The Coastal Star

Around Town: Resort’s president hopes to rock Boca’s Ballroom Battle

John Tolbert (right) dances with Terry Fedele. The couple next to them is Heather Shaw Fairs and Logan Skees. Photo provided

By Thom Smith

John Tolbert has crossed hundreds of ballroom floors during his hotel management career, but the president and managing director of the Boca Raton Resort & Club is the first to admit he is far more comfortable dancing unnoticed among thousands of revelers at a rock concert. That could change, however, as Tolbert hopes to trip the light fantastic at Boca’s Ballroom Battle, the local fundraising equivalent to Dancing With the Stars.
    Tolbert joins seven other contestants at the 10th annual event Aug. 18, but even though it’s being held at his hotel, he doubts he’ll be able to claim any home floor advantage.
    “If I went to a U2 concert, I could dance fine,” he said, “but when you’re talking about formal dancing, learning the tango and cha-cha, in a ballroom setting …  I was not trained in that regard.”
    For several weeks, he and the other competitors have been training at Fred Astaire Dance Studio with their professional partners, putting together the routines they hope will result in the Mirror Ball trophy.
    “That’s the fun part,” Tolbert said. “The teachers are amazing. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun. I’ve been trying to go two to three times a week, because I’m starting from zero.”
    Tolbert’s challengers, of varying talent, are Jim Dunn, vice president and general manager at JM Lexus; Terry Fedele, a registered nurse, retired hospital executive and community volunteer; Lisa Kornstein Kaufman, founder and creative director of Scout & Molly’s boutiques; Derek Morrell, proprietor of Ouzo Bay restaurant; Heather Shaw Fairs, vice president and general manager at Saks Fifth Avenue; Logan Skees, director of business development at Trainerspace; and Elizabeth Murdoch Titcomb, principal and founder of Iolite Creative, a multimedia company.
    Tolbert took over the reins at the resort in early 2016, but he’s hardly a stranger, having run the marketing department from 1994 to 2002. His career has taken him to Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the nearby Ritz-Carlton in Naples, working for the likes of Wayne Huizenga, the Blackstone Group and Marriott.
    Born in England when his father was in the Air Force, he grew up in Maryland in the family farmhouse built in 1780. “It’s really a special place, only 35 minutes outside of Washington and it was a dairy farm,” Tolbert said.  
    Now, however, he’s in unfamiliar territory, but he welcomes the challenge. After last year’s Ballroom Battle, the winners urged him to consider competing.
    “It seemed like a great idea last August and now all of a sudden it’s about to happen,” he said. “But the George Snow Scholarship Fund is a great organization, the Boca Ballroom Battle is fun and it’s just a great night.
    “I’m a work in progress. My goal is to evolve into a performance that will not embarrass the charity or myself.”
    The battle kicks off with cocktails at 6 p.m. Competition begins at 7 followed by an after party — and noncompetitive dancing in the Palm Court.  
    Since 1982, the Snow Fund has given more than $9.2 million in scholarship awards to more than 1,700 Snow Scholars. For tickets, $185, or to pledge support for a dancer, call 347-6799 or visit ;  
    In one of the most unusual proclamations ever issued by a government body, the town of Palm Beach on July 14 urged residents and her friends worldwide “with a martini in hand, to raise a toast” to Brownie McLean.
The occasion: her 100th birthday. For most of her century, Brownie, the undisputed queen of Palm Beach, brushed off speculation about her age, preferring to say she was “61-plus.” Recently, she told Barbara Marshall of The Palm Beach Post, “I think it’s quite an accomplishment to survive that long.” And she has definitely survived with style.
    Mildred Brown was a horse-riding tomboy on a Virginia farm when both parents died in accidents during the Depression. After working briefly in a pulp mill, she made her way to New York and landed a modeling job at 16. She married and divorced nightclub owner George Schrafft and eventually hooked up with Jock McLean, whose family developed McLean, Va., and owned The Washington Post and the Hope Diamond.
    To Brownie, its red sparks looked “evil.”
    The McLeans graced the social registers not only of Palm Beach, Washington and New York, but also Paris, London and various and sundry Mediterranean capitals. It wasn’t that long ago that she was hosting parties in Morocco.
