Al. Ringling Theatre, Baraboo Wisconsin

Date added: October 26, 2009 Categories:
General view from the south

Albert C. Ringling (1852-1916) was one of seven brothers, sons of August Frederick Ringeling, an immigrant to the United States. Of the brothers, August G. (1854-907) and Henry (1869-1918) never had much to do with the circus business, but the others, Charles (1863-1926), Otto (1858-1911), Alfred T. (1861-1919), and John, as well as Albert were to make their name, simplified to Ringling, synonymous with the American circus. The elder Ringeling, a harness maker, moved with his family to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, some time in the 1860s. In 1873 Albert left home, moving to Brodhead to work in the Carriage and Wagon Factory and Blacksmith Shop of Antone Durner and Sebastian Laube. In his free time, Albert practiced circus acts and organized the local children into a little performing troupe. The first actual Ringling performance, where all five show-minded brothers took part, was presented in Manzomanie, Wisconsin, on November 27, 1882 Two brothers danced, two played instruments, and one sang. Albert became a juggler, John a clown. With their first profit of $300 they bought evening suits and top hats.

On May 19, 1884, the Rlngling Brothers were able to open their first real, if minimal, circus-traveling by wagon, and exhibiting the horse, a trained one, and a dancing "bear. The start of their progress was slow. They had taken on veteran showman "Yankee" Robinson as partner, but Robinson died before the end of their first season. Four years went by before they obtained their first elephant. But their fortunes improved continually, and in 1890 their acts had to have railway cars for transportation. By 1900, Ringling Brothers had one of the largest shows on the road, and began absorbing other circuses, starting with that of John Robinson. They also acquired a half-interest in the Forepaugh-Sells show, and two years later they had it all. By the time they were able to buy out James A. Bailey's show, after Bailey's death in 1907, they had under their control the largest circus in America-the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, with its winter quarters in Baraboo.

In 1915 Al. Ringling built the Al. Ringling Theatre for the sum of $100,000, intending to leave it as a gift to Baraboo. If it was an extravagant theatre for a town of that size, its character as a memorial was clear and recognized even as it was being built. Ringling was never really to see a show there. He was so nearly blind by opening night, his wife later recalled, that she had to describe to him the acts taking place on stage with the inaugural show. Less than a month and a half after opening night, Al. Ringling was dead. In 1918, Ringling winter quarters was moved to the old P. T. Barnum property in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and later to Sarasota, Florida. Today only their old winter quarters, now partially used as a museum; Al. Ringling's mansion, now the Elks Lodge headquarters; and the Al. Ringling Theatre, remain as living memorials to the most distinguished citizens of Baraboo.

After Al. Ringling's death, his widow was uninterested in owning the theatre, and so it passed into the control of the four surviving brothers. They offered it to the town of Baraboo for a municipal theatre, but the town council turned down the gift. As the brothers died, their interests passed to their heirs, to be eventually consolidated under the control of Henry Ringling, Jr., who operated the theatre until his death. At that time it was sold to a theatrical chain which later divested itself of its holdings by selling the building to their managers; in the case of the Al. Ringling, the manager was Ervin J. Clumb.

The Architects Rapp & Rapp designed the theatre. The firm of C. W. Rapp (d. 1926) and George L. Rapp (1878-1949) was one of the largest in the country. Specializing in theatre architecture, this firm designed many of the nation's most lavish motion picture palaces.

George Rapp's first theatre job was as assistant to Edmund Krause in the design of the Majestic Theatre in Chicago. The Rapp brothers' first very large work was that for the new theatre production team of Balahan & Katz, with their Central Park Theatre in Chicago in 19I7. Hall called this "the first real movie palace in the Middle West." The last Rapp & Rapp work was the rebuilding of the Fisher Theatre in Detroit in the 1950s. In between there were many major works, among them the Tivoli, Riviera, Uptown, Chicago, Palace, and Oriental in Chicago; the Paramount in Manhattan; Loew's Jersey in Jersey City, New Jersey; Loew's Penn in Pittsburgh; the Ambassador and the St. Louis in St. Louis, Missouri; the Palace in Cleveland, Ohio; the Fox in Washington, D. C; and the Michigan in Detroit. Built about the same time as the Al. Ringling, and very similar to it in interior appearance, was the Orpheum in Champaign, Illinois. In addition to the theatres, Rapp & Rapp designed a number of major hotels and office buildings, and the simple shell for the unique Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.

The Al. Ringling's decor and the design of its auditorium, said to have been derived from Jacques-Ange Gabriel's Opera of 1763-1770 in the Palace of Versailles, appear to be at least equally derived from the Grand Theatre of 1777-1780 by Victor Louis at Bordeaux. A more usual inspiration for Rapp & Rapp theatres was the Italian Baroque manner, and if they lacked historical accuracy, in opulence they were seldom matched.

The theatre remains in operation today, its website can be found here.