Al. Ringling Theatre- Centennial Tale

Created by: Paul Wolter 

2015 marked the centennial of the Al. Ringling Theatre. A series of fourteen articles was written by Paul Wolter to document how the theatre came about and the details of its construction. Those articles have been combined into this document. Images from the Sauk County Historical Society unless otherwise noted.


Chapter 1 – Before the “Al.” There Was the “Grande”

The Al. Ringling Theatre might never have been built in 1915 had it not been for a fire which occurred ten years earlier in February of 1905. The victim of the fire was the Grande Opera House which sat on the northwest corner of Fifth and Oak Streets where the building that houses the Coffee Bean Connection now stands. Despite its name, the Grande was not a particularly grand building but was none-the-less Baraboo’s largest assembly space, reportedly being able to hold up to 1,000 people. The building might have been more ornate had it actually been built as a theatre, but it was originally built in 1884 as a roller skating rink. The 1880s was the first of several boom periods for the activity and Baraboo was not left out when a Mr. John Hull and a Mr. Watson invested $5,000 in the construction of the building which was somewhat of an engineering marvel of its day. The wood building was 120 by 60 feet fronting on Oak Street with the main hall being most of the building at a commodious 100 by 60 feet. The main feature of the building was that the roof was supported by curved trusses eliminating the need for interior posts which would interfere with the “healthful exercise of skating” and with sight lines when the building would be used for assemblies.

The skating rink opened in late March of 1884 with 150 pairs of skaters taking to the hard maple floor and with at least as many spectators lining the walls and taking in the music of the Baraboo Brass Band. As Baraboo’s largest hall the building was soon used for other events. A masquerade ball was given less than a month later and other performances were held but the building did not have a formal stage. A more legitimate performance space, albeit much smaller, was built the same year in the second floor of a new brick building at 518 Oak Street. Thompson Warren, who was busy that year enlarging and transforming the old Sumner House hotel on the square into the Warren Hotel, constructed the Oak Street building to house a pool hall on the first floor and an opera house on the second floor complete with scenery from Chicago.

The roller skating craze in Baraboo slowed down after a few years. In an ironic twist of fate the roller skating rink was purchased by George Capener in 1887 who converted it into a proper opera house while Warren’s second floor opera hall was eventually converted into a roller skating rink due to its small stage and seating capacity. Capener was a local architect and builder and remodeled the roller rink by adding a 30 foot deep stage across the west end of the building. Scenery was ordered from Chicago and the floor was lowered in front of the stage to improve sight lines. More than 700 seats were permanently added to the new opera house which officially opened in September of 1887 with a performance by the Alvin Joslin Comedy Company. Theatre goers were delighted by the performance and the elaborate scenery. One scene portraying Pier 29 in New York City with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background elicited loud applause but the paper reported that the railroad and bus scenes had to be omitted because the stage was too small. Despite its limitations Capener’s Opera House, later dubbed the Grande, fulfilled the need for all types of entertainment and public assemblies. In 1897 the opera house advertised a demonstration of Thomas Edison’s Projectoscope which would display moving pictures of cars, burning buildings, ships going down at sea, “and other startling scenes, as real as life.” This may have been the first moving picture exhibition in Baraboo. In later years the Grande Opera House hosted such notables as William Jennings Bryan, John Philip Sousa and Robert M. LaFollette. For nearly twenty years the opera house met the need for a large auditorium space in Baraboo, but this ended on February 22, 1905 when the building burned to the ground. A nearby resident is reported to have heard an explosion after which the building was quickly engulfed in flames. The fire was so intense that several nearby homes were scorched and at one point one of the fire hoses caught on fire and burned through allowing water to fly in all directions. The paper noted that since the old opera house was now out of the way a fine new opera house could be built in keeping with the new post office and court house which were under construction. It would be ten years however before Baraboo had a new space that could hold as many people as the Grande. Al. Ringling would eventually build it but in February of 1905 he was busy planning his own mansion which would require his attention for the next two years.

The 1886 Birdseye map of Baraboo shows the Grande Opera House at the upper right at the northwest corner of Fifth and Oak. No picture has been discovered of the building which served as Baraboo’s largest meeting space for over 20 years. The Baraboo square is shown at left surrounding the old brick courthouse which burned down in December of 1904 just a few months before the opera house.

 
   

The 1886 Birdseye map of Baraboo shows the Grande Opera House at the upper right at the northwest corner of Fifth and Oak. No picture has been discovered of the building which served as Baraboo’s largest meeting space for over 20 years. The Baraboo square is shown at left surrounding the old brick courthouse which burned down in December of 1904 just a few months before the opera house.


