By CHRIS WILSON
AMORY – Saturday was a night of glitz, glamor, and celebrities at Amory High School as several Hollywood stars performed and paid tribute to their friend and former talent agent Sam Haskell.
The occasion was the celebration of Haskell’s memoir, “Promises I Made My Mother,” a book that chronicles his life growing up in Amory and how his mother’s words of wisdom guided his life and shaped his character. It also follows his career, one that took him to Hollywood where Haskell skyrocketed to the top of the William Morris Agency, working his way up from the mail room to a respected talent agent of many noted actors and actresses, including Ray Romano, Debbie Allen, Bill Cosby and others. The point of Haskell’s book is how he was able to hold on to principles, integrity and morals while working in an otherwise cutthroat industry.
Haskell’s own high school alma mater was the site of the gala and concert. Volunteers transformed the school’s cafeteria into a wonderland of candles, flowers, and sophisticated dampécor. The Hollywood guests mingled with the public at the gala, some, like dancer/producer/choreographer Debbie Allen, and singer/pianist Michael Feinstein and Mississippi native and screen star Sela Ward were repeat visitors to Amory from previous Stars Over Mississippi benefit concerts.
Like Haskell’s previous star-studded events in his hometown, Saturday’s celebration was for the benefit of the Mary Kirkpatrick Haskell Scholarship Foundation that funds scholarships for graduating seniors. Saturday’s events raised more than $75,000 for the Foundation that pays tribute to Haskell’s late mother, Mary Kirkpatrick Haskell, who died 22 years ago.
The concert opened with a dance number by the cast of Amory High School’s recent musical “The Wiz.” Lucie Arnaz sang and also served as the event’s hostess. Her humor was reminiscent of her famous actress mother, Lucille Ball.
Concert headliner was multiple Grammy-nominee Michael Feinstein who performed mostly Frank Sinatra tunes from his latest Grammy-nominated recording “The Sinatra Project.” More accustomed to playing at Carnegie Hall or his own New York City jazz nightclub than on a high school stage, Feinstein humbly applauded his friend Haskell and the reason for the concert. “You are all philanthropists for being here,” he told the crowd.
Feinstein calls Haskell one of his greatest friends. “I respect Sam and Mary (Donnelly Haskell) who are great humanitarians,” Feinstein said. “They are non-judgmental souls who embrace people with great differences. They demonstrate how people can live their life to the fullest.”
Arnaz said she came to Amory in hopes of finally being able to pay Sam back for all he had done for her as her show biz agent for many years. Arnaz called him her “mentor.” She said he has also been instrumental in guiding her daughter’s career into show biz.
“And his book is terrific,” Arnaz added. “It’s the alternative experience of Hollywood. There’s not a whole lot of people who think like Sam Haskell. His presence is greatly missed in the agent world.”
Other concert performers included actor/singer Dean Butler of “Little House on the Prairie” fame who was busy after his performance filming a documentary about Haskell. Broadway performer Blake Ewing, referring to Haskell as his “Uncle Sam Haskell” joined Haskell’s daughter Mary Lane on stage to perform an original duet poking fun at Haskell’s school-days experiences.
Meridian, MS, native actress Sela Ward read from the book’s forward that was penned by actor Ray Romano.
Ward said she went to Los Angeles in 1983 and found it to be a lonely place for a Southern girl. She said she has valued Haskell’s friendship through the years. “Knowing Sam was like being wrapped in a warm, fuzzy blanket,” she said.
Debbie Allen, who has been to every Haskell benefit concert since it began in 1992, entertained from the podium, citing some of Haskell’s accomplishments and traits. Allen also asked about her Amory friends she’d made in previous visits, laughing about how she wanted to be staying with her Amory friends Benny and Wanda and not at the new hotel. Allen said that Haskell has helped navigate her career, both professionally and personally. “He’s the real thing,” she said. “And something in Amory is real and true and genuine and it’s what the world needs.”
Allen said Haskell’s book “raises the bar for all of us.” There are many lessons to be learned in it.
Reigning Miss Mississippi Christine Koslowski and 2009 Miss America Katie Stam were also part of the evening’s lineup. Stam wowed the audience with two songs requested by Haskell, “Hero” and “Via Delarosa.”
Mary Donnelly Haskell performed both individually and in duet with Feinstein. And to close the evening, Haskell took the stage himself, thanking everyone for supporting the scholarship foundation and him. Through tears in his eyes, he recalled his mother’s words and his devotion to his Amory friends and family.
Surprising the audience, Haskell took the microphone and with much emotion sang the song “What a Wonderful World.” All of the performers took the stage for a final bow as the audience gave them a standing ovation.
Haskell has been on a major book publicity tour appearing on several major networks in the past few weeks. Amory was his 12th stop on a 56-city tour.
He appeared Sunday at the Amory Regional Museum for a book-signing event with Miss America Katie Stam. Hundreds attended Sunday’s event.