Lynn U. names scholarship for ‘First Lady of Florida Theater’
By: Dale King Contributing Writer
Just before the 2016-17 school year ended, before diplomas were handed out and before classrooms were vacated for the hot Florida summer, Lynn University dedicated an evening to a very special woman – Jan McArt – the lady who 14 years ago brought a lifetime of singing and acting credentials and achievements to Lynn as director of theater arts development.
Before Jan belonged to Lynn, she belonged to Boca Raton where her name became synonymous with theater. McArt’s Dinner Theatre in Royal Palm Place was a popular performance site in a town where, at the time, few theatrical venues had put down roots.
She also created the Little Palm Theater, where Boca’s tots and teens received their first exposure to the arts. Youngsters like Kevin Ross, now president of Lynn University, and Ariana Grande, pop vocalist-turned-mega star, were among the children who honed their abilities on her stage.
On a warm evening in May at the Wold Performing Arts Center — McArt’s home theater on the Lynn campus — fans, family and friends gathered for a “Grand Night for Singing, A Tribute to Jan McArt,” a musical revue of hit songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein shows like Carousel, Oklahoma!, The King and I and The Sound of Music.
Organized by Lynn President-emeritus Donald Ross and his wife, Helen (parents of Lynn’s current chief executive), with support from dozens of McArt’s admirers, the evening not only honored her years of sharing her talents and abilities with students at Lynn, but also recounted McArt’s multitude of personal accomplishments.
Dubbed the “First Lady of Florida’s Musical Theater” by two governors’ decrees, Jan has enjoyed an exciting and wide-ranging career, from opera, Broadway and the concert stage to award-winning television performances and highly acclaimed supper club appearances, both nationally and abroad.
“Jan is the most vivacious person you’ll ever meet,” Donald Ross said. “Everyone loves her. She deserves to be honored now. It’s her turn.”
Lots of friends crowded the Wold Performing Arts Center to honor Jan. One of Boca’s most elegant performance venues, the site has it hosted stars like Tommy Tune, Mitzi Gaynor and Lucie Arnaz and was the site of the third presidential debate between former President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in October 2012.
Sorely missed at the celebration was Jan’s beloved, performer brother, Don “Bunny” McArt, who passed away in Nov. 2012.
While still a teen, Jan was hired by Rodgers and Hammerstein for the lead in Oklahoma. Don’s first show was with legendary director George Abbott in Kiss ‘n Tell. Both McArts were constantly working in New York, Hollywood, Europe and the Orient.
Don took time from his work in L.A. in 1977 to do the comic lead in The Merry Widow that opened Jan’s Royal Palm Dinner Theatre, and, in 1990, they finally worked together when Don moved to Boca Raton and became a steady comedy star in all of Jan’s five theatres — Key West, Fort Lauderdale, Miami Beach and two in Boca Raton.
He quickly became an audience favorite and, after that, portrayed George Burns in Say Good Night Gracie, on tour and as part of the “Live at Lynn” series.
Jan McArt’s special night at Lynn brought some very special students to the local arts venue – more than two dozen of them – from the American College Dublin to perform the full production of “A Grand Night for Singing.”
So what’s the connection between “Florida’s First Lady of Musical Theater” and a stage full of singing Irish students? It’s the new Jan McArt Scholarship—announced for the first time at May’s event. It offers full-tuition assistance for a drama student from Lynn to spend a year studying at the American College Dublin.
But the Irish connection goes even deeper. McArt helped develop the Dublin school’s theater program, the only one in Ireland that offers a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in fine arts, with a specialization in musical theater.
“Jan has been phenomenal, much more than a consultant,” Ross said. “She has been so generous with her time and talent, even teaching master classes when she’s visited the college in Ireland. It’s fitting to now offer Lynn students the chance to study in the program she helped develop.”
If two-dozen-plus theater students from Dublin flew across the Atlantic for the singular purpose of serenading you with Rodgers and Hammerstein show tunes, what would you do? Jan replied, humbly: “I’m a little embarrassed by all of the attention, but who can resist Rodgers and Hammerstein?”
The students’ beautiful vocals and smooth moves delighted guests of all ages.
McArt has been friends with the Rosses for decades, first meeting at McArt’s Little Palm Theatre, where their son, Kevin, and daughter, Ellen, received their introduction to the performing arts.
“She is a very special human being,” Ross said. “And she has done so much for the culture of South Florida.”
Jessica Quigley, who graduated in May with a drama degree, spent 10 days in Ireland in 2015 to present a musical with the Lynn theater department. She said the students who receive the Jan McArt Scholarship will be transformed by Dublin.
“It was the best trip of my life,” she said. “I was doing what I loved surrounded by another culture. The drama kids over there were giving us insight into how they grew up in the theater and how they learned acting. They showed us around the city and taught us the local lingo.”
Quigley said she was moved by the culture and by the thrill of performing in a place so rich in theatrical history. The Irish campus is close to events like the Wexford Drama Festival. It is even closer to buildings rooted in the Irish theater tradition. The childhood home of dramatist, writer and bon vivant Oscar Wilde, in fact, serves as the campus’ cultural center.
“Ireland has things to offer in terms of performance, study, atmosphere and history that you just can’t get anywhere else in the world,” McArt said. “It makes a wonderful education in the performing arts for our students.”
As she drank in the events of the evening, Jan remarked: “How can you pay tribute to someone who loves what they do and does what they love?”
“A Grand Night for Singing,” including the trip for the Dublin performers, was fully paid for by McArt’s friends and admirers. All proceeds from the evening benefit the Jan McArt Scholarship.
Annie Green, Christine Lynn, Debbie Lindstrom and Patricia Toppel chaired the event, with Elaine Johnson Wold – who donated the money to build the performance center named for her and her late husband, Keith C. Wold — — was honorary chair.