By Ruth Ingram/The Clarion-Ledger
VICKSBURG — It’s the end of an era for the direction of this month’s Miss Mississippi pageant and the beginning of a new focus on contestants and their community service platforms.
Longtime director and choreographer Mallory Graham is not returning after 22 years with the Vicksburg-based pageant, set for June 27-30 at the Vicksburg Convention Center.
Replacing him are Vicksburg residents Chesley Lambiotte and Amy Jackson, a young duo who bring years of experience under Graham and time spent both onstage and in the wings.
Graham, a North Carolina resident who has directed and choreographed pageants in that state and Pennsylvania, traveled to Mississippi for years to put on the pageant, a preliminary to the Miss America competition.
Lambiotte and Jackson say they were asked to take the reins of this year’s production by the Miss Mississippi Board of Directors and the pageant’s executive director, David Blackledge.
“Chesley has been an understudy with Mallory for about six years,” Blackledge said. “We were wanting her to get to a comfort level for being in a position to take over. There was no question that we were planning on her doing that when she was ready.”
Jackson, too, is a pageant veteran. Her parents have both served as producers, “and she was ready to take over that,” said Blackledge, celebrating his 20th anniversary as executive director.
Graham, 65, said it’s time to let go of a pageant he dearly loves.
“I’m not a young man anymore. It was a pretty demanding job, and I’m not in the best of health.
“All that is coupled with the fact that they are trying to get their budget under control and save some money,” he said of the director/choreographer post, a paid position. “The main objective of the program is scholarship money. I am so proud of Chesley and Amy. I know they will do a great job.”
Lambiotte will direct and choreograph, and Jackson will produce, what promises to be a pageant with a flavor both fairy tale and royal. The theme is “Once Upon a Crown.”
“We’re riding the coattails of all this royal craze,” said Lambiotte, assistant pageant choreographer for six years.
“You’ve got a royal wedding and two Snow White blockbuster movies. It’s a fairy tale everywhere. There are a lot of special moments in this show.”
“I think you’ll see some different things” with Lambiotte and Jackson in charge, said Allen Karel, the show’s public relations director.
That’s not the only new wrinkle in store for pageant-goers. Among them:
— The pageant is doubling the number of elementary-schoolers who take part in the production as each contestant’s “prince” or “princess.”
This year, there will be 85 children, seven boys and the rest girls, who will perform in dance numbers and escort contestants both onstage and in the pageant’s traditional parade set for June 25 in downtown Vicksburg.
“There was just a really high demand,” Karel said of the decision to double the number of children, which means each contestant will have two pint-sized escorts instead of one.
“Parents and kids wanted to get involved in the pageant, and they’re letting them get involved,” he said.
That means the pageant “is going to be a little bit bigger deal because of the number of kids who want to be involved,” Karel said.
But even with the huge task of herding and dressing that many kids, he said, the show’s length won’t increase. “On live television, it has to stay at two hours,” he said of the 8 p.m. broadcast June 30 on WLBT-TV in Jackson.
— To further commemorate the 55th anniversary, a special invitation is being extended to all former Miss Mississippians to attend festivities. At least 15 have committed so far, Jackson said.
— On tap are new emcees: Nashville resident Dietz Osborne and former Miss Kentucky Mallory Ervin, a past contestant on the reality show The Amazing Race.
Lambiotte, who owns the Vicksburg Performing Arts Company, said she and Jackson are placing emphasis “back on the contestants.”
“We want to really focus on these young, strong, independent women and the differences they are making in their communities,” Lambiotte said. “I’m very drawn to the whole service aspect, and each young lady is required to have a platform. That’s the ultimate pay-it-forward program.”
Jackson’s mother, Kathryn Resio, was the pageant’s producer last year. “I grew up with the pageant,” said Jackson, a stay-at-home mom.
“I’ve said I may not be qualified on paper, but I’m willing to learn anything,” she said. “We’re excited, because we’ve been working so hard … from November until now. It’s your baby.”
Lambiotte and Jackson, Graham says, are his babies.
“I want to see what my babies can do,” he said. “I want to get out of the way and let those girls spread their wings and fly.”
Miss Mississippi fast facts
VICKSBURGS — The 2012 Miss Mississippi Pageant has 42 contestants.
— Twenty-two are first-time competitors.
— 11 are competing for the second time.
— Four are competing for the third time.
— Four are competing for the fourth time.
— One is competing for the fifth time: Miss Dixie, Marie Wicks of Ocean Springs, who last year finished as third runner-up.
This year’s show theme is “Once Upon a Crown.”
A total of $103,350 will be awarded in cash scholarships to contestants.
The Miss Mississippi Scholarship Program is offering a total of $1.3 million in in-kind scholarships.
A ticket set is $125 for June 27-29 preliminaries and June 30 live production reserved seating.
Single-night tickets are $25, June 27 and 28; $30, June 29; and $50, June 30.
— Contestants arrive in Vicksburg, 7:45 a.m.-9 a.m. June 24, Vicksburg Convention Center.
— Miss Mississippi Parade, 7 p.m. June 25, downtown Vicksburg, immediately followed by a contestant autograph party at the Outlets at Vicksburg.
— Preliminaries 8 p.m. June 27-29 at the Vicksburg Convention Center.
— Miss Mississippi finals, 8 p.m. June 30 in Vicksburg Convention Center, followed by Miss Mississippi Awards Ball at the Convention Center.