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Ford Center’s ‘Boots and Bling’

Friendship Ball to Feature HGTV’s Stars, Nashville Entertainer

Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts supporter Susan Meredith of Oxford, helps create table decorations for the “Boots and Bling”-themed Friendship Ball. The May 18 event raises funds for the Ford Center’s endowment. Hosting the event are Erin and Ben Napier of HGTV’s “Home Town,” with a concert by a Grammy-winning Nashville country music artist. A dinner dance will follow with music by the band Moonstone & Friends.

With a theme of “Boots and Bling” and appearances by HGTV’s “Home Town” stars and a Grammy-winning country music artist, the May 18 inaugural Friendship Ball at the University of Mississippi aims to attract funds for the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts.

The unique event will begin at 3 p.m. in the Ford Center with a private concert by a Nashville, Tennessee, legend, who will not be named until the curtains open. Afterwards, a cocktail reception will be hosted in the Ford Center lobby, where the new “Celebrating the Arts” bronze tree sculpture will be unveiled to honor supporters.

HGTV favorites and Ole Miss graduates Erin and Ben Napier of Laurel, Mississippi, will host the evening, which progresses to The Inn at Ole Miss for a seated dinner by Tallahatchie Gourmet and dancing to the band Moonstone & Friends. Also being honored throughout festivities is UM Chancellor Emeritus Robert C. Khayat, who brought the idea of a performing arts center to life about 16 years ago.

“Continuously strengthening the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts is a vibrant group of alumni volunteers who help promote our programming,” said Julia Aubrey, director of the Ford Center and associate professor of music. “They expressed great enthusiasm and interest in seeing a signature event established for the Ford Center’s benefit.

“This first Friendship Ball commemorates our Celebrating the Arts campaign and all the dedicated individuals and organizations that care so passionately about our ability to provide enriching cultural arts experiences. Our goal is to make this an annual event, drawing more people to our world-class entertainment venue.”

Launched in September 2018, the Celebrating the Arts campaign seeks to build the Ford Center’s endowment to $3 million, which calls for securing private gifts in excess of $1 million. Endowments are held permanently and managed by the University of Mississippi Foundation, with the annual income supporting the designated area – in this case, the performing arts center.

The large bronze tree sculpture that serves as the campaign’s centerpiece was commissioned from Sanford Werfel Studio and hand carved by artist Richard Teller. The sculpture will be a permanent installation, and donors’ names are engraved on tree trunks, boughs, acorns and leaves signify various levels of gifts made to the Ford Center. The three largest parts of the sculpture are named for donors: the Gertrude C. Ford Foundation of Jackson, Mississippi; Mary and Sam Haskell of Oxford, Mississippi; and Nancye Starnes of Memphis, Tennessee, to honor their recent campaign gifts.

An Ignite Ole Miss crowd-funding initiative is underway at to raise funds to name a major part of a tree in Khayat’s honor.

The Boots and Bling theme for the Friendship Ball is reflected by western boots Ford Center volunteers adorned with an abundance of sparkling embellishments.

“To make the afternoon-to-evening event even more enjoyable, we are suggesting ‘Nashville cocktail attire, with sequins welcome,’” Aubrey said. “We eagerly anticipate seeing ball-goers’ creative interpretations of this dress code.”

Curtis Downs – a businessman and Ford Center supporter who relocated with wife Kathryn from Memphis to Oxford – said increasing the endowment will better support operations and programming, pointing out that each seasons’ lineup requires major investments. A large-scale musical, for example, can cost up to $70,000, with ticket sales accounting for only a portion of that amount.

“A high-caliber performing arts center needs our support,” said Downs, a member of Moonstone & Friends band, which will donate its performance to the campaign. “To continue the concerts, plays, lectures and other artistic performances at the Ford Center requires generous and sustaining investments from donors. Support for the Ford Center is a win-win for Oxford, the state and region because we are all inspired and enriched by the beauty and the enjoyment of the performing arts.

“I am very proud to be a part of Moonstone & Friends, a highly talented, versatile group of musicians and vocalists,” Downs said. “Jazz, swing, Broadway, pop, rock and roll, and country are among the musical genres performed by the band. I can’t think of a more appropriate place to showcase the band’s talents than the ‘Boots and Bling’ Friendship Ball.”

In addition, the Ford Center is now 16 years old; maintaining its beauty and functionality demands constant upkeep and repairs. The center’s technology also must be updated to remain competitive with today’s audience expectations.

Friendship Ball sponsors at the “Executive Producer” level include Kathryn and Curtis Downs, Jan and Lawrence Farrington, and Diane and Richard Scruggs. Sponsors at the “Producer” level are Linda and Bill Austin, Jr., Lucia and Louis Brandt, the Gertrude C. Ford Foundation, Mary and Sam Haskell, and Mary Sharp and James Rayner.

Executive Producer sponsors will be given the opportunity to visit with all the stars following the performance, will be acknowledged by the hosts and have their names included in all Ford Center event programs. In addition, Executive Producer and Producer sponsors will each receive 10 event tickets, names listed in publicity and in the Friendship Ball program, a Friendship Ball ornament, and a listing on the Ford Center lobby monitor.

Individual $150 tickets and the “Director” $1,500 sponsorship level that provides 10 tickets are not tax deductible. Sponsorships that are tax-deductible are the $2,500 and $5,000 levels. The deductible portion of those is $1,000 for the $2,500 sponsorship and $3,500 for the $5,000 sponsorship.

For more information on Friendship Ball sponsorships, contact Julia Aubrey, Ford Center director, at 662-915-6669 or [email protected]. Individual tickets can be purchased at the Ford Center box office or through

To learn various ways of supporting the Ford Center, contact Rob Jolly, associate director of development, at [email protected] or 662-915-3085.

By Tina H. Hahn