Al Ringling Theatre
When it came time to select an architectural firm to design his theatre, Al. Ringling chose C.W. & George Rapp of Chicago. The two brothers were just getting started in the theatre design field. Indeed, their work on the Al. Ringling Theatre led to commissions for literally hundreds of movie palaces across the country. Their design philosophy certainly must have appealed to Al. Ringling as he considered who might build the theatre he'd thought so much about.
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, the firm designed many of the nation's most lavish picture palaces.
George Rapp's first theatre job was as an assistant to Edmund Krause in the design of the Majestic (now Shubert) Theatre in Chicago. Independently, C. W. and George built a vaudeville house in 1910, the Majestic (now the Five Flags) in Dubuque, Iowa. The Orpheum in Champaign, Illinois, was built just a year before the A1. Ringling Theatre, and is very similar to it in form and appearance, although much less ornate.
The Rapp brothers' first very large work was for the new theatre production team of Balaban & Katz, with their Central Park Theatre of 1917 in Chicago. In The Best Remaining Seats, Ben Hall called the Central Park "the first real movie palace in the Middle West." The last Rapp & Rapp work was the remodeling 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 and Brooklyn; Loew's Jersey in Jersey City, New Jersey; Loew's Penn in Pittsburgh; the Ambassador and the St. Louis in St. Louis; the Palace in Cleveland; the Fox in Washington, D. C.; and the Michigan in Detroit. 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 A1. Ringling's decor and the design of its auditorium, said to have 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 Bourdeaux. The French Baroque manner always remained the primary inspiration for Rapp & Rapp theatres, and if they lacked historical accuracy, in opulence they were seldom matched.
George Rapp himself stated the firm's design philosophy: "Watch the eyes of a child as it enters the portals of our great theatres and treads the pathway into fairyland. Watch the bright light in the eyes of the tired shopgirl who hurries noiselessly over carpets and sighs with satisfaction as she walks amid furnishings that once delighted the hearts of queens. See the toil-worn father whose dreams have never come true, and look inside his heart as he finds strength and rest within the theatre. There you have the answer to why motion picture theatres are so palatial. Here is a shrine to democracy where there are no privileged patrons. The wealthy rub elbows with the poor -- and are better for this contact. Do not wonder, then, at the touches of Italian Renaissance, executed in glazed polychrome terra cotta, or at the lobbies and foyers adorned with replicas of precious masterpieces of another world, or at the imported marble wainscoting or the richly ornamented ceilings with motifs copied from master touches of Germany, France, and Italy, or at the carved niches, the cloistered arcades, the depthless mirrors, and the great sweeping staircases. These are not impractical attempts at showing off. These are part of a celestial city -- cavern of many-colored jewels, where iridescent lights and luxurious fittings heighten the expectations of pleasure. It is richness unabashed, but richness with a reason."