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Work transforms theater and gym for media-heavy event
Editor's Note: Presidential debate shines a spotlight on Boca Raton
By Tim Pallesen
A TV audience of 60 million will get a sense of Boca Raton by watching the final presidential debate in a theater designed to look like the inside of a violin.
The Keith C. and Elaine Johnson Wold Performing Arts Center opened two years ago at Lynn University as the only performing arts theater between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale.
The story of how Boca Raton got a 750-seat theater suitable for the Oct. 22 presidential debate is a tale of Boca Raton high society and philanthropy.
To make it happen, Lynn founding president Donald Ross first adopted a student orchestra and then hired former Royal Palm Dinner Theater owner Jan McArt.
McArt operated her dinner theater from 1977 until it closed in 2002. Boca Raton’s leading philanthropists were her patrons. Ross was there, too.
“Jan McArt brought entertainment and culture to Boca in the early days when it was just a sleepy town,” Ross said. “She’s a dynamic, fantastic lady full of life and personality.”
The same patrons who had enjoyed McArt’s dinner theater gave money to start Lynn’s performing-arts program when McArt was hired in 2004. Elaine Wold contributed $1 million, and the family of Libby Dobson gave $500,000.
“They were so pleased at what was happening that they decided to build the theater,” McArt said.
Wold gave an additional $6 million in 2007 for construction. Others matched her additional $2.3 million challenge grant, and a total of $14.9 million was raised.
The opening-night performance by Bernadette Peters in March 2010 was a gala invitation-only affair.
Boca Raton ’s glitterati entered a lobby with six chandeliers made to resemble the celebrated starburst chandeliers at the Metropolitan Opera.
A catered buffet was served in the Christine Room, named for Christine Lynn, the matriarch of local philanthropy.
“The original chandeliers were not what Elaine Wold wanted so she flew up to the Metropolitan Opera and took pictures,” said Lynn, who describes Wold as “a very gracious lady whose passion is the performing arts.”
“Her long-time friendship with McArt made the theater happen,” Lynn said. “All of her friends got together and contributed.”
Wold served champagne and cookies three weeks later when Mitzi Gaynor performed for the theater’s public opening.
Now McArt’s wide array of performers share the theater stage with the talented Lynn Conservatory of Music students whose tuition, room and board is paid by local philanthropists.
Ross rescued the orchestra students in 1999 when the next-door Harid Conservatory closed its music division.
The music students must audition to perform in the Lynn Philharmonia, a 60-piece orchestra that will reopen the theater on Dec. 1 after the politicians and news media leave.
The music conservatory is one of only four in the nation that pays all expenses. Lynn flies in top performers from major U.S. orchestras to be the instructors.
The orchestra originally performed at St. Andrew’s School, but the beautiful new performing-arts theater helps it attract the best student musicians from around the world, Conservatory of Music Director Jon Robertson said.
“It’s a game-changer for us to be able to perform in a great hall,” Robertson said.
Designed by architect Herbert S. Newman of Yale University, the curved wood walls and ceiling shaped like a violin catch everyone’s attention. “There’s a magic here. People come and say they can’t believe it,” he said.
Robertson calls Ross a visionary and McArt a legend in explaining how Boca Raton got such a jewel of a theater with exciting productions.
“Jan McArt is a legend in this community,” he said. “People don’t mind investing in someone who is tried and true.”
As Lynn ’s director of theater arts program development, McArt puts a little bit of everything on the stage when the Conservatory of Music orchestra isn’t playing. Donors from her Royal Palm Dinner Theater days sponsor her shows.
“The university pretty much let me build the program,” McArt said. “They shared my vision and gave me freedom to produce.”
The performing-arts theater with unusual beginnings fills a void that once existed for music and entertainment in Boca Raton.
“There was a need,” Ross said. “The Kravis Center in West Palm Beach is a wonderful place. But Boca is 30 to 40 minutes away. To have a performing-arts theater right here in Boca was the appropriate thing.”
On Tap at the Wold
The four major performances this season begin on Jan. 26-27 with Bravo Amici, a blend of opera, Broadway and pop. The playbill says Queen Elizabeth II and Sir Elton John are fans of the “stunning divas and handsome tenors.”
Cirque D’Amour — “an intimate evening of song, dance, humor and mind-blowing acrobatics” — is sponsored by Elaine Wold on Feb. 16-17.
Christine Lynn sponsors a tribute to the music of ABBA on March 2-3, followed by 25 dancers who were America’s Got Talent finalists performing on April 6-7.
A songbook series with Marshall Turkin’s Classic Jazz Ensemble has three performances this winter. McArt also will host readings of four new Broadway plays.