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The Ford Center Turns 20

A special space for performing arts, the Ford Center commemorates its 20th anniversary this month with a gala, a book and many memories.

Written by Leslie Criss | Contributed Photos by the Ford Center

When nearing the University Avenue entrance onto the University of Mississippi campus, just to the right looms a large and stately building, six stories in total — three above ground and three below. The Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts boasts 88,000 square feet that include a primary performance hall bearing the name of Ole Miss alums Sam and Mary Donnelly Haskell; a studio theater named for Mississippi’s Mary Ann Mobley and her husband, actor Gary Collins; administrative offices; and performance support facilities.

Thanks to a generous gift in 1991 from the Gertrude C. Ford Foundation in Jackson, the stage was set for the creation of an arts center on the campus. Under the leadership of Chancellor Robert Khayat, the dream became a reality, and on March 28, 2003, the official opening of the Ford Center was marked by an inaugural gala hosted by Khayat and emceed by Mississippian Morgan Freeman.

The Sam and Mary Haskell Theatre seats 1,169, and there’s truly not a bad seat in the house. The acoustics have been lauded by folks in the know.

“When Renee Fleming was here and her pianist was practicing,” Julia Aubrey, director of the Center, said, “he stopped playing and said, ‘I wish the acoustics at the Kennedy Center were as good as they are here.’”

This treasured space has made a place for the creative arts from as close by as campus to traveling companies and individual artists from well beyond Mississippi.

“The Ford Center hosts more than 150 events each year beyond the touring shows featured in our annual season,” Aubrey said. “This includes arts-focused events such as university ensemble performances, pageants, lectures and special events.”

And now, 20 years after the Ford Center opened its doors, an anniversary gala is slated for March 25. It will once again be emceed by Academy Award-winner Morgan Freeman; the Haskells will receive the Ford Center’s Concerto Award for their extraordinary support of the arts and patronage of the Ford Center; headliners will be Grammy winners Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr.; and there will be appearances by Debbie Allen, Gerald McRaney and Delta Burke, Christine Baranski, Guy Hovis and more.

As a special commemoration of the Ford Center’s first two decades, Aubrey is editing a book that will include lots of contributed stories, many photographs and even the story of the raccoons that took up residence during the construction of the Ford Center. The plan is for the book to be printed in time for the gala.

To list every event that has taken place in the Ford Center these past 20 years would be quite an endeavor, but with a bit of help from Aubrey and Ford Center assistant director of marketing, Kate Meacham, we’ve put together a list of some of them.


The official opening of the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts. The 2003 gala was produced by Sam Haskell, Mary Donnelly Haskell performed and a dozen university ensembles from the Ole Miss departments of music and theater were also featured.


Ole Miss hosted the first debate of the election season between John McCain, Republican senator from Arizona, and Barack Obama, Democrat senator from Illinois. The debate, broadcast live, was moderated by Jim Lehrer of PBS. Ole Miss and Oxford hosted journalists from all over the world.


The renowned Dance Theatre of Harlem, originally founded in New York City at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in 1969, visited the Ford Center as part of an anniversary tour.


The annual festival continued for 12 years, with its final nine years hosted by the Ford Center. The festival offered a local taste of summer theater, normally producing and presenting three shows, not exclusively by Shakespeare.


With a history dating to the 1400s, the renowned Vienna Boys Choir performed traditional and popular arrangements on the Ford Center stage.

“DON QUIXOTE” | APRIL 25, 2013

The Russian National Ballet Theatre, founded in Moscow in the late 1980s, performed a ballet set to a rousing score and based on Miguel de Cervantes’ famous “Don Quixote de la Mancha.”


About 1,000 people attended the event hosted by the University of Mississippi School of Law. Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Antonin Scalia told stories about law school experiences, their legal careers and much more. It was moderated by Jack Nowlin, a law professor.


The University of Mississippi was the only college in Mississippi chosen to host the original Shakespeare First Folio monthlong exhibit. The national touring exhibition celebrated 400 years of Shakespeare. The First Folio was created in 1623, seven years after the Bard’s death in 1616. It contains 36 plays.

RENEE FLEMING | SEPT. 20-21, 2021

Renowned soprano Renee Fleming’s visit to the university included a recital, a panel discussion — Music & the Mind — a masterclass and more. Fleming is the winner of four Grammy Awards and, in 2013, she received the highest honor for an artist, a National Medal of Arts. As former director of opera theatre at Ole Miss, Aubrey counts Fleming’s visit among her personal favorites. “I even got to take her shoe shopping,” she said.


Twenty years of concerts makes for an impressive and lengthy list. Here’s just a brief look at some of the famous artists who’ve shared their voices with audiences from the Ford Center stage: Judy Collins, B.B. King, Dolly Parton, Percy Sledge, Chuck Mangione, Mavis Staples, Roseanne Cash, Lyle Lovett, Kenny Loggins, Amy Grant, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin, Michael Bolton.


As with concerts, Broadway productions that visited the Ford Center have been many. Here are a few: “Mame,” “Cats,” “The Color Purple,” “Mamma Mia!” “Jersey Boys,” “Waitress,” “The Addams Family.”

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