By Bill Hirschman
Larger-than-life, effusive, generous and driven Jan McArt, a show business legend who helped push South Florida theater out of its infancy and through its adolescence with flair and verve, died Sunday morning at her Boca Raton home, her daughter confirmed.
“As per her wishes, there will be no funeral or viewing, just cremation. She wanted a party and will get one down the road after this pandemic is finally brought under control,” wrote her close friend Jay Stuart.
A New York actress who had appeared on stage, nightclubs and operas, McArt founded the classy Royal Palm Dinner Theatre in Boca Raton in 1977 when she moved to Florida to be with her mother. There, and at five other venues across three counties, she served as producer and sometime star of scores of classic Broadway musicals and plays with turns as Mame and Mama Rose.
She was among the handful of pioneers who brought locally-produced professional theater to a region that mostly hosted amateur productions and national road shows. The main venue’s quarter-century run cemented the evolution of the quality and collegiality of the South Florida theater scene, and by extension the region’s cultural landscape.
But McArt, dubbed the First Lady of South Florida Theater, was never a vain diva still living in the heyday of musical theater circa 1959.
Instead, in 2013, she created the Jan McArt New Play Reading Series at Lynn University in Boca to host dozens of new plays in development. Through six days of workshop rehearsals, playwrights interacted with paid Equity actors and then saw them perform the work at a reading before a paying audience.
The program hosted playwrights from around the country, but gave special attention to local talents like Dan Clancy, Stuart Meltzer and the late Tony Finstrom who later became an associate producer of the initiative. Some of the plays went on to full productions elsewhere including Michael McKeever’s Carbonell-honored Daniel’s Husband, which later played in New York.
“Getting to know and work with Jan McArt was nothing less than a joy,” McKeever wrote Sunday. Her program “gave many South Florida playwrights the opportunity to have their plays presented in front of an audience for the first time. Because of her name and reputation, the series always enjoyed amazingly large audiences and top level performers. She was warm and giving on stage and off, and always the consummate professional. I will treasure my friendship with this South Florida theater icon for as long as I live.”
The forward-looking effort seemed natural to McArt, who offered in 2015, “New work is the history of theater and new work is the future of theater. I am as excited as I’ve ever been.”
As Lynn University’s director of theater arts development since 2004 – a position she invented, lobbied for and raised funds for — she also spearheaded programming of concerts with cabaret stars; jazz, dance and opera recitals, and staged readings of musicals in which she sometimes took part.
While she still had been working on the job this week, McArt had been battling a cascading series of debilitating illnesses requiring hospital stays since at least last fall and mobility problems further back than that.
Her age is a bit of a mystery as she coyly avoided answering anyone indelicately asking the question. A story goes that when she went to a hospital after a collapse, she refused give her age. Research for a 2015 story showed she had given different adjacent years of birth to different government agencies.
Even a few days ago, she told her daughter, Debbi Lahr Lawlor, that she didn’t want the few who knew to tell her age. “She didn’t want to be labeled by her age; she wanted be labeled by what she had done,” Lawlor said.
Her death is yet another loss to a South Florida theater community that has been reeling over the past 12 months: director-producer Rick Simone, musical director Paul Reekie, actor-producer-activist Alvin Entin, choreographer Ben Solmor, impressario Zev Buffman, critic and awards creator Ron Levitt and director-producer Joseph Adler. McArt’s death was announced a few hours after the burial of actor-producer-director Peter Librach.
McArt was a force of theatrical nature even at five-foot-four. She was rarely seen in public without full makeup including ruby lipstick, and always with carefully-coifed raven hair, jewelry, exquisitely dressed and emitting a laugh that could be heard across a theater lobby at an opening night party.
Lawlor quipped in a 2015 interview, “Exclamation points come with her…. Her persona is just bigger than life. She does things in a way that we mortals…,” she paused mid-sentence in wonder. On Sunday, she said the word that always came to mind was “sparkle.”
Survivors include Lawlor, grandson Evan and granddaughter Katharine. A private family service has been scheduled.
McArt was not a detail-oriented producer, but was not above doing anything to keep her enterprises humming and her workers taken care of on a $1 million payroll. She was proud that when the plumbing broke down at the Royal Palm in mid-show, she got out of her costume and put on work clothes to plunge stopped up toilets or mop the floors.
Her devotion to her colleagues was reciprocal. They volunteered that under the calibrated glitz and glitter, McArt was a determined professional who had weathered personal and professional tragedies that encompassed fire, near bankruptcy, tuberculosis and death. For years, her former employees have nursed a Facebook page “We Worked at the Royal Palm Dinner Theatre.” The site with 386 members overflows with the usual war stories but also tributes to McArt and her resident director, the late Bob Bogdanoff.
“Having worked with her for years I always marveled at how, no matter how long ago she had met someone, she always, always knew their name! Every one of those people, like myself, I am sure, fell quickly in love with her,” wrote actor-director Jeffrey Bruce in a comment Sunday echoed over and over on Facebook.
She had the same relationship with her audiences. McArt, who would float from table to table of Royal Palm customers before shows, also had an alchemical connection with patrons who even now revere her charismatic aura. She often would send over champagne if someone was celebrating an anniversary or birthday. McArt’s joy at connecting with fans was genuine, Stuart said.
Cabaret artist Deborah Silver said, “She made them “feel they are the only person in the universe. She can focus as if you are the only one in world that she cares about, because at the time it’s true.,”
Stuart said that persona was who she really was. But a few say it was partly constructed. “She built herself,” Lawlor said. “I don’t think it’s deliberate. I think she has wanted to define who she is as she goes and I don’t think it’s necessarily analytical. I think there’s an impulse. I don’t think there’s a lot of pre-thought and forethought that goes into it, by any means. It just evolved.”