Chapter 2 – Wanted: A New Opera House – Ringlings to the Rescue

With the destruction of the Grande Opera House by fire in 1905, Baraboo was left without any place for large gatherings or performances. The loss of the homely structure was not entirely mourned as it was the hope of many that a new opera house would soon be built – a much grander one, consistent with the quality of the new civic buildings that had recently been built in Baraboo. These included the elegant new depot and railroad offices (1902), the Carnegie Free Library (1903) and the new post office and court house which were both under construction in 1905. By the end of the year, a plan was implemented to convert the old Catholic church into an opera house. The first show was given in the remodeled building almost a year after the fire. The-church-turned-opera-house was seen only as a stop gap measure and the desire for a new opera house lead to several schemes in succeeding years to raise the money necessary to build a respectable building. Early plans asked people to donate to the cause, an idea which never resulted in enough money for an investor to take on the rest of the risk. The most serious scheme came in 1911 when former Baraboo boy John H. Kartack offered to build a $30,000 opera house if local investment would amount to $15,000. Subscribers were offered a return on investment of 5 percent per annum but the enticement was not enough and the plan fell apart in the summer of 1911.

Finally in March of 1912 Baraboo was abuzz with the news that Mr. and Mrs. Al. Ringling had completed the purchase of the old Wisconsin House on the north side of the square and would build a lavish new opera house on the site. All three Baraboo newspapers reported specific details about the proposed building assuring people that this time the opera house was for real. It was also reported that the Isenberg Bros. construction firm had been engaged to begin tearing down the pioneer-era Wisconsin House hotel immediately.

The old hotel was a storied landmark with two distinct parts. The east portion of the building was built of brick in 1850 with a western addition built of wood years later. The original portion was reportedly the first brick building in Baraboo and was sometimes known as the Little Dutch Tavern. Most notably it was the site of the opening round of Baraboo’s infamous Whiskey War of 1854. The “war” was conducted by a group of about 50 women who had been bolstered in their temperance-

minded beliefs by at least two of Baraboo’s clergymen. The group had long wished that Baraboo would go dry and according to one history book the final straw occurred when one of the village’s habitual drunks and domestic abusers drank himself to death. Apparently an abusive husband and father was better than none at all in the days before social safety nets. To remedy the situation the group of women assembled on a May morning and marched to the Wisconsin House determined to rid Baraboo of its demon liquor. After the group gained entrance they carried out all of the kegs, barrels, and bottles of liquor and emptied them in the street with their hatchets. After succeeding at another establishment, the affair turned more violent when “French Pete”, the owner of the third stop, barred the door.

Accounts vary but a gun appeared and was fired at least once. At least one poor soul on the defensive side of things last his pants in the scuffle. After the sheriff finally arrived and literally read the riot act the crowd eventually dispersed.

By 1912 the Whiskey War was an amusing anecdote from Baraboo’s pioneer past and the story and many others were undoubtedly recalled when the old tavern and hotel was pulled down. As the site was cleared Baraboo looked forward to a grand new opera house. The April 25 edition of the Baraboo Republic reported that the blue prints for the new opera house had arrived by express but also broke the bad news that Al. Ringling did not expect to start construction that year. No reason was given but rumors had been circulating in town that Mr. and Mrs. Al. Ringling were moving to Chicago. The blinds had been closed at the Ringling’s palatial house for some time and the household things had been packed up and made ready to move. The same week another newspaper article happily reported though that the Ringlings would remain in Baraboo and things at the mansion were being unpacked. Even so, the opera house would not be built in 1912, 1913 or even 1914. The intriguing newspaper articles from 1912 only hint at the turmoil in the Ringlings’ private lives. Marital problems plus an ongoing feud with the State of Wisconsin over income taxes would delay the construction of the opera house but what Baraboo was eventually rewarded with would more than make up for the wait.

 
   

Speculation about whether or not Baraboo would ever have a new opera house was put to rest in 1912 when Al. Ringling purchased the pioneer-era Wisconsin House on the north side of the square and had it demolished. During Baraboo’s infamous Whiskey War the old hotel was the first tavern to be emptied of its liquor by a group of women in 1854. Baraboo would have to wait another three years however before Al. Ringling finally got around to building his new opera house – the wait was rewarded by an even more elegant design than the one forecasted in 1912.


Chapter 3 – Taxes and Personal Problems Delay Theatre Construction

Speculation over whether Baraboo would ever have a new opera house ended in 1912 with the announcement that Mr. and Mrs. Al. Ringling would build a lavish new theatre for the city. All three of Baraboo’s newspapers reported that this would be a joint project by the couple. The Baraboo Republic stated, “One of the good features is that the building will be the property of Mr. and Mrs. Al. Ringling as

they say, “equal partnership”. Mr. and Mrs. Ringling have planned many features of the great shows and it is safe to say they are competent to plan this opera house.” Over the next three years while the theatre construction was delayed due to financial and personal issues, the project would come to be seen as strictly Al. Ringling’s alone.

