As modest as she was generous, Ruth Allison Lilly—wife of pharmaceutical magnate Eli Lilly, grandson of the founder of Eli Lilly and Company—probably would be both chagrined and delighted to know The Children’s Museum named its theater in her honor. A stalwart supporter of the museum from its earliest years, as well as a supporter of all things cultural and educational, Ruth died before the museum opened its new facility—which included the theater—in 1976.
The decision to commemorate all she had done for the museum through the years—including donating $1 million to the building campaign shortly before her death—lay with her husband. Though Lilly family members traditionally refused to attach their names to the causes they supported, Eli consented to the museum’s request to make an exception.
The Ruth Allison Lilly Theater formally opened on the evening of Sept. 29, 1976, with a performance by renowned opera baritone Robert Merrill who sang selections from Handel, Porgy & Bess, and Fiddler on the Roof. The culmination of a glamorous gala for the museum’s most generous donors, it was the first of thousands of performances to come.
Over the years the 350-seat theater, which is located on the museum’s Lower Level, has hosted plays, puppetry, musicals, dance performances, concerts, awards programs, and talks by well-known authors, artists, and scientists. It has been the site of corporate retreats, cultural conclaves, and neighborhood meetings. People well-known and unknown have stood in its wings, strode upon its stage, and shared its spotlight for purposes ranging from entertainment and education to cultural awareness and community planning.
There are bigger theaters in Indianapolis, but none more receptive to such a wide range of uses. For someone as civic-minded as Mrs. Lilly, that’s a fitting tribute indeed.