Arts school newest Haskell client

Published 6:17 pm Thursday, May 6, 2010

He’d seen it all before, he’d just never seen it inMississippi.

Amory native Sam Haskell, a retired agent who represented 150actors, writers and others in the TV industry as a top boss of theWilliam Morris Agency, said high schools dedicated to the artsexist everywhere around the nation, and he’d run into and workedwith their graduates throughout his 25-year career.

But Haskell learned of the Mississippi School of the Arts onlyrecently, taking a tour and meeting students there for the firsttime Wednesday, seeing the facilities and giving advice to studentswho may be headed into the entertainment industry. He was a littlebewildered the state’s only residential high school for gifted artsstudents is so under-publicized, and he left late that afternoon toset about changing that fact.

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“It’s going to take more face time with these kids and importantpeople from the entertainment world,” Haskell said. “There’s beensome things done to publicize this school – some were successfuland some were unsuccessful.”

Haskell said he was going to tap into his extensive network offriends in the entertainment industry and encourage more TVplaymakers to visit MSA to build up support for the seeminglyalways-under-fire institution. Now retired and working with severalcharitable and other organizations, he wants to look intodeveloping a fundraiser for MSA to help it survive through thestate’s tough budget times and hopefully make it less of alegislative target for reductions.

He started helping Wednesday by donating $650 – the proceedsfrom a book signing he held onsite – to the MSA Foundation.

“There are lots of schools for the performing arts, but therehas never been one in Mississippi. With all the talent that’s inMississippi, there needs to be one,” Haskell said. “I saw a lot ofhope and ambition in the eyes of these kids, and that speaks to memore than anything.”

Haskell addressed the MSA student body after his campus tour,fielding questions from the young artists about himself, theindustry and his book, “Promises I Made My Mother,” a memoir abouthis journey from a small Mississippi town to the top of Hollywoodwithout losing his principles.

Whether MSA students ever make it big in Hollywood or not, theconfidence and maturity that will come with attending the schoolwill give them an advantage in everyday life, Haskell said.

“The fact that you can dream, even if that’s all you can do,puts you 10 steps ahead of everyone else,” he told students. “Ifyou can make those dreams into reality, you’ll be 100 steps aheadof everyone else.”

Haskell’s visit to MSA couldn’t have come at a better time forthe school, which just survived an attempt by leaders of theMississippi House of Representatives to merge it with theMississippi School for Math and Science in Columbus. It was theHouse’s second consecutive attempt to uproot the arts school, wherea relatively small student body and one of the highest per-studentcosts in the state make it a constant choice for budgetreductions.

Reductions in the fiscal year 2011 budget will drop MSA’s yearlyallowance from $3 million to $2.5 million. If Congress approves a$187 million Medicaid boost for Mississippi and a contingencybudget goes into effect, the school could have a $2.7 millionbudget, which would still be down $300,000 from where itstarted.

“It’s a good time right now for anyone who wants to help theschool,” said MSA Director Suzanne Hirsch. “I’m really excitedbecause I think (Haskell) could open a lot of doors for us intrying to promote the school.

“I think we’re going to have more people to come and see whatwe’re doing, it’s just going to take a little time,” she continued.”We’re new, we’re young, we’re only 7 years old, so we haven’t hadthe chance to show what we can do nationally yet.”