewhere along the way she picked up the moniker of First Lady of South Florida Theater. She leaves a void that is unfillable, a role model for arts entrepreneurship and a personality that is legendary.
According to her close friend and frequent co-star Jay Stuart, McArt will be cremated and given a private family funeral.
But the affection for her has already flooded the internet from friends, colleagues, employees and fellow performers. Still to come, probably after the pandemic has been quelled, is a memorial-cum-party that will be a theatrical production not to be missed.