C. August Albrecht Ringling (Al.) was born December 13, 1852, the eldest of seven brothers and one sister. Their father, August Rungeling, was an immigrant to the United States. Of the brothers, the founders of the circus included Al., Charles, Otto, Alfred T., and John. As a group, the brothers made the family name synonymous with the American circus.
Al. was a 23-year-old carriage finisher when the Rungeling (later simplified to Ringling) family settled in Baraboo, Wisconsin in 1875. In his free time, he practiced circus acts and organized local children in small performing troupes. The first Ringling performance, where all five founding brothers took part, was a vaudeville-type show in Mazomanie in 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.
In 1884, the Ringling Brothers opened their first circus – traveling by wagon with a rented horse. By 1900, Ringling Brothers had one of the largest shows on the road, and began absorbing other circuses. When they bought James Bailey’s show, the brothers controlled the largest circus in America: The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Al. Ringling was Baraboo’s leading citizen, one of the best-known names in Wisconsin, and a traveler with world renown because of his circus. During visits to Europe, he was fascinated with the beauty and majesty of the European opera houses. Yet Baraboo was home. It appeared from the very beginning that Al.’s theatre project was intended as a memorial gift to his hometown.
He selected architects C.W. & George Rapp of Chicago. The brothers went on to construct hundreds of theatres nationally for Balaban & Katz, and Paramount. But the Al. Ringling Theatre was the first major display of their talents. Construction began in March 1915.
Noting the deteriorating physical condition of their benefactor, a grateful citizenry organized a day of tribute on June 24, 1915. The Baraboo Republic reported that thousands gathered on the courthouse grounds, in view of the construction, to witness the proceedings. Hundreds signed a memorial that was presented to Al., who was brought in his car that passed slowly through the crowd. Commendations arrived from Governor Emanuel Phillip, and the heads of the Wisconsin Senate and Assembly.
After only seven months of construction and a cost of $100,000, the magnificent Al. Ringling Theatre opened on Wednesday, November 17, 1915. It was hailed at the time as the greatest event in the history of Baraboo. In attendance were all the Ringling brothers (except John) and hundreds of dignitaries. The opening show was a comic opera, “Lady Luxury,” on tour from New York. Al. was nearly blind, but was helped in understanding the program with whispered descriptions from his wife Lou. Just seven weeks later, Al. passed away on New Year’s Day, 1916. The entire city of Baraboo went into mourning. After his death, the theatre passed into the control of the four surviving brothers. Henry Ringling, Jr. operated the theatre until his death in 1952, when it was sold out of the family’s hands.
During its first fourteen years, the Al. Ringling hosted over 100 shows on its stage, with prices ranging from 50 cents to $1.50. Actors and scenery came by rail freight and Pullman cars. Theatre tickets could be purchased at rail stations up to 50 miles away. Seven daily trains passed through Baraboo providing easy access for theatre patrons. Notable performers who graced the stage during that time included Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore in “The Claw” in 1922, Fiske O’Hara, and May Robson.
In 1989, the community-based organization, Al. Ringling Theatre Friends, Inc. helped save the theatre from being made into a multiplex cinema house. Today, the Al. continues to bring a roster of nationally recognized talent to Baraboo. Theatre, music, and dance programs from community, university, and high school groups also grace the Al. Ringling stage. In June of 2015, ART Friends embarked on a $3 million restoration of the theatre. Schedule a tour to see the amazing results today!
Appreciation Day Addresses — June 24, 1915