Meridian Star

February 10, 2013

Jimmy Pigford

Meridian pays tribute to beloved director

By Steve Gillespie / Managing Editor
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN — Meridian Little Theatre is "dark" on Mondays, as show people say. That means there are no performances on that day. Everything is quiet and calm.

    Leigh Anne Whittle thought about that when she heard MLT's longtime director, Jimmy Pigford, passed away Monday afternoon.

    "I loved him so much," said Whittle, who first worked under Pigford in MLT's production of "Cats" in 2006. She has performed in six MLT productions, most recently starring in "Sorry, Wrong Chimney," which was staged in December.

    "He was a man who proved people could be who they could be. He saw talent in people who didn't know they had talent," Whittle said.

    She remembers Pigford as a sweet man who could be a tough director when it came to getting people to realize their full potential. After her introduction to Pigford and MLT, Whittle said she couldn't wait to be involved again, to see what he would bring out of her next.

    "Jimmy Pigford was his own man," Whittle said. "His crystal clear eyes alone filled you with encouragement. His demeanor stood for excellence. If you met him you were delighted. If you knew him you were touched. And if you loved him you're among a crowd of many who broke their legs for him."

The show goes on

    A native of Meridian, Pigford, 80, worked with Meridian Little Theatre for more than 50 years, and has been its resident director since 1965. This was to be his final season before retirement.

    Services for Pigford were held Thursday. MLT's upcoming production is "Steel Magnolias," to be staged Feb. 21-27.

    MLT veteran Sidney Covington plays M'Lynn Eatenton in the play.

    "My first association with Jimmy Pigford was in the '60s at the old Playhouse on 52nd Street, where I was a member of the orchestra. I was 13 and was mesmerized by this man," Covington said. "I'm not sure what the first musical was that I played but I recall that, during "Fiddler On the Roof," the curtain was to go up and the fiddler was to be sitting on the roof of the house fiddling the opening strains of the musical. I looked up from the pit, and to my surprise, there sat Jimmy, fiddle in hand, pretending to fiddle."

    Covington said she played in the orchestra for several more years before deciding to audition for a part.

    "I landed the lead role of Dulcinea, the 'girlfriend' of Don Quixote in "Man of La Mancha," she said. "Since the character was a rather unsavory woman and I was only 17, Jimmy had to call my dad and talk him into letting me have the part! That was in 1969 and I've been with him in some capacity ever since. One thing I've observed through these years is this: anyone who has had any association with Jimmy always thinks they were one of his close friends. What a tribute to the kind of man Jimmy was — and always will be."

    David Benson, organist and choirmaster at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, has worked on many MLT productions and has helped with directing duties recently. He will be doing the music for MLT's next production after "Steel Magnolias," which is "Bye Bye Birdie," the first production Pigford directed for MLT. He said Ronnie Miller will direct that show.

    "I'm going to miss Jimmy Pigford's quick wit and the joy he took in creating productions that sparkled on stage and delighted audiences for many years. But most of all, I'm going to miss Jimmy Pigford my friend," Benson said.

A good foundation

    A 1956 graduate of Ole Miss, Pigford began his stage and screen career after college, appearing in 30 television shows and several movies.

    After returning to Meridian he organized the Theatre Guild in 1968, the MLT Youth Division in 1969 and introduced a Summer Youth Workshop in 1996.

    Ginger Stevens, executive director of the Wesley House Community Center, remembers Pigford as a local pioneer in the field of arts, as well as someone she had the privilege to work with in several productions while taking on the roles of Laurey Williams in "Oklahoma," Daisy Mae in "Lil' Abner," and Anna Leonowens in "The King And I."

    "Jimmy Pigford was instrumental in the development of the local theater chapter and was a staunch supporter of allowing others to take the lead in his production crews," Stevens said. "I, along with countless others, directed the Meridian Little Theatre Youth Division plays. In this field, he was constantly thinking of how to get the young people of Meridian involved in the local arts. With his supervision, he helped to bring the local theater experience to our elementary schools every year. The Youth Division still buses in all of the local and county schools for their annual productions."

