The Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation has seeded a permanent endowment for Next Step Prep, the high-school theater arts academy, with a $100,000 gift.

The gift came as an unexpected surprise Saturday night at an auction for the Missoula Children's Theatre and a celebration of its

40th anniversary.

MCT founder and CEO Jim Caron was briefly left speechless that night as he was about to address the crowd gathered at the MCT Center for the Performing Arts.

"So I started making a speech, and all of a sudden I realize there's a movie playing above my left shoulder," said Caron, who is on the cusp of retirement and has made Next Step Prep his principal focus for the last three years.

The movie showed Phyllis Washington thanking Caron and MCT for bringing the love of theater to children all over the world for 40 years.

"For 40 years, Jim made it possible for young people all over the world to experience performing arts from the inside, and to learn about theater and themselves by being part of the production," she said. "Jim has been a special friend to our family and we are very pleased to honor him and to help his legacy continue for generations to come."

Next Step Prep is a summer theater arts academy that gives talented high-school singers, actors, dancers and musicians intensive training with top names on and off Broadway. This summer's academy will be its fourth. Caron and MCT continue to pursue the idea of founding a performing arts high school.

The $100,000 endowment will be used to help families with tuition at Next Step Prep, said Caron, because "we don't want to limit it to kids from wealthy families.

"What it does is it guarantees us this project will not become an elitist kind of thing, that the kid from Main Street will be able to come here."

MCT now hopes other businesses and institutions feed the endowment, so its dividends can bring more students to the academy.

Caron said the Washingtons are again showing their love of their community and its people.

"They have such deep roots here and are such good people, and really set an example by how much they give," he said.

The auction Saturday night brought in an additional $80,000.

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at

523-5254 or at


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