The late critic Skip Sheffield, who became a good friend, had a journalist’s skepticism. In 2015, he said, “The fancy Jan is entirely an act. She is just a plain ordinary girl from Indiana, and the rest is just fabrication. I love her both ways.”
But under the glam was iron. Her litany of heartbreaks would give anyone pause: two divorces; her partner Bill Orhelein’s death from cancer in 1987; frustrating efforts to start theaters in Key West; the death of her mother in 1991; the 1993 fire that shuttered the theater; its faltering finances in the early 1990s; the 2001 death of Bogdanoff; the decision by her board of directors to close the dinner theater soon after; the death of her brother, Bruce in 2014; and probably the most crushing, the death of her beloved brother, the actor Don “Bunny” McArt in 2012.
A word that came up repeatedly in interviews is resilience. “When she went through her darkest hour, which was when the theater was closed, a lesser person would have maybe decided maybe it was time to retire,” said Sheffield in 2015. But instead, she resurrected herself.
The curtain raised for Janice Jean McArt near Cleveland on Sept. 26 in a year it seems churlish and useless to ask about. She moved to Anderson, Indiana, when she was three or four years old. She and Don seemed bitten by the performing bug in their cribs. She studied drama and music for two years at DePauw University, but her heart wanted to follow Don who already had begun a career in the outside world.
In her late teens, she married Phillip Lahr. He became an Army doctor and was sent to Korea while she waited for in California near Don, who was trying to make his way in Hollywood. She stayed to the disapproval of her parents.
Don knew that Rodgers and Hammerstein were in town casting replacements for a production of Oklahoma playing in Los Angeles and headed for the road. Tipped off by a friend, they cornered Rodgers as he left the Brown Derby restaurant. Rodgers brought her to the theater, she sang “Some Enchanted Evening” (which legend has it Rodgers had to inform her that he had written), and he cast her as what she says was the first brunette Laurie.
The ensuing journey is a kaleidoscope. She was a chanteuse in clubs and concerts in Japan and Germany where Lahr was stationed and later tony supper clubs from Bangkok to London to New York City. While in Germany, she virtually lost her voice to tuberculosis in her lungs and spent a year bedridden. Then she battled to rebuild her soprano.
She undertook opera training and later sang regularly with the San Francisco Opera and the NBC Opera. She embraced broadcasting and sang pop music on The Merv Griffin Show, The Mike Douglas Show and The Tonight Show. She produced club shows that she took out on the road, and worked alongside Liberace and Jack Jones. In the mid-1960s, she played Broadway as a stand-by for Janis Paige in Meredith Willson’s Here’s Love, appeared in an off-Broadway revival of The Golden Apple and as Princess Aouda in a musical of Around The World In 80 Days at Jones Beach. The list goes on and on with vocal coaching, television commercials, and performances with orchestras around the country.
There was a price. The marriage disintegrated because as supportive as Lahr was, McArt acknowledged, this was not the life he had envisioned. The union had produced Debbi who made McArt a grandmother a generation later. When McArt was deep into her cabaret career later, she married Life magazine photographer Carroll Seghers II, but that, too, fell victim to the demands of her career.
The centerpiece of McArt’s fame was her creation of the Royal Palm Dinner Theatre, a 250-seat venue in the round that operated year-round from 1977 to 2001 without a single break other than rebuilding after a fire.
Unlike many dinner theaters around the country, McArt was determined to make hers an elegant experience with good food and providing as top-notch a production as she could mount – with her headlining 20 weeks out of the year. Part of her success lay in the polish and verve she brought to the normally risible category of dinner theater.
“She brought glamour to dinner theater, which was not a very glamorous genre,” said Sheffield in 2015. “It’s normally a joke; it’s where middle class yahoos went. But in Boca, it became the posh thing to do. I don’t know if there was another dinner theatre, certainly not in Florida, maybe in the country, that had such a classy clientele.”
Eventually, it had a nearly $3 million annual budget and a weekly payroll with 150 employees, the third-largest operation in the region, tied with Florida Stage.
She specialized in mainstream New York fare with large casts, working her way through nearly every classic title. But the Royal Palm also hosted what were then chancy pieces such as Chicago and Stephen Sondheim’s Company. McArt left the bulk of the straight drama field to theaters like the Caldwell, but she produced crowd-pleasing comedies and gentle dramas such as Tally’s Folly.
Like the offering at any theater, some work was better than others. But much of it, especially in the 1980s, won critical acclaim. McArt received the Carbonell’s Ruth Foreman Award in 2001 and the George Abbott Award in 1984 for her service to the community. The theater itself racked up by one estimate 278 Carbonell nominations, winning at least 42 awards.
But the fire, an expensive rebuilding and a recession crippled the operation’s future.
Her work produced multiple results, including providing hundreds of actors the roles that earned Equity cards for many of them. It also helped convince a generation of theater artists that there was sufficient work for them to remain in South Florida in what then coalesced into a cohesive and collegial community, something missing elsewhere in the competitive and ego-driven profession
Looking back in 2015 as she was juggling numerous projects, she was asked whether at her undisclosed age it was time to sit back.
She answered, “I don’t believe it’s in my nature. I think I will go to the great theater in the sky directly from this office. Or the stage. But not too soon.” And then there was that laugh.
To read a full profile based on interviews she gave in 2015, click here