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Gala celebrates MLT's 70th year

By Staff
70TH ANNIVERSARY Bill Whitworth, left, Sidney Covington, Bennie Jean Fortenberry and Earl Aycock Jr. will serve as masters of ceremonies for Meridian Little Theatre's 70th Anniversary Gala on Thursday. Photo by Penny Randall / The Meridian Star.
By Penny Randall / staff writer
May 18, 2003
Meridian Little Theatre has been through many changes in its 70 years.
It began as a humble garden theater in Highland Park in 1923, became a playhouse at Meridian's City Hall in 1933 and moved to a 52nd Street playhouse which was destroyed by fire in 1972.
In 1976, the theater found a permanent spot on Highway 39 North in a $1.5 million state-of-the-art building.
To celebrate its 70 years of entertaining audiences, the community theater will hold a 70th Anniversary Gala on Thursday to honor people who have played a role in its success.
Pigford's first play to direct was the popular Broadway musical "Bye Bye Birdie." But Pigford said he wouldn't name a favorite because he has worked on so many.
Historic theater
Meridian Little Theatre has the honor of being the longest running community theater in the state of Mississippi and one of the oldest in the South.
Hundreds of volunteers including everyone from actors to backstage personnel step up to the demands of the theater's five productions each season.
Such noted names as Emmy Award-winning actress and Lauderdale County native Sela Ward and 1986 Miss America Susan Akin have performed on the Meridian Little Theatre stage.
Local celebrities acting on stage have included Meridian Mayor John Robert Smith, state Rep. Greg Snowden, WTOK-TV news anchor John Johnson and businessmen Monte Royal and Earl Aycock Jr.
Many MLT actors and volunteers likely will participate in the Thursday gala.
Events are slated to begin at 6:30 p.m. with the viewing and bidding of silent auction items. Following that will be an awards presentation at 7 p.m. and then a buffet dinner.
The Austins
The award, called an "Austin" and named after the founder of Meridian Little Theatre Marjorie Woods Austin will be handed to the best leading and supporting actors and actresses in a musical and a comedy or drama.
Nominations of actors and actresses appearing on stage during the past 20 years were taken and narrowed to four in each category. Ballots were sent out to more than 1,700 Meridian Little Theatre members.
Acting as masters of ceremonies for the gala will be Aycock, Sidney Covington, Bill Whitworth and Bennie Jean Fortenberry.
Fortenberry, who has been involved with the theater since the 1970s, said MLT is an asset to the community.
Covington and Whitworth starred together in their first play, the musical "Man of La Mancha," nearly 20 years ago when Covington was 17. They have been supporting the theater ever since.
Covington added that MLT "is the jewel in the crown of the arts in Meridian and Meridian is the jewel in the crown of the state of Mississippi. The theater seems to be a magnet to other entertainment. It has helped lure people to this area."
Gala entertainment
Entertainment for the evening will be under the direction of Pat Gray, director of the theater's youth division, and Sharon Howard, a choreographer.
A musical medley from "Annie," "The King and I," "The Music Man" and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," featuring the children and past stars of those productions, will be staged.
Appearing will be former stars of "Annie" Niki Watson, Dixie Pigford and Lauren Rogers. Robbie Thomas will open the show with a song and dance. Angela White will sing a selection from Patsy Cline.
Danielle Smith, the 2003 International Cinderella Teen, also will perform. Mayor John Robert Smith will recognize two artists who have contributed to the theater during the past 20 years.
Mary Katherine Covert will help present the awards.
Pigford said he has high hopes for the theater's future.

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