Mississippi university to celebrate venue’s anniversary with star-studded event

Published 7:45 am Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Stars will be shining brightly March 25 when the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Mississippi celebrates its 20-year anniversary with a gala hosted by Oscar winner Morgan Freeman.

The evening will honor Ole Miss alumni Mary and Sam Haskell, who have invited their special friends from the entertainment industry to join in the anniversary celebration. The Haskells will receive the Ford Center’s prestigious Concerto Award for their patronage of the center and the arts.

“In honor of our 20th anniversary, I wanted to find a way to publicly recognize exceptional patrons, who have supported the center from the beginning and continue to provide their guidance, energy and treasure,” said Julia Aubrey, Ford Center director and associate professor of music, who has edited a book on the Ford Center that will be on sale at the gala.

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The Haskells will receive only the third such award, which is a replica of the Concerto, a 17-foot bronze statue of a violinist and a cellist by Mississippi sculptor Rod Moorehead that graces the front of the Ford Center.

The first two inaugural Concerto Awards were presented to the Gertrude C. Ford Foundation and Chancellor Emeritus Robert Khayat.

The first half of the gala will feature appearances by Tony- and Emmy-winning actress Christine Baranski, Emmy-winning actor and Ole Miss alumnus Gerald McRaney; award-winning actress Delta Burke; Broadway and Critics’ Choice Award-winning TV star Bellamy Young; supermodel and brand mogul Kathy Ireland; percussionist Pedro Segundo; Emmy-winning producer, director, actress and choreographer Debbie Allen; renowned pianist Bruce Levingston; actor and singer Blake McIver Ewing; and actress Mary Lane Haskell.

Eight-time Grammy Award winners Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. are slated to take the stage for the second half of the program. They will perform selections from their newest album “Blackbird, Lennon-McCartney Icons,” as well as their greatest hits from The Fifth Dimension when the program begins at 7:30 p.m.

The Ford Center, the centerpiece of the university’s cultural and scholarly mission to present performing arts and visiting lecturers, offers an average of 150 events annually.

Chancellor Glenn Boyce said its impact has been immeasurable.

“The 20-year anniversary of the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts is certainly worthy of a celebration,” he said. “The Ford Center is a cultural treasure, the premier entertainment venue of the region, that makes life more meaningful by offering experiences in the performing arts.

“The Ford Center has expanded opportunities through inspired performances and innovative education programs, serving as a gathering place and strengthening our community as a great place to live, work and play.”

The center’s contributions span all interests and genres, Aubrey said.

“The breadth and depth of events have been diverse in content and appeal, whether to engage the audience in an intellectual discussion or to entertain,” she said. “The Ford Center has welcomed princes, U.S. Supreme Court justices and the ‘Queen of Country.’ Broadway touring shows, events for school children and university ensemble performances are featured annually.”

Besides previous listed entertainers, Ole Miss alumni will perform, including actress and recording artist Mary Donnelly Haskell, “The Lawrence Welk Show” regular Guy Hovis and Broadway’s Laurie Gayle Stephenson. Oxford icon Patty Lewis also will appear on the program.

All performers will be supported with musical accompaniment by the Mississippians Jazz Ensemble, an Ole Miss student group under the direction of Michael Worthy.

The Ford Center became a reality in 1998 with a gift of $20 million from the Gertrude C. Ford Foundation of Jackson. The state contributed $500,000 for initial planning followed by an appropriation of $10 million for construction of the Ford Center. The Ford Foundation contributed another $5 million for additional building expenses and to purchase the railroad property that became the Gertrude C. Ford Boulevard.

Construction was completed in December 2002, and the Ford Center operations are largely funded by private contributions.

The Ford Center opened on March 28, 2003, with an inaugural gala hosted by Khayat, then university chancellor, and also starring actor Freeman as master of ceremonies. The six-story structure features two performance spaces, excellent acoustic qualities and seating for 1,177 in the main hall.

Since the time of the gift to establish the Ford Center, the Ford Foundation has contributed more than $67.8 million to the university’s Oxford and Medical Center campuses. The Ole Miss Student Union was recently renamed for Gertrude C. Ford to honor that support.

Ford – married to Aaron Lane Ford, an Ackerman attorney and U.S. congressman for the state’s 4th District – was an arts patron and an accomplished flautist, violinist and pianist. She was well-read in poetry and classic literature. She established the Ford Foundation in 1991 before her death in 1996.

“The Ford Center’s anniversary is a time to renew the passion, commitment and resolve to continue enriching the cultural and artistic experiences for our students, faculty, staff and community,” Aubrey said. “The pandemic reminded us that the arts must be resilient. We cannot be deterred by perceived limitations of what we can achieve as artists or arts presenters.”

Sam Haskell, of Magnolia Hills Productions/Warner Bros., won two significant awards at the 300th anniversary Movieguide Awards in Hollywood. Haskell and his team were chosen for the Freedom Award for Television for “A Walton’s Thanksgiving” and the Epiphany Prize for Most Inspiring TV or Streaming Movie or Program for “Dolly Parton’s Mountain Magic Christmas.”

Haskell, executive producer of Parton’s movies and specials, also won an Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie for the 2021 “Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square.”

He has produced multiple projects for Netflix, including “Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings,” an anthology series of eight movies based on the singer’s songs and life stories, two episodes of which won Movieguide awards. The series has also been honored by the 2020 PaleyFest as one of the best TV series of 2019.

Mary Donnelly Haskell is an actor who has starred in “Touched by an Angel,” “Seventh Heaven,” “Sisters,” “Diagnosis Murder,” “Days of Our Lives” and more than 20 TV movies, including two of the Hallmark Channel’s highest-rated Christmas shows: “Once Upon a Christmas” and “Twice Upon a Christmas.”

An accomplished singer, Haskell has performed at venues including the Kennedy Center and the White House and with the Prague Symphony Orchestra. She is a popular recording artist, having released four children’s CDs, an adult contemporary album and a collection of sacred hymns and praise songs.

Haskell is also a founding member and former chair of the Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy.

Tickets to the March 25 anniversary celebration range from $25 to $60, with reduced prices for Ole Miss students, faculty, staff and retirees. They can be purchased at the UM Box Office in the Ford Center, open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; by calling 662-915-7411; or online at https://olemissboxoffice.universitytickets.com.