Why Burt Reynolds ‘feels at home’ at new North Palm Beach acting school

Earlier this year, Donna Carbone was worried.

The lease was running out at a North Palm Beach shopping plaza where the Burt Reynolds Institute for Film & Theatre was headquartered. Would this end up being just another stop in the school’s nomadic journey over the years from Jupiter to West Palm Beach to Tequesta to Lake Park?

Carbone, the institute’s managing director, hated to think this would be the last stop.

RELATED: See our classic photos of Burt Reynolds through the years

But at the last minute, like one of Reynolds’ numerous comebacks, the tiny school that is close to the actor’s heart got one more reprieve. Space opened up in the same plaza, the Village Shoppes at U.S. 1 off Northlake Boulevard, and only a few doors down. It was smaller — about 1,500-square-feet — but the rent was more affordable.

So, in a familiar ritual, volunteers spent weeks packing up the stage, all the posters from Reynolds’ long career and the chairs with the bright red ‘BR’ cushions.

And then something unexpected happened — once the stage was built, the posters re-hung and the 36 chairs set up, including Reynolds’ comfortable black chair on the front row, everybody had one thought: This is better than the larger space.

It reminded them of the setup inside the lamentably lost Burt Reynolds and Friends Museum, which shuttered seven years ago to make way for the Harbourside Place development.

Reynolds agreed.

“For the first time since the museum closed, it feels like we are at home,” he told The Palm Beach Post. “Classes are going well, and I am looking forward to directing some shows there.”

Added Carbone: “It is a more intimate…theater experience. Mr. Reynolds loves it. The students like it.”

Over the years, some have wondered if the museum — a unique and quirky compilation of memorabilia from Reynolds’ movies and TV shows — would ever be resurrected. There were plans to build a new space in Jupiter’s Burt Reynolds Park, but fundraising never took off. And Reynolds sold some key artifacts in a publicized auction.

“If every person who professes to be a Burt Reynolds fan had donated one dollar, we’d have that institute in Burt Reynolds Park,” Carbone said.

But for now, a museum is not the primary focus. With a two-year lease, Carbone wants the school to be part of the North Palm Beach community and to bring more attention to the shopping center. Situated in the plaza between True Treasures furniture store and the Entre Nous Bistro restaurant, she hopes the businesses can work cooperatively together — maybe a night of dining and shopping, then watching the students do staged readings.

“We’ve put down roots in North Palm Beach,” Carbone said. “We’re happy here.”

And she definitely wants to attract more students.

The institute has a base of 100 students, of which about 35-40 are active. The number of classes — from a fundamentals of acting class to Reynolds’ Friday master class — has increased to six. There are five teachers, including Carbone, a published playwright-author who conducts creative writing classes for adults and youth.

While there is talk of script reading performances, the school is not looking “to compete with the Kravis or the Maltz” Jupiter Theater, Carbone said.

The goal “is to provide a training ground for future actors. That’s Mr. Reynolds’ dream.”

Reynolds would like to put on a public showcase of his master class students again, like they did in the museum days. “He loves to show off his students,” Carbone said. “He really is a proud papa.”

And the Reynolds legend, which began years ago when he worked at the Lake Worth Playhouse, continues to be a potent draw. Carbone estimates that she gets 15-20 calls a week, some from overseas, inquiring about taking classes with Reynolds. (For the record, you have to enroll in fundamentals first and then be invited into the actor’s class.)

But working with him can make a difference.

Tina Pfeiffer, of Fort Pierce, has been driving down to the institute for years and calls herself “a steady student.” She’s an actor-producer with 14 shorts and features on her resume, some which have made it into film festival competitions. Her latest, “A World of Pleasure,” about the owners of a soon-to-close porno shop, was sold to DirecTV for broadcast, she said. She also acted and co-produced “Henri,” a 2017 film made in South Florida that featured Reynolds and Eric Roberts.

Pfeiffer, who cheerfully admits her age is 63, has a day job co-owning a carpeting company. But she credits Reynolds with encouraging her to pursue her lifelong passion of acting and, as she puts it, “doing what I can to stay in the mix.

“He is the most generous, wonderful coach,” said Pfeiffer. “You’d never know he was an icon. He treats us like his family.”

And the institute, which Reynolds lends his name to but does not financially support, remains surprisingly affordable. Basic classes run about $30 a week, and Reynolds’ class isn’t much more, Carbone said.

She said Reynolds could charge more, but that’s not what he — or the theater institute — is about.

“We’re about the students,” she said. “Mr. Reynolds has always believed in giving back for his good luck.”

Carbone believes that luck is rubbing off and the theater has finally turned a corner.

“We’re back,” she said, “and we’re here to stay.”

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