BOCA RATON — Jan McArt’s six-decade career took her to venues around the country and the world, singing opera and acting on Broadway stages and in supper clubs, appearing on national television shows such as “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and “The Merv Griffin Show.”
Eventually, she ended up at Lynn University in Boca Raton, where in 2004 McArt because the first and only director of the theater arts program development.
But in South Florida, McArt may be best known for opening several theater venues, most notably the Royal Palm Dinner Theater in Boca Raton in 1977. That was the same year she moved there from New York. In doing so, she became a trailblazer in bringing locally produced professional theater to a region that saw little of that. The 250-seat venue in the round survived a fire in 1993 before closing in 2001. With good food and excellent productions, it elevated what dinner theaters traditionally were and attracted more upscale audiences. She often was proclaimed to be the First Lady of South Florida Theater.
Now the theater community is mourning McArt, who died Sunday morning at her Boca Raton home.
“The theater world of South Florida is going to miss Jan. There’s going to be a void there,” said H. Bryant Sims, a former board chairman of the Florida Theatrical Association. “I can’t think of anyone that’s going to be able to fill Jan’s boots — no, her high heels.”
Alumni of the Royal Palm Dinner Theater have remained in touch on a Facebook page over the years. Many posted their memories of McArt.
“She would drive you crazy, but would love you in the long run,” wrote Dino Lillo, a former house manager. “She always kept you on your toes. But that McArt smile would melt you.”
Amy Solomon acted in productions at the theater. “Beautiful, talented, kind, professional, funny, smart … a true STAR,” she wrote.
At Lynn University, McArt directed and raised money for a wide range of entertainment, including plays, concerts with cabaret stars, opera recitals and a staged play reading series. “She loved the range,” said technical production manager Desiree McKim, who worked closely with McArt at Lynn for nearly 15 years. “She was absolutely forward-thinking in everything.”
Sims added, “She loved working at Lynn University And through her connections with many stars, she brought people to Lynn University that we would be lucky to get to the Kravis Performing Arts Center. She was an amazing woman.”
McArt kept her age a carefully guarded secret.
“Even when I was a little girl, I mistakenly told a classmate in elementary school how old she was,” recalled her daughter, Debbi Lawlor. “She heard about it and she was very upset. She didn’t want to be identified by that. Not even a week ago, she said ‘I do not want my age published.’ She was ageless.”
Philanthropist Lois Pope was friends with McArt for more than 60 years, going back to New York City “when we were both struggling actors. We knew the same agents. We knew the same people. She was a giver, all the way … not a taker.”
McArt persuaded Pope last year to take a major role in a product of “Gigi” at Lynn, only to have the show canceled at the last moment because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was going to be a terrific production, with a full orchestra,” Pope said. “That was so heartbreaking for everybody.”
Those who knew her, said the gregarious McArt had a fantastic memory and a gift for talking to people. “She always made you feel like you were the most important person in her life. It was genuine,” Sims said.
McArt was a singer, an actor, a director and more – but all her jobs were in the same industry. “She never had a job outside of show business,” said Lawlor, her daughter.
“I had a mother who was quite beautiful and glamorous and she’d have high heels. She was breathtaking, even to a young child,” Lawlor said. “I was very proud of her. It was glorious to hear her sing. She loved me fiercely. She was a phenomenal force of nature. She’s a creature from another era. She was a lovely mother.”
In addition to her daughter, McArt is survived by grandchildren Evan and Katharine. The family plans a small private remembrance. A celebration of her life will be held at Lynn University eventually. Because of pandemic restrictions, there is no tentative date. But, Lawlor said, there definitely will be champagne.