When the curtain rises next week at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center for “Oklahoma!,” audience members from around the state will sing along to the toe-tapping tunes with pride.
But most theatergoers probably won’t realize that a portion of the ticket proceeds will benefit the scientists at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation — just as they have with every performance of the Tony Award-winning show for more than four decades. And it’s all thanks to William Edgar Riggs of Claremore, Oklahoma.
“Of all the estate gifts I’ve come across, this one is the most unusual,” said OMRF Vice President of Development Penny Voss.
In 1930, Riggs’ brother Lynn wrote “Green Grow the Lilacs,” the play Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II used as the basis for the musical “Oklahoma!” For providing the inspiration, Lynn Riggs received a 1% royalty from all future performances of the musical.
When Riggs died, the royalty was divided evenly among William Edgar Riggs and his three other siblings. William Edgar Riggs lost his wife to heart disease and his daughter to cancer. When he passed away in 1974, he left his royalty share to OMRF to benefit research in those areas.
“This forward-looking, generous gift is at the heart of who Oklahomans are,” said OMRF President Andrew Weyrich, Ph.D. “It’s a prime example of the statewide, grassroots support that has sustained OMRF since its founding 75 years ago.”
With the gift, OMRF receives one-quarter of 1% of the musical’s box office share each year. The original production of “Oklahoma!” was performed on Broadway more than 2,000 times over five years. Since then, it has enjoyed film adaptations, several revivals on Broadway and the West End, countless local productions and multiple national tours, including the four-show run June 17-19 in Tulsa and an earlier stop this year in Oklahoma City.
In all, Riggs’ gift has provided more than $750,000 for medical research. For scientists at OMRF, the support sure smells sweet.
“Every dollar given to OMRF goes directly to life-changing research,” said Voss. “There’s nothing in our files to indicate exactly why Mr. Riggs chose us for this perpetual gift, but we’re honored and thankful he did.”