The Expressive Impact of Jan Sherman
Jan Sherman, Arbus Magazine editor, died May 10, 2020, leaving behind a legacy of productions and prose that illustrate her commitment to the creative sector, her exacting eye, confident poise, and straightforward wit. In the words of John Wood, co-founder and CEO of Sally Industries, where Jan was creative director for 32 years, “She was quite the stickler, always striving for perfection.” Her innate charisma made for memorable collaboration. Her challenging spirit empowered those of us who listened and learned. Her intelligence and linguistic savvy elevated every organization she worked with, including, locally, Arbus, Sally, WJCT, and Florida’s official state play, Cross and Sword. Over the course of her career, Jan wore the hats of an actress, model, fashion coordinator, dramatic arts teacher and director, writer, editor, producer, public relations professional, and creative director. I am personally privileged to have been mentored by her for nine years here at Arbus, and have plenty of specific memories I will strive to honor each time I endeavor upon writing. Arbus will continue to carry Jan’s voice, but she will be deeply missed.
Tracing Jan’s career is as interesting as was she. A native of England, Jan was trained in performing arts at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Her acting credits include stage, radio, film, and TV appearances in England, Canada, and the United States, numbering some 30 roles in total. While living in Durham, North Carolina, and raising two young children, Jan helped found The Children’s Theatre of North Carolina. She toured with this group for two seasons before being contacted by Jean Rahner, co-founder of St. Augustine’s Limelight Theatre, with the proposition to join the cast of Cross and Sword in 1968.
Cross and Sword was written in 1965 by Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Paul Green, and performed during summers in St. Augustine for more than 30 years. Declared Florida’s official state play by the Florida Senate in 1973, the play depicts the first years of historic St. Augustine’s recorded history, which is the longest in the nation. Upon moving to St. Augustine, the entire Sherman family enlisted in the production. Jan was cast in the role of the Indian princess Notina and also worked behind the scenes as the play’s public relations director. Her two children, Cinda and Robert, played the roles of a young Timucuan girl and an altar boy, respectively. Rahner recalls with particular fondness the cast parties and dinners on the beach during this time. She also shares what she calls her favorite Jan story, one that is illustrative of Jan’s personality: “As Notina, [Jan’s] line was, ‘Yes, a mighty warrior I believe … Make my heart go pom pom,’” says Rahner. “Jan refused to say the pom pom line and argued to say ‘make my heart to beat.’ She won!”
In the late 1970s, Jan moved to Jacksonville, taking a position in public relations for public broadcasting station WJCT, before being hired as one of Sally Industries’ first ‘outside’ professionals in 1982. Sally brought Jan on as their creative director, due in large part to her unique, theatrical background. Now known as Sally Dark Rides, the local company is known worldwide for their animatronics, shows, and interactive indoor rides. Sally has created 1,032 animatronics and 287 dark rides and shows at theme parks, museums, retail locations, heritage centers, and libraries all over the world. (To view their incredible list of clients, visit their website at www.sallydarkrides.com.)
The trademarks of Sally’s masterful, artistic animatronic creations are the soundtracks and scripts that lend the robots their personalities, and help the narratives and environments be engaging and immersive. This was Jan’s job. She was hired to produce the theatrical aspects of Sally’s animatronics. “We manufacture to entertain,” says Wood. St. Augustine-based producer and composer Jamie DeFrates recalls 20 years of working on these projects with Jan. “We would spend hours, weeks, and sometimes months in my studio creating character voices, songs, lyrics, music production, sound effects, and mixing,” says DeFrates. “I was amazed by her many talents and I learned a great deal working with her. She inspired me to do my best and offered me the opportunity to write music for theme park rides all over the world.”
Jan had two integral, long-term roles at Sally. As the company’s promotional and marketing facilitator, she crafted copy for press releases, advertising, and special promotions; and as creative director, she brought the animatronic shows to life. Howard Kelly, who managed Sally for a large portion of Jan’s tenure and remains on their board of directors, says that Jan cultivated a large group of area musicians, singers, and actors whom she called upon to create the personalities and talents of the robots. Then Jan worked with the company technicians as they synchronized the physical movements of the characters to match the dialogue and rhythms of the production. “Her former theatrical experience and training, Cross and Sword and community theater, is what set her work apart from our competition and made our rides and park attractions have a special quality about them,” says Kelly.
When the studio production was complete at the Sally factory, Jan would routinely travel to oversee the integration of her work into the on-site installations. As the company grew, she even came to write scripts in different languages and found foreign talent. Therefore, she was ready when Sally shifted gears to focus on dark ride production. “Jan handled her new set of responsibilities and challenges with diligence and enthusiasm,” says Wood. She led the installation of the first dark ride refurbishment at Alton Towers, a theme park in Staffordshire, England, which launched the company’s new direction of building and reviving dark rides around the world. “Her innate charisma and grace made her a key spokesperson for the company,” says Wood.
Kelly shares that it was a particularly important local project, however, that became a “labor of love” for Jan — Sally’s feature attraction at the Ritz Theatre and Museum. The Ritz is located in historic LaVilla, west of Jacksonville’s downtown core, and Sally Dark Rides’ 40,000-square-foot showroom and production shop is just blocks away. In 1999, the City of Jacksonville made a commitment to restore the Ritz, a landmark movie house built in 1929 that was the heart and soul of the city’s Black community for decades and situated in what was known as the Harlem of the South. The Ritz was to be rebuilt on its original site and reopened as a performance center and museum, and Sally was tasked with creating an animatronic theater production to tell its local history.
In her role as Sally’s creative director, Jan was given the task of developing the production, from music and dialogue to scenery and sets. It would feature life-like robotic characters portraying pivotal local Black leaders of the time, James Weldon Johnson and his brother J. Rosamond (credited with the hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which has come to be known as the negro national anthem). “Her vast theatrical background was the perfect match,” says Kelly. The Ritz installation is a prominent stop for school field trips; children can tour the museum and see the Johnson brothers production, then take a brief ride down the street to Sally’s production shop to see where and how the characters were made. Kelly says it was, and is, a “special project for the company,” and Jan’s dedication to Sally’s craft is especially evident in this installation. “If there was one area where Jan shined like a diamond, it was in creating cost-effective animated shows,” says Wood. “She had to create magic.”
When Jan’s daughter Cinda, Arbus publisher, launched this magazine in 1993, Jan’s expertise in writing and familiarity with the local arts community were both indispensable assets to the magazine. She copy-edited and contributed to the editorial direction of Arbus from the start, marking 27 years as its editor in 2020. She helped to cultivate Arbus’ voice, one of knowledge, compassion, and forward-thinking. Jan embodied and defined Arbus’ tagline — substance with a cultural twist. She has ensured that the publication speaks with clarity about the bridges between the arts and business, something she bore out through her parallel duties at Sally.
Lauren Wood Weaver, who stepped into the role of marketing director upon Jan’s retirement from Sally in 2014, helped to create a blog spot on Sally’s website that is dedicated to Jan’s memorial. Sentiments of respect and admiration have poured in from her colleagues, and are summarized well by DeFrates: “Jan’s charm, beauty, and elegance captivated everyone around her.” Her work lives on in her many projects and productions, and in many issues of Arbus. Her distinctive allure, open-hearted capableness, and knack for shrewd repartee will live on in the memories of all whom had the pleasure of knowing her.