C. August Albrecht Ringling was born in Chicago on December 13, 1852, the eldest of seven brothers (there was one sister), the sons of August Frederick Rungeling, an immigrant to the United States. Of the brothers, the founders of the circus included Charles, Otto, Alfred T., and John, as well as Al. As a group, the brothers were to make the family name, earlier simplified by their father to Ringling, synonymous with the American circus.
Al. Ringling was 23-year-old carriage finisher when the August Rungeling family settled in Baraboo in 1875 after brief stays in various towns in Wisconsin and Iowa. In his free time, Al. 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 as a vaudeville-type show in Mazomanie, Wisconsin, on November 27,1882. Two brothers danced, two played instruments, and one sang. Albert was to become a juggler, John a clown. With their first profit of $300, the brothers bought evening suits and top hats.
On May 19, 1884, the Ringling Brothers were able to open their first real, if minimal, circus--traveling by wagon with a rented horse. Records show that by 1886 they had their own donkey and a Shetland pony, their first trick act. In general, 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. By the time they were able to buy out James A. Bailey's show, the year after Bailey's death in 1907, they had under their control the largest circus in America: The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The Ringling Brothers portion of the circus maintained its winter quarters in Baraboo.
By 1912 Al. Ringling was Baraboo's leading citizen, one of the best-known names in Wisconsin, and a national and world traveler, with world renown due to the circus. During his visits to Europe, he was fascinated with the beauty and majesty of the European Opera Houses. Yet Baraboo was home, and it appears from the very beginning that the theatre project was intended as a memorial gift to the city.
Preparation for the new theatre began with the purchase and razing of The Wisconsin House Hotel. Original plans called for a frontage on Fourth Avenue nearly double the present four storefronts, but the buildings to the east could not be purchased. Over two years were consumed by delays and detailed planning with architects C.W. & George Rapp of Chicago. The two brothers were destined to construct hundreds of theatres nationally in the following decade for Balaban & Katz and later for Paramount. The Al. Ringling Theatre was the first major display of their talents. Construction began in March 1915.
Realizing the importance of the theatre construction, and recognizing the deteriorating physical condition of their benefactor, a grateful citizenry organized a day of tribute and testimonial on June 24, 1915. The Baraboo Republic reported that thousands gathered on the courthouse grounds, in view of the construction, to witness the proceedings. Mayor G.T. Theuer and Superintendent A.C. Kingsford made splendid addresses. A memorial of appreciation was signed by hundreds of citizens and presented to Al. Ringling, who was brought in his car that passed slowly through the crowd. Commendations arrived from Governor Emanuel Phillip, a Baraboo native, and the heads of the Wisconsin Senate and Assembly.
After only seven months of construction and at a cost of around $100,000, the magnificent theatre opened on Wednesday, November 17, 1915, hailed at the time as the greatest event in the history of 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. Governor Phillip, from his place of honor in the right hand proscenium box, addressed an audience including all the Ringling brothers (with the exception of John), and hundreds of dignitaries. E.G. Olson played the Wurlitzer organ and the opening feature starred Florence Webber in the comic opera "Lady Luxury," on tour from New York. Al Ringling, now nearly blind, was helped in understanding the program with whispered descriptions from his wife Lou.
An item from the Baraboo Daily News of he following day typifies the priase that accompained the openin of the Theatre:
"It must be a source of gratification to Al. Ringling to know that his efforts in providing a playhouse in Baraboo is so much appreciated by his fellow townspeople. Every seat in the house was sold in four hours and hundreds were disappointed in not being able to be present at the first performance in order to show their appreciation to the one who made possible this fine building. Not only was the public demonstration in the park last summer a sincere mark of esteem but all along his thoughtfulness has been mentioned far and wide in the most kindly manner. The erection of the building means pleasure for many thousands in Baraboo and the territory round about while the owner has felt a zest in the successful realization of his desire. Ever since the destruction by fire of the old opera house a number of years ago, there has been no adequate stage where actors could play well their parts, but now Baraboo has a place, the beauty of which few cities the size of Baraboo can boast. For the theatregoing public, for the stage folk and for Mr. Ringling, the erection of the playhouse is more than a pleasing pleasure. It is a beautiful memorial to the days when Mr. Ringling as a boy in Baraboo enjoyed giving pleasure to others. He can feel today that the opening of his opera house marks a new era of enjoyment for him and his fellow townspeople."
The first movie was shown on November 22, 1915. But sadly, less than seven weeks after the theatre opened, Al. Ringling passed away just after noon on New Year's Day, 1916. The entire city of Baraboo went into mourning. Services at the German Lutheran Church were in both German and English.
After Al. Ringling's death, his widow was uninterested in owning the theatre, so it passed into the control of the four surviving brothers. They offered it in 1917 to the Town of Baraboo for use as a municipal theatre. Legal difficulties surrounding restrictions in the offer led to some local opposition to the gift, and it was withdrawn the following year. As the brothers died, their interests passed to their heirs, eventually to be consolidated under the control of Henry Ringling, Jr. He operated the theatre until his death in 1952, at which time the theatre was sold out of the family's hands. Notable owners include Mr. and Mrs. Leon Mudd of Milwaukee, who supervised several restoration projects in the 1970s.
A new chapter in the history of the theatre began in 1989, when ownership was transferred to the community-based organization known as Al. Ringling Theatre Friends, Inc. The change holds great promise for the rejuvenation and preservation of the Theatre. Membership in the organization is open to all and gifts toward restoration are tax deductible. An enthusiastic Board of Directors is actively working to once again bring quality, professional entertainment to the area, and to fully restore this important and historic landmark. Much restoration remains to be done, but fortunately few major "renovations" in the past have marred the beauty and quality of the structure.