    El Solano, their magnificent estate on South Ocean, was party central in Palm Beach. You name the charity, Brownie would host the fundraiser. But after Jock died in 1975, the house was too big to manage, so Brownie began renting it.
    One renter, Larry Flynt, shot pictorials for Hustler there, which didn’t please Brownie, and she finally sold it — to John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
    While money hasn’t been a problem since Brownie left the farm, it has never mattered.  Through it all, the driving force behind her success has been her kindness. Though she’s been provided many opportunities, she’s never had a bad word to say about anybody.
    Another Palm Beach institution, not quite as old, has bid farewell to The Island, at least for a few years.
    Testa’s, which opened in 1921, has closed. The 1.3-acre site on Royal Poinciana Way that includes a long-closed gas station and several small shops will be redeveloped into six two-story buildings with a new restaurant, shops and six luxury condos. But the new complex won’t be ready for a minimum of 30 months or, more likely, three years.
    Whether Testa’s will return hasn’t been decided. The Testa family reportedly has received offers to relocate to Wellington and to other spots in Palm Beach, but for now the legendary crab cake sandwiches and strawberry pie are history.
    Raise a stein to NoBo, the latest addition to Boynton Beach’s growing craft brewery community. NoBo (short for North Boynton) is nestled in the warehouse district just west of I-95 and north of Gateway, within walking distance of local pioneers Due South and Copperpoint.
    The June opening was a long time coming for brothers Steve and Tim Dornblaser, who had initially hoped to open in late 2015, first as Lagerhead Brewing, then as Driftwood Ales before they settled on the distinctive NoBo.
    The present menu includes four staples — a blonde ale, a hefeweizen, an American IPA 2.0 and a coffee porter. A constantly changing list of seasonals — presently six — includes The Funky Monk, a strong Belgian golden ale, and a sour hefeweizen with peaches.
    Guest taps include Crisp Cider from Broski Ciderworks in Pompano Beach and Mango Wit from Proof Brewing in Tallahassee.
    The Dornblasers will pour any legal size draft, from 5-ounce samplers ($2-$3) to 12- and 16-ounce drafts ($5-$6) and 32- and 64-ounce growlers ($9-$20).
    Open every day but Tuesday, NoBo is building a calendar of special events featuring food trucks and a football kickoff party Sept. 2 featuring FSU versus Alabama.
    Speaking of football, the day before the Noles meet the Tide, we’ll know how far FAU has progressed under new head coach Lane Kiffin, as the Owls take on Navy.
    Those permanently attached to their TVs can catch the game on ESPNU. But despite replays, easy access to restrooms and cushy recliners, football games are better enjoyed live and in person. And FAU’s stadium is among the best. Tickets start at a modest $12.   
    Just about anything except water can be fermented. Kombucha, for example, is tea with a kick and lots of probiotics, and it’s also being brewed in Boynton. A couple of blocks away from NoBo, Chris Montelius has opened Non-Prophet Brewing, producing such flavors as strawberry basil, blueberry mint, passion fruit and raspberry lime, plus a ginger ale and a dry-hopped version.
    Montelius only wholesales or fills growlers for individual customers for now, but he plans to add a retail space. Meanwhile, the curious and the enthusiastic can head back to NoBo, where his kombucha is among the guest offerings.
    Locals who feared the worst can relax. Ken Dickey, who had announced plans to create a nude beach at Gulfstream Park, has turned his attention northward.
    His group, Palm Beach Naturists, now thinks MacArthur Beach State Park in North Palm Beach would be an ideal location to attract tourists and locals who enjoy nude sunbathing.
    The closest nude beaches now are Haulover on the north side of Miami and Blind Creek Beach in Fort Pierce. Dickey believes some of the money that goes to those areas should come to Palm Beach County.
    Actually, before being renamed MacArthur Park, for former owner John D. MacArthur, the 2-mile stretch was a popular, albeit unofficial, clothing-optional beach. Legend has it that during a visit to discuss building an amusement park in nearby Palm Beach Gardens, MacArthur took Walt Disney there for a skinny-dip.
    Dr. Phil McGraw will head the list of celebrities for the 28th Chris Evert/Raymond James Pro-Celebrity Tennis Classic to be held Nov. 3-5. An avid tennis player, McGraw will join Evert for the first time since 2002.
