Actor Don McArt, a veteran performer whose credits include Broadway, touring productions, movies, television and multiple shows at his sister Jan’s Royal Palm Dinner Theatre, died Tuesday in a Boca Raton hospice after suffering a stroke. He was 90.
Visually, the elfin McArt and his glamorous sister were an odd couple. In later years, Don McArt looked enough like the elderly George Burns to tour the United States and Canada in Rupert Holmes’ hit play Say Goodnight Gracie. Jan McArt, dubbed Florida’s first lady of musical theater during her reign at the now-closed Royal Palm from 1977-2001, is a vivacious raven-haired, blue-eyed brunette whose youthful beauty was often compared to Elizabeth Taylor’s. Yet in spirit, the upbeat brother and sister were very much alike, embracing the joy in life and loving their work as performers.
“One of the secrets of his success was that he was always positive,” said his sister, now the director of theater arts program development at Lynn University. “When he would talk with you, he was sincerely interested in what you had to say.”
In childhood, Jan McArt bestowed the nickname that would stick to her brother for the rest of his life. Because he had sizable, protruding ears, Jan asked her mother why Don’s ears stuck out.
“She said, ‘He’s like a bunny.’ So I started calling him Bunny,” McArt said.
Don McArt was born in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, but grew up in a small town north of Indianapolis. He supported his business studies at Indiana University by forming a dance band, and when the short guy with the huge bass drum strutted with the Marching 100 band at football games, the crowd went crazy whenever he would toss his sticks into the air, catch them and keep right on playing.
His showbiz résumé is a long one. His Broadway and touring credits include Kiss and Tell, Pajama Tops, Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple and There’s a Girl in My Soup. From the mid-1950s to 1971, he appeared on many TV series including My Little Margie, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, T he Addams Family and Adam-12. He also had parts in the 1963 movie Son of Flubber and 1995’s Two Much.
McArt’s eclectic interests also took him in other directions. He earned a doctor of divinity degree in 1974, then served for 17 years as minister of the Church of Religious Science in Whittier, Calif. He became a popular motivational speaker, and his self-help book The Mental Makeover: Kick Your ‘Buts’ Goodbye was published in 2004.
His professional reunion with his sister began in 1977 when she launched the Royal Palm with Franz Lehar’s operetta The Merry Widow. The two appeared together at the theater in Call Me Madam, High Button Shoes, Anything Goes and other musicals, and Don McArt often stole the show on his own in Finian’s Rainbow, Where’s Charley?, The Music Man and other Royal Palm productions, as well as his sister’s production of Sugar Babies in Miami Beach and Key West.
McArt called Boca Raton home for the past 21 years, but in his late 80s, he got the chance to tour in Say Goodnight Gracie. His sister offered to help him learn his lines, but he politely turned her down.
“In two weeks, he learned 56 pages of dialogue,” she says. “He got off the tour just last year.”
Playwright Holmes recalled McArt’s stamina, despite his age.
“For a man in the 80s to memorize, let alone perform, a one-man show about George Burns, ranging from the comedian’s boyhood to his 100th year, was remarkable enough,” Holmes wrote in an email. “But at one performance, Don fell into the orchestra pit, fractured his leg and, ignoring the pain, finished the show via microphone while lying on his back. Now that was a trouper.”
In addition to Jan McArt, Don McArt is survived by his brother, Dr. Bruce McArt.
A memorial service and celebration of his life will take place at 4 p.m. Dec. 28 in the Keith C. and Elaine Johnson Wold Performing Arts center at Lynn University, 3601 N. Military Trail, Boca Raton. The family asks that donations be made in honor of McArt to the donor’s favorite charity.