The Al. Ringling Theatre was built with the intention of providing Baraboo with a multi-purpose entertainment facility. In the early years Baraboo was fortunate in being able to host touring companies of major Broadway productions which would pause at Baraboo en route to Minneapolis from either Chicago or Milwaukee. During its first fourteen years, the Al. Ringling hosted 109 touring shows on its stage. Prices ranged from 50 cents to $1.50. Actors and scenery came by rail freight carts and Pullman cars, and theatre tickets could be purchased at rail stations up to 50 miles away. The seven daily trains passing through Baraboo provided access to the theatre for its patrons. Notable performers who have graced the Al. Ringling stage include Lionel Barrymore in "The Claw" in 1922, Fiske O'Hara, and May Robson. Plays included Miss Lulu Bett by Zona Gale of Portage, Hamlet, The Mikado, George White Scandals, Showboat, and HMS Pinafore.
Baraboo and "The Al." have also been blessed with the active Baraboo Theatre Guild. Since 1947, nearly 2,000 cast members have appeared in over 70 shows at the Al. Ringling, and it continues to host major productions each season.
In addition to live performances, motion pictures were planned as a part of the program at the Al. Ringling Theatre, with silent motion picture equipment installed above the back of the auditorium. As reported in the local papers:
The Al. Ringling Theatre will open with photoplays next Monday evening, November 22. Paramount Features will appear on Tuesday and Thursday, and Universal pictures will be shown on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.
Prices for the coming week will be as follows: On Paramount nights 10 cents for children 12 years of age and under and 20 cents for adults for main floor seats. Other nights and Saturday matinee the prices will be 5 cents for children 12 years of age and under and 10 cents for adults for main floor seats. No box seats will be sold for moving picture shows.
Professor E.G. Olson of Chicago will introduce some fine selections and overtures on the celebrated Hope-Jones pipe organ at every exhibition of photoplays.
Today, films continue to provide the bulk of the Theatre's programming. The annual Lively Arts Series brings a roster of nationally recognized talent to Baraboo and theater, music, and dance programs from local community, university, and high school groups also grace the Al. Ringling stage. Al. Ringling's gift to Baraboo is in the hands of its interested citizens, and the future is bright. All of Baraboo can be proud of this magnificent theatre, of a quality unknown in towns this size or much larger across the country. It is a gift Baraboo shares with Sauk County and the surrounding areas.
Appreciation Day Addresses -- June 24, 1915
On June 24, 1915, while the Opera House that was to bear his name was under construction, an Appreciation Day was held for Al. Ringling, Baraboo's foremost citizen. According to reports of the time, thousands gathered to express their appreciation for everything Al. Ringling had done for his hometown.
Mayor G.T. Thuerer acted as Master of Ceremonies and said in part, "We have assembled on this day to acknowledge our deep sense of gratitude to a man who, by his great generosity and public interest, has endeared himself to the people not only of Baraboo but the entire surrounding neighborhood. In the construction of an opera house Mr. Ringling is supplying a long felt want and that he should build the same of such magnificent proportions, is the strongest evidence of his unselfish nature. Any community is, indeed, fortunate to be able to claim such a man as one of its citizens and the many people gathered here today signifies the high regard in which our benefactor is held."
Professor A.C. Kingsford of the city schools was the speaker of the day. His remarks express the high regard, respect and love the community had for this kind and gentle man who had done so much for the town he grew up in and called home.
"We are glad that this gift should take the form that it does. There is something eminently fitting and proper in the fact that he who, with his brothers, has given more pleasure to more people than anyone else since the beginning of time, should leave to his own townspeople as a lasting memorial not a hospital, or a library or institution of learning, but a palace of pleasure, where we, his neighbors and friends, during all the years that are left to us may, during our leisure hours, indulge ourselves in wholesome and invigorating pleasure. He recognizes, and we agree with him, that pleasure is as necessary to a rational and complete life as work. He has made the giving of pleasure a fun art. He has made that art the work and study of a life. We may well believe that this last project of his declining years was very near his heart. It has been indeed a labor of love. We can conceive how lovingly and with what infinite care he lingered over each detail. We can imagine how he pondered over each feature and dwelt upon each particular. He has summoned to his aid builders, architects, and specialists, yet the structure as we see it and as we will come to know it, is in all essentials the product of his own mind, the child of his affections. We recognize in it not only a beautiful theatre, one that would adorn any city in the land, but we see in it one that is peculiarly suited to his town and to our needs. It was designed and built for Baraboo. It represents the dreams of many years. Upon it he has lavished not only the hard earned wealth but much anxious thought and care. It has already been built and rebuilt in his fond imagination.
"For this gift, magnificent in its conception, beautiful in its symmetry, complete in all its details, for the citizens of Baraboo, having withdrawn ourselves from our usual occupations, have assembled here to express to Mr. Al. Ringling in a selective way our sincerest thanks. We are proud to call him fellow citizen and we love to think of him as a friend.
"We assure him that although his name has been blazoned to all the world and is known to countless multitudes from the rocky shores of Maine to the fruited valleys of California, although that name is a household word to millions from the Everglades of Florida to the pine crested mountains of Washington, he is loved nowhere so much as here. We love him, not for what he has, not for what he has done, but for what he is.
"Play well your part, there all the honor lies.
"Let us tell him that we thank him, not alone for what he has given us, not so much for what he has done, but for what he is. Let him be for the boys of the present an example of what a Baraboo boy, unaided, unguided, by the exercise of indomitable energy, unswerving rectitude and invincible perseverance may achieve. Let them believe what a Baraboo boy has done . . . in one field of human endeavor another Baraboo boy by the exercise of the same qualities may do in another. Above all, let them remember he succeeded because he made his life's work, a work, not a mere money grabbing game."