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Ellis Nassour Preserves His Legacy at University of Mississippi

One of numerous collections Nassour has donated to the university.
One of numerous collections Nassour has donated to the university.

It was a rainy Wednesday night but the people within J.D. Williams Library seemed oblivious to it in their warm cheer. The long-awaited Mamie and Ellis Nassour Arts & Entertainment Collection exhibit was unveiled with its donor, Ellis Nassour, alum of University of Mississippi 1964. Souvenirs of Nassour’s life, accomplishments and past friendships are exhibited for the university students and the world to see: rare movie posters, letters between authors and actors and memorabilia of Ole Miss in bygone days.

Dean Julia Rholes, University of Mississippi dean of libraries, said in her speech last night the collection was vast – spreading from the Archives on the third floor to severl thousand items in circulation to faculty and students to exhibit spaces on the first and second floors.

To her the collection detailing histories of performing arts is important to University of Mississippi’s continuned pursuit of education. The exhibition will be at the library until Dec. 18, 2015.

Dr. Jennifer Ford, head of Special Collections and associate professor, said, “Although the exhibition focuses on the entertainment writing and collection of three Mississippians it is Mr. Nassour’s donations which form the nucleus of the exhibit. It was very difficult to choose from the extensiveness of the subject matter represented in his collection.”

The Special Collections team focused on items that highlighted Nassour’s collecting efforts as well as his own significant critical work on the entertainment world. The biggest feature, to Dr. Ford, is the comprehensiveness of materials documenting the entertainment world. The exhibition features historical documents on traveling circuses, signed playbills, theatre and film posters, items from actors and actresses past, to name a few.

“I think students and visitors will get an idea of theatre and film history and its relevance to Mississippi,” said Dr. Ford. “I think what makes this exhibit so unique is that it shows how Mississippians, especially Mr. Nassour, have contributed to entertainment history and the growth of the performing arts.”

Some of those who attended the exhibition’s reveal also went to the staged reading by the University of Mississippi theatre department on Nassour’s biography of Patsy Cline: “Honky Tonk Angel” adapted by both Nassour himself with original lyrics and with original music arranged by George Leonard. Patsy Cline’s own hits as well as songs from Faron Young and Mel Tillis were featured.

The staged reading was a perfect ending to an evening in Ellis Nassour’s life; the whole night was but a short summary of his storied life.

Ellis Nassour with Julia London back in 1960s.
Ellis Nassour with Connie Stevens back in 1960s.

Ellis Nassour’s Legacy 

Nassour grew up in Vicksburg with two life goals: go to University of Mississippi, and work for The New York Times. He marked off both of those goals with ease. He made a contract with The New York Times while still a student at University of Mississippi.

“I was walking out of the Union,” said Nassour, as he kicked back in his seat at the Inn at Ole Miss. “I saw this harried reporter who asked me where the Lyceum was. I said ‘I’ll show you,’ and on the walk there I told him I was a student journalist. The reporter worked for The New York Times. The contact proved valuable several months later.”

There Nassour helped him cover James Meredith’s integration and the infamous riot that weekend. Nassour said the reporter wouldn’t let him near the violence so he hid behind the bushes, covering his mouth from the gas.

That night was the worst Nassour had ever seen happen on campus grounds, but it was one of many memorable nights. Nassour served two years as chair of Associated Student Body’s Social Affairs Committee that brought plays and concerts to University of Mississippi.

Nassour had always been in love with entertainment from his summers at his cousins’ film studio, Nassour Studios, now known as Metromedia Square that once housed Fox Television Center on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. The studio has been replaced by Helen Berstein High School since 2008. Back in its heyday it made over 100 independent films.

At University of Mississippi Nassour used his experience and connections to bring stars to campus: Julie London, Bobby Troupe, Peter Nero, Brother Dave Gardner Connie Stevens, Al Hirt, Johnny Cash and June Carter, to name some. One of his fond memories of hosting such concerts is the night Peter, Paul and Mary insisted on performing for James Meredith.

“The U.S. Marshals were afraid James Meredith would get killed if he went to their concert,” Nassour said. “The band protested, threatening to cancel their show but they couldn’t do so since they signed a contract. But I had an idea. I went to the head marshal and asked if it would be okay to bring the trio to the dorm and have them perform for Jimmy. He agreed and the group performed for Jimmy and the marshals.”

He wasn’t only an entertainer. He contributed several articles to The Daily Mississippian as well as as well as other Mississippi media including the Vicksburg Post. Later, in addition to 12 years at the Times he was an associate editor of the New York Daily News. He’s been a long-time contributor to Playbill, LifeStyles magazine, BroadwayStars.com, TheaterLife.com, and Theatermania.com.

He also coauthored Rock Opera: The Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar. He was the vice president of artist relations for Universal Studios / MCA Music. He has supervised Elton John’s American debut and first U.S. tour as well as helped develop careers of Bill Cosby, The Who, Neil Diamond, Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn who first told him of Patsy Cline.

Dr. Julia Rhodes, dean of libraries, with the plaque she honored Ellis Nassour with for his exhibition.
Dr. Julia Rhodes, dean of libraries, with the plaque she gave to Ellis Nassour at his exhibition.

Perhaps his greatest writing accomplishment was immortalizing the late songstress Patsy Cline in international fame with two biographies: Honky Tonk Angel: the Intimate Story of Patsy Cline. The 1993 collector’s edition hard cover titled Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline is especially successful.

“The book is still available in an 2008 Updated Edition with another large photo section and over 100 new pages, ” said Nassour.

“The book is still selling even today,” said Nassour. “Those who have read the book has told me that as they read it felt like I was sitting in the room with them talking about Patsy Cline.”

The book is a combination of his journalistic and artistic sensibilities. His work on her biography was so thorough that he said the people he interviewed were so impressed that they shared more Patsy Cline memories out of appreciation for his honesty.

Due to his storied life, Nassour is currently working on his autobiography Ellis in Wonderland: the Adventures of a Southern Lad through the Looking Glass and What He Saw.

Callie Daniels is a HottyToddy.com staff reporter and can be reached at callie.daniels@hottytoddy.com.


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