    Pigford was voted The Meridian Star Readers' Choice Man of the Year in 2012. At that time he said one of his proudest achievements with MLT is the number of young people who have participated in Youth Division productions.

    He saw Youth Division students go on to become models, actresses and a Miss America.

    "Some of them go on to colleges and universities and get big parts in plays," Pigford said. "It's a good foundation for them here. And they always drop back by to visit."

Extraordinary moments

    Former Meridian Mayor John Robert Smith, who worked with Pigford in at least 20 shows, also remembered the director's dedication in getting youth involved with the theater. Children who were involved with MLT now have grandchildren on stage.

    "There are many people who have literally grown up in that theater," Smith said.

    Smith's first MLT production was "1776" in 1976, which began a 26-year working relationship with Pigford.

    "Meridian Little Theatre is so much more than plays that unfold on the stage," Smith said, noting that the cast, crews and audience involved with each production are all part of a greater experience. "It was always Jimmy's hand that orchestrated that sharing. Jimmy has created some extraordinary moments."

    In Mobile, Ala., earlier this year, Smith said he met a man who said he is familiar with Meridian because he always buys season tickets for Meridian Little Theatre.

    "Sometimes we forget about the reach and the economic impact MLT has," Smith said. "The City of Meridian, the region, theater arts in our state and region owe a debt of gratitude to Jimmy Pigford."

    Smith also said all that magic Pigford produced over the years was done with very little.

    "He took doctors, lawyers, housewives, theater owners, pharmacists and politicians, and molded them into a cast so that for a couple of hours on an evening they could take an audience to a place where they have never been before, or maybe had forgotten."

Forward vision

    Over the years Pigford also brought professional performers to his hometown for productions on the MLT stage, including Mercedes McCambridge, Russ Tamblyn, Virginia Mayo, Cyd Charisse and Barbara Rush.

    Pigford received the Meridian Council for the Arts Excellence in Arts Award, and the Daughters of the American Revolution Award for Community Involvement for Outstanding Contributions in the World of Art and Entertainment. He was a past president of the Mississippi Community Theatre Association and served as chairman of the Mississippi State Theatre Convention.

    State Rep. Greg Snowden, Speaker Pro Tempore, said he became friends with Pigford in 1984.

    "That year, on a whim, I auditioned for "The Music Man" at MLT, and I landed a minor part in the chorus. The show was a hit, and I enjoyed it very much.

    "In the spring of 1987, Jimmy called to encourage me to audition for the role of Seymour Krelborn in "Little Shop of Horrors."  I got the part. 'Little Shop' was a groundbreaking musical — edgy, with an integrated cast, and a show which brought together the entire community."

    Snowden remembers that current County Court Judge Vel Young first hit the MLT stage as part of the dynamic "Supremes-like" African-American trio in that production, which he said, along with the entire cast, caught the imagination of the community.

    "A huge hit, 'Little Shop' was so typical of Jimmy's vision to bring the best of the theatrical arts to all citizens," Snowden said. "Jimmy was always looking forward. That was his special gift."

    Snowden said he's been privileged to have performed in almost two dozen MLT productions, all directed by Jimmy Pigford.  

    "Jimmy, and MLT, have been a very special part of my life. In more recent years, I have been honored to serve two years as MLT president, and have spent many years as a board of directors member and/or as a board advisor. In those capacities, I was able to observe and appreciate Jimmy's role as business manager as well as his genius as MLT's artistic director. The business side of any arts organization can be a very daunting challenge. Jimmy met, and exceeded, that challenge," Snowden said.

    "First and foremost, Jimmy loved MLT, the theatrical arts, and the Meridian and East Mississippi community. He was devoted to the success of our part of the state. Above all, he was my mentor, encourager, supporter, and friend. I miss him tremendously, and can only hope that East Mississippi fully appreciates his nearly half-century of work on our behalf. Jimmy has left a great void — our challenge as a community, one Jimmy would endorse, is to strive to do our very best to fill that void."