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 extraordinary 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, director of the Ford Center and associate professor of music, who has edited a book on the Ford Center that will be available for purchase at the gala.
The Haskells will receive only the third such award, which is a replica of the “Concerto” statue, a 17-foot bronze statue gracing the front of the Ford Center of a violinist and a cellist by Mississippi sculptor Rod Moorehead.
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; super model and brand mogul Kathy Ireland; internationally known percussionist Pedro Segundo; Emmy-winning producer, director, actress and choreographer Debbie Allen; internationally renowned concert pianist and recording artist 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 the finest in the performing arts and visiting lecturers, offers an average of 150 events annually.
Chancellor Glenn Boyce said the impact of the Ford Center 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 chancellor said.
Aubrey said, “The past 20 years of the Ford Center reflect its mission to enrich the cultural environment of the university and the community. It took passion and resolve to achieve the dream of building a performing arts center on campus. It required commitment from hundreds of people to provide the resources and expertise to plan, construct and operate this complex facility.
“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. 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,” she said.
In addition to previous listed entertainers, Ole Miss alumni will perform, including actress and recording artist Mary Donnelly Haskell, the Lawrence Welk Show’s Guy Hovis and Broadway’s Laurie Gayle Stephenson. Oxford icon Patty Lewis also will appear on the program.
All performers will be supported by 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, Mississippi. The state of Mississippi 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. The construction was completed in December 2002, and the Ford Center operations are largely funded by private contributions.
The Ford Center officially opened on March 28, 2003, with an inaugural gala hosted by Robert C. Khayat, then-university chancellor and also starred actor Freeman as master of ceremonies. At six stories tall and 88,000 square feet, the Ford Center features two performance spaces, state-of-the-art theatrical production facilities, excellent acoustic qualities, well-appointed lobbies and comfortable seating for 1,177 in the main hall.
Since the time of the gift to establish the Ford Center, the Ford Foundation of Jackson, Mississippi, has contributed more than $67.8 million to UM’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, Mississippi, attorney and U.S. congressman for the state’s 4th District — was an arts patron, who was 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. just won two significant awards at the 30th anniversary Movieguide Awards held 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 Mountain Magic Christmas.” Haskell, the 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.”
Haskell has produced multiple projects for Netflix including “Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings,” an anthology series of eight movies based on the songs and life stories of Parton, 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 movies: “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 also 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 located in the Ford Center and open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. or by calling 662-915-7411.
By Tina H. Hahn/UM Development