The silver screen inspired Iris Acker’s entree into the arts.
In a lifetime spent on and off the stage, or as a TV host, or as someone who guided budding actors, South Florida was the beneficiary of her childhood passions.
“As a young child I spent every Saturday at the movies. It was the Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell films that convinced me that I wanted to be a dancer,” Acker, who died Sunday at 88 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer, told the Miami Herald in 2015 of her arts awakening.
By 11, Acker, who grew up in the Bronx and would later embody the most endearing qualities of all four “Golden Girls,” was already acting.
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“I talked my mother into letting me take dance classes, and I quickly excelled,’’ she said. “I was performing professionally in my teens. I always got the lead in my school plays, but I thought it was because I had the loudest voice. As a chorus girl, I always got the lines to say. It was the directors who told me I was a good actress and should pursue it. That was the beginning of my wonderful life in the theater.”
The South Florida theater community has thrived under many of its staunchest advocates, writers and directors — Charlie Cinnamon, Jan McArt, Michael McKeever, Joseph Adler and David Arisco, among them.
Acker stood alongside those greats in promoting South Florida as a viable arts community.
Among her many roles, Acker, who lived in Hallandale Beach, hosted her own local TV show for 11 years on WLRN, “On Stage With Iris Acker.” For that program, and during its moves to WXEL and Comcast, and then on to her recent show, “Spotlight on the Arts,” for the last five years, she tapped her national contacts and her friend Cinnamon’s amazing Rolodex to book talent.
On her TV shows, Acker hosted and interviewed national names passing through town to promote plays and musicals like Valerie Harper, Edward Villella, Estelle Getty, Pia Zadora and Theodore Bikel.
While interviewing the diminutive Zadora in 1992, when the actress was to play in a production of “Too Short to Be a Rockette!” at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, Acker let Zadora, and her viewers, know of another credit she’d enjoyed: Acker was an actual Rockette in New York.
“On Stage” and its subsequent incarnations also spotlighted regional talents like folk singer-songwriter Amy Carol Webb and actor Nick Santa Maria, with whom she co-starred in “Bye Bye Birdie.”
“She was one of my biggest supporters and we had a ball on her TV show,” said Santa Maria, who affectionately called Acker “Mom,” and who just completed a run in the two-man comedy “The Big Bang” at Actors’ Playhouse. “She was an amazing and formidable woman.”
So much so, if you spent even a moment with Acker in the audience, her enthusiasm for the “thee-a-tah” as she’d say in the same impeccable manner in which she dressed, made you a convert. You would come to love the theater — all the arts, really — as she did. You would want to hold your own in conversation with this belle of the local arts.
“An amazing talent, supporter of the arts, consummate professional and friend. Iris will be sorely missed by all of her fellow friends in the entertainment industry,” Arisco, artistic director of Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, said Tuesday.
“We’ve known Iris Acker since the beginning of our institution in 1988. Iris starred in our second season show “Something’s Afoot,” and we have been dear friends ever since,” said Barbara Stein, executive producing director of Actors’ Playhouse. “She was a remarkable actress. Her love of theater and her support for all South Florida’s theater companies is a testament to her passion for the art form.”
Acker served as a Carbonell Awards judge — South Florida’s version of the Tonys that honors work in regional theaters. Along with playwright Tony Finstron and critic Ron Levitt, Acker created the Silver Palm Awards, a collegial honor that was akin to South Florida’s version of the Obies, said theater critic Christine Dolen.
“Florida theater has lost one of its most dynamic talents and ardent advocates,” said Dolen, who came to know Acker during her long tenure as the Miami Herald’s theater critic. She admired Acker’s talents both on and off the stage.
Acker took on acting roles in movies filmed in Miami, including “Cocoon 2,” “Flight of the Navigator,” Whoops Apocalypse” and “Bachelor Party.” She did more than 250 commercials, including a vacuum cleaner spot with Tony Randall, and wrote a how-to book, “The Secrets to Auditioning for Commercials.”
In 1990 alone, Acker filmed a Mr. Coffee commercial with baseball great Joe DiMaggio. Had a role in the made-for-TV movie “Doubles,” alongside Steve Landesberg of “Barney Miller” fame. And played a “hanging judge” on an episode of CBS’ “Wiseguy” alongside Steven Bauer.
“I had a super summer,” Acker quipped at the time in the Herald.
You might also have caught Acker acting in stage productions like “Norman ... Is That You?” in Burt Reynolds’ first production as his Jupiter dinner theater was being built in 1978.
If she wasn’t acting, she was the artistic director at the Shores Performing Arts Theatre in Miami Shores for four years, from 1992 to 1996.
There, she gave actors like Wayne LeGette (“Burn Notice”) a platform to hone their craft.
“I was the one being discovered before. Now the tables have turned,” Acker told the Herald in 1994. “Being able to help somebody is as gratifying as helping myself.”
“Iris was all about celebrating the arts community, celebrating talent and the theater community,” Dolen said. “She was just extremely generous with her hundreds and hundreds of friends within the community.”
For her achievements, Acker was honored with the 2015 Howard Kleinberg Award from the Carbonell Awards for her work. She received the Breaking the Glass Ceiling award from the Jewish Museum and a lifetime service award from the Theatre League of South Florida, and also earned the Women Who Make a Difference Honor from the YWCA.
“I was always available to audition and work,” Acker told the Herald in 2015. “Mostly, I supported the stars in tours and regional theaters, which is how I got to Florida. I co-starred with Julie Newmar in ‘The Marriage-Go-Round’ in Fort Lauderdale. I was hooked on working here. Pursued it, and here I am, 35 years later.”
Acker first moved to South Florida from New York with her husband, Philip, in 1974, and quickly befriended the press agent Charlie Cinnamon.
“It is no coincidence that I was first introduced to Iris by Charlie Cinnamon — both legends on opposite sides of the stage. From the moment we met, she was always absolutely thrilled with the theater — or, as she would say, ‘theatahhhh.’” We saw each other many times after that — and her love for show business was just as palpable each and every time,” said Suzette Espinosa, vice president for communications for the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami.
“I can’t remember ever speaking to Iris when she wasn’t championing an artist, production or company. She always was interested in what would come next which, I suppose, was only natural since she helped create so much of the vibrant theater scene we have now,” said fellow Carbonell Award judge Savannah Whaley.
Adds writer and South Florida arts patron Charlotte Libov: “When I first arrived here 13 years ago, Charlie Cinnamon took me under his wing and introduced me to everyone he thought I should know. Iris Acker was among the first theater people I met, and ever since then, I’ve looked forward to greeting her at every opening. ... She personified theater to me.”
Acker’s survivors include her sons, Mitch and Robert Acker; grandchildren Jillian, Andrew and Erinn; and four great-grandchildren. Service information is pending.
Internet radio station W4CY on www.w4cy.com plans to air a 50-minute memorial episode dedicated to Acker at noon on Oct. 9.