By Mary Thurwachter
BOCA RATON — Jan McArt, Florida’s first lady of musical theater, died at her home in Boca Raton on Jan. 31.
The show business legend helped steer South Florida theater from its beginnings with verve and sparkle. As word of her passing spread, tributes flooded social media.
“She was one of those bigger-than-life people that you’re lucky just to see from afar once in a lifetime, let alone get to know and worship close-up,” wrote Gary Schweikhart, a friend and publicist.
“What a shining star in our world that will never diminish,” Marilynn Wick of The Wick Theatre & Costume Museum wrote on Facebook. “Thank you for brightening our lives with your joy.”
Arts writer Bill Hirschman said Ms. McArt “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 she saw them perform the work at a reading before a paying audience.”
Ms. McArt’s age was a closely guarded secret, according to Palm Beach ArtsPaper theater critic Hap Erstein, who, in his tribute to the legend, recalled a conversation he had with her in 1997:
“‘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.”
Ms. McArt was born in Ohio and raised in Indiana. She set her sights on a stage career when she was a teenager. Her first big break came in Los Angeles where Rodgers and Hammerstein were casting a national tour of Oklahoma! The dark-haired actress with a striking resemblance to Elizabeth Taylor and a clear soprano voice, scored the leading role of Laurey. Word of her standout performance made its way to Broadway, where Ms. McArt appeared from the 1950s to the late 1970s.
She came to Palm Beach County in the late 1970s to visit her ailing mother and ended up founding the Royal Palm Dinner Theatre, which she ran for more than 25 years. Her business included three companies — the main dinner theater, the Rooftop Cabaret Theatre, and the Little Palm Children’s Theatre.
Ms. McArt also started theaters in Fort Lauderdale, Delray Beach, Key West and Miami Beach, and produced many shows through her not-for-profit wing, Jan McArt’s American Festival Series. She simultaneously produced three national touring companies of The Pirates of Penzance.
In 1989, she brought an original musical, The Prince of Central Park, to the Belasco Theatre on Broadway.
More recently, she was producer and director of theater arts program development at Lynn University, where she oversaw several theatrical series, including Libby Dodson’s Live at Lynn theater series, Jan McArt’s New Play Readings, and the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s Cabaret at Lincoln Center Comes to Live at Lynn.
Her numerous awards included Carbonell Awards (the George Abbott Award in 1984, the Ruth Foreman Award in 2001), as well as 278 Carbonell Award nominations for her dinner theater, and a Carbonell Best Actress Award for her performance in Nightclub Confidential.
Ms. McArt is survived by her daughter, Debbi Lahr Lawlor, son-in-law, John Lawlor, grandson, Evan, and granddaughter, Katharine.
“She did not want a funeral, but there will be a celebration of her life planned when it is safe to reopen the theater,” said Desiree McKim, her assistant at Lynn University.
Those who wish to make a donation in her honor may consider one of her favorite charities — Jan McArt’s Theatre Arts Guild to support Live at Lynn or Jan McArt’s Endowed Scholarship at Lynn University (https://give.lynn.edu/theatrearts); The Lois Pope Life Foundation (https://www.life-edu.org/about/life/); or Tri-County Animal Rescue (https://tricountyanimalrescue.com/).