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Al Ringling Theatre

Profile of the Mighty Barton Organ!

The original organ installed in the Al. Ringling Theatre was a Style 1, Opus 9202 Hope Jones unit. Manufactured by the Wurlitzer Co., the instrument was purchased from their San Francisco showrooms and shipped to Baraboo in September 1915. The six tons of wooden and metal organ pipes, as well as the percussion and sound effects instruments, had to be hauled up by block and tackle to the pipe chamber located three stories above the stage. This unusual placement was Al. Ringling's idea. Making use of the elliptical auditorium's natural acoustics, it created the impression that the music was coming from the dome of the theatre in all directions.

The organ console was located in the center of the orchestra pit. At Mr. Ringling's insistence, a roll-playing device was attached to the instrument so that the organ could be played mechanically if a suitable organist could not be found.

The instrument was employed to accompany silent film presentations, to give concerts, and to provide musical prologues for live performances. Occasionally, it was used to augment the pit orchestras of traveling shows that appeared at the Al. Ringling Theatre.

Built in the fourth or fifth year in which Wurlitzer produced theatre organs, the original instrument was a marvel to audiences of the day, able to produce a wide variety of sounds and tonal colors. However, by 1928 its capabilities and technology were outdated in comparison to the newer, more sophisticated instruments being produced. Rather than update and augment the existing organ, it was decided to replace it with one manufactured by the Barton Co. of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The Hope Jones unit, minus the percussion and sound effects, was sold to the Baraboo Evangelical Church, where it served that congregation for 40 years.

Golden-voiced Barton organs, famous for their tonal beauty, had been installed in many leading theatres across the country. In fact, the largest theatre organ ever constructed, located in the Chicago Stadium, was built by the Barton Company.

The Barton organ company was the fifth leading theatre organ builder in America. Company founder Dan Barton was a musician and had toured with chautauquas, dance bands, carnivals, dog and pony shows, Uncle Tom's Cabin shows, and, in 1909, with the Ringling Brothers Circus. In fact, the organ console style used in the Al. Ringling Theatre, and many other installations, is referred to as the "circus wagon,'' because of its lavish use of carvings and the red and gold coloring. The "Mighty Barton" features 597 pipes, plus drums, bells, wood blocks, bird calls and thunder.

Shortly after the nine rank organ was installed, talking pictures made their debut at the Al. Ringling. In 1929, sound equipment was permanently added to the theatre. Soon afterward the Great Depression put an end to the economic practicality of the professional stage shows. The new Barton continued to give Sunday concerts, however, and to provide musical prologues to the movie showings. This curtailed usage continued for the most part until the mid-1940s when the instrument was retired and used only for special occasions. The Barton returned to active duty for a short time in the early 1950s in an attempt to give the theatre an edge in its fight against the new entertainment form--television.

The organ gradually fell into disrepair so that by the late 1960s it was barely usable. One-third of the pipes were unable to speak, notes were constantly getting stuck, and with the swell shutters jammed, it could only reach half of its normal volume capacity. However, in the early 70s, a group of dedicated volunteers began restoring the instrument to its original glory. They emptied dust from the pipes, patched and replaced the miles and miles of wiring, and cleaned off the grime from 30 years of coal heat.

The organ is now in excellent playing condition and, through the efforts of dedicated volunteers, will continue to delight Al. Ringling audiences for generations to come.