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Baraboo and The Ringlings

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 RinglingAl. 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.

Al Ringling TheatreAfter 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

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.”