Other returnees include actors Timothy Olyphant (FX’s Justified), Jamie McShane (Netflix’s Bloodline) and Maeve Quinlan (CBS’ The Bold and the Beautiful), American Idol winner David Cook, and three-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves. Newcomers include Robin Givens (Head of the Class) and Tate Donovan (DirecTV’s Damages). Also returning: tennis legends Martina Navratilova and Luke Jensen.
    Since 1989, Evert’s event, which includes two days of tennis at the Delray Beach Tennis Center and a gala, pro-am and cocktail event at the Boca Raton Resort & Club, has raised $23 million to battle drug abuse and child neglect. (  
    Another remarkable fundraising operation, the Boca West Foundation, has been in operation only since 2010 yet has already raised $4.8 million for local charities. Its most recent venture, a concert by Jennifer Hudson at Boca West Country Club, took in $1.45 million. The money will go to 25 area children’s programs, including Boys & Girls Club of Palm Beach County, Boca Helping Hands, Caridad Center,  Florence Fuller Child Development Centers, Viner Community Scholars Foundation and Sweet Dream Makers.
The fifth annual FLAVOR Palm Beach offers discounted prix fixe menus at 50-plus Palm Beach County restaurants during September. Three-course lunches will be priced at $20 and dinners from $30. Each reservation made through’s OpenTable link will benefit The Palm Beach County Food Bank. For a full list of participants, menus and reservations, go to Reservations are suggested.  
    Boca Raton has lost a friend, a character, a legend. Just a few weeks shy of his 70th birthday in the early hours of July 20, longtime arts writer Skip Sheffield died in his sleep. The cause of death has not been revealed.
    Skip was a cancer survivor, but in a Facebook comment in May about a photo of his band, the Sheffield Brothers, at Tim Finnegan’s Irish Pub, he offered a hint:
“My newly installed Seymour Duncan pickup made my little 1976 Fender ‘baby bass’ a real powerhouse. I was less so. That’s why I am seated. I like to think of myself as a tough guy, but I am fragile. I thank my brothers for being patient with me. The spirit is willing but sometimes the body is weak.”
    Then in a reply to a friend he noted: “I have ‘persistent anemia.’ It has ebbed and flowed since childhood.”
    As sleepy Boca Raton woke up, Skip was there. Born Norman Sheffield in New Hampshire, he first moved with his family to Miami, then to Boca Raton when Federal Highway’s two lanes ran by Africa USA, Bethesda in Boynton Beach was the closest hospital and high schoolers went to Seacrest in Delray Beach. From 1968 to 1986 his father was general manager at the Hillsboro Club.
    As Boca grew, so did Skip. A renaissance man of sorts, he loved motorcycles and vintage automobiles, poetry and literature, surfing, rock ’n’ roll, theater and movies. He and brothers John and Richard formed a band, the Sheffield Brothers, and played concerts, local bars and parties along Florida’s East Coast. They never made the big time, but that didn’t matter. Said Skip, “Block parties are good because people of all ages get together.”
    He graduated from FAU with a master’s degree in English lit. All those habits, all those hobbies, all those loves came together in a perfect storm at The Boca Raton News, where Skip quickly strode from the mailroom to arts critic. He previewed and reviewed movies, plays and concerts yet still found time to work on the old cars and catch a few waves. He managed to form a family — with three daughters and grandchildren.
     He wrote for the News until the paper closed in 2009, then signed on with Atlantic Avenue magazine and the weekly Boca Raton Tribune, freelanced and blogged.
    Facebook has been flooded with comments.
    “We have all lost a kind soul, a caring friend, a maker of music, a teller of tales,” friend Marie Rocheleau Graves wrote. “Skip Sheffield could reach in and pull a memory of the past and make it our own. Life is a day at the beach — he took us there on his bike rides, photos and memories, documenting the changes taking place, recalling the times of old. Somehow he made perfect sense of it all . . . or at the very least kept us hanging for the next story.”
 In announcing his brother’s death on Facebook, John Sheffield wrote, “For me ... yesterday was the day the music died.”
A formal memorial service will be held Aug. 26 at First United Methodist Church in Boca Raton. However, friends and family are saving the real sendoff for the following evening at Tim Finnegan’s in Delray Beach with a performance by the remaining Sheffield Brothers and assorted musical guests. The brothers’ rationale: “In true Skip Sheffield fashion ... the show must go on!”

Thom Smith is a freelance writer who can be reached at

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