Jan McArt arrived in Boca Raton, in 1977, having established herself as a performer of international renown and uncommon dexterity: a rich career in both opera and musical theatre; concerts with Liberace, Jack Jones and the Boston Pops; engagements from Thailand to Saudi Arabia.
But McArt’s Boca origin story is all too ordinary: “I came to Florida like everybody else to visit my mother,” she recalls. “I certainly wasn’t ever going to live there, because that was for old people. I thought, I’ll start a little business and have somebody else run it, and I’ll come down from New York and check in on my mother and look in on my business. But that’s not what happened.”
That business, the Royal Palm Center Production Company, would go on to have a seismic impact on the performing arts in South Florida. Its flagship institution, the Royal Palm Dinner Theatre in Royal Palm Place, would run for nearly 25 years and rack up 278 Carbonell nominations.
The venue broke the mold in more ways than one. At a time when her competitors only produced plays in season, McArt ran shows 52 weeks a year. And if the phrase “dinner theater” typically conjures images of amateur thespians, cardboard sets and meals of dry steak and potatoes, McArt’s was “anything but. It was an Equity dinner theater. The patrons here in Boca are very particular about their dining. [We had a] backstage lounge and a café outside in the garden area, for 160 people. It was a big operation.”
This operation included three separate companies—the main dinner theater; the 100-seat Rooftop Cabaret Theatre, which brought in vocal talents from prominent supper clubs; and the Little Palm Children’s Theatre, which hosted family productions on Saturday mornings. Its alumni include Frankie and Ariana Grande. McArt would go on to “break” performers like then 17-year-old Rachel Bay Jones—star of Royal Palm’s first “Gigi”—who would go on to win a Tony Award for Broadway’s “Dear Evan Hansen” in 2017.
“The memories of that operation are amazing, because I meet people all over that tell me they were there, and they loved it, and they wish it was still there,” McArt says.
The theater had expanded into a million-dollar complex by the time it shuttered in 2001 from insurmountable debt and a crippling lack of public-sector financing; part of its real estate is occupied today by the Funky Biscuit concert venue. But McArt’s contributions were so significant that she earned the sobriquet “First Lady of Florida’s Musical Theatre” by two governor’s decrees.
Most importantly, her work didn’t end with Royal Palm’s folding. In 2004, she accepted the title of director of theatre arts program development at Lynn University, a position created specifically for her, in an effort to boost the private college’s performing-arts pedigree.
McArt was instrumental in the development of Lynn’s Wold Performing Arts Center, which she programs with cabaret singers, American Songbook performances, a main stage series of dance companies, choral groups, magicians and other entertainers, and a New Play Reading Series that offers local playwrights staged readings of works in development. Two of these, Stuart Meltzer’s “The Goldberg Variations” and Michael McKeever’s “Daniel’s Husband,” would later receive full, Carbonell-winning productions; the latter even made it to Broadway.
“I think it’s very important [to present new works], because if you look in the Sunday Times, you’ll see there are maybe 10 or 11 revivals,” McArt says. “How long can you keep doing revivals? You have to be giving it new blood. ‘Hamilton’ is not like anything anybody ever saw before.”
McArt is proud of her legacy in Boca. Theatre continues to give her a “thrill,” and she still acts occasionally, appearing in Lynn play readings. “I’ve been actively involved in theatre and music, as a performer, producer, director and entrepreneur,” she says. “I do feel like I contributed something, and hope to contribute more!”
This story is part of the Gold Standards feature from the July/August 2020 issue of Boca magazine. To see more of the local personalities and business owners profiled in our Gold Standards feature, click here. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.