The financial issue began in 1911 when the State of Wisconsin enacted an income tax which amounted to 6% of annual incomes over $12,000. The Ringling brothers balked at the new tax for several reasons but their loudest argument against it was the fact that most of their income was made outside of the state. No doubt Al. did not want to over extend himself should he be required to pay state income tax and thus an expense such as a new theatre would have to wait. As the Ringling brothers threatened to move their circus operations out of Wisconsin altogether, appeals to the legislature to be exempted from the tax moved slowly through the capitol’s halls. In February of 1913, almost a year after the theatre was announced, the architect for the project wrote Al. Ringling asking him if he would be ready to proceed in a few weeks. Al. responded that the legislature was in session and that a decision would be made soon regarding the tax exemption. Although the tax issue was resolved favorably in April of 1913 and the Ringling brothers were granted an exemption, construction of the theatre still did not go forward however due to the trouble in Al.’s personal life.

While little is known about Al. and Lou Ringling’s private lives, by the spring of 1914 their marriage was in serious trouble and almost ended when Al. filed for divorce. The reason for the action is not known today due to the loss of certain court documents, but the private married life of Al. and Lou Ringling is one that is full of mystery from the beginning. Lou was born as Eliza Morris about 1851 in Pennsylvania, but moved to Iowa as an infant and eventually to McGregor, Iowa at age 12 where her father John Morris bought and operated a hotel. The nomadic Ringling family also lived in McGregor during this time and it is likely that Al. Ringling and Eliza Morris knew each other as children. In 1867 using the name Louisa, Eliza Morris eloped and married Jefferson Redding across the river in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. The young couple is listed in the 1870 census living and working in the hotel of John Morris. Eliza’s life after this remains a mystery. She may have had up to three children with Jefferson Redding none of which seem to have survived. Her marriage to Redding also did not survive although it is unclear whether the couple divorced or if Redding died. Ultimately she did marry Al. Ringling but the exact date and place are open to interpretation. It is believed that the couple was married in December 1883 but no official documentation has yet been found. Seven years later in November 1890 Al. and Lou Ringling made a trip to Hoboken, New Jersey and were married again as Theodore Albert Runglung and Annie Eliza Morris. The reason for such action, far from the inquiring minds of Baraboo, can only be speculative but most likely something arose which called into question the validity of their earlier marriage. The November 1890 marriage date is cited in the 1914 divorce proceedings. Fortunately Al. and Lou did patch things up and the couple did not divorce. In August of 1914 Al. Ringling gave his wife

$100,000 to smooth things over, a sum equal to what it would take to build the new theatre the following year. Construction did begin in March 1915 and by this time one issue in Al.’s life would actually hasten rather than delay the theatre. By 1915 Al. Ringling was dying and as the year wore on it was unclear whether he would live long enough to see his legacy gift completed.

 
   

Little is known about the married relationship of Al. and Lou Ringling. In the spring of 1914 Al. Ringling filed for divorce but later that year patched things up by giving his wife $100,000, an amount equal to what it would take to build the theatre. Al.’s tax issues and marital troubles delayed the construction of the theatre for three years.


Chapter 4 – The 1912 Theatre Design

If the Al. Ringling Theatre had been constructed in 1912 it would have been a much different building than the theatre that was ultimately built three years later. At the time the theatre project was announced in 1912, all three Baraboo newspapers described a substantially different building than the one that was actually built. The newspapers all gave some of the same details regarding the proposed theatre suggesting that there was a press release issued to all three of them. The Baraboo Republic was the most descriptive telling its readers that the new theatre would have a footprint of 78 x 132 feet and be three stories high. There would be a center lobby of 24 x26 feet with a store front on either side.

Above this would be a row of offices. Numerous exits were detailed coming from the main floor and the balcony. The stage would have a proscenium opening of 32 x 20 feet and a depth of 36 feet. Two star dressing rooms would open off of the stage and 8 more dressing rooms would be underneath it. The seating capacity would be 1,200 and the interior would most likely be finished off in the Louis XIV style. While none of the newspapers noted who the architect for the 1912 design was it can be said with some certainty that it was the Chicago firm of Rapp & Rapp, consisting of brothers George L. and Cornelius W. Rapp, who later provided the design for the theatre that was built in 1915. Several weeks after the 1912 newspapers announced the details of the theatre it was reported that the blueprints had arrived by express but that Al. Ringling did not expect to build that season. Several months later in early 1913 Ringling received a letter from George L. Rapp asking him if he would be ready to build soon and reminding him that the plans and specifications had been done for some time. The description of the 1912 design also matches the type of theatre that the Rapps had been designing up to that point.

Cornelius or “C.W.” Rapp, who was eighteen years older than George, had been a Chicago architect for some years before joining with his brother to start the firm of Rapp & Rapp in 1906 or 1907. George Rapp was university educated having earned a degree in architecture from the University of Illinois in 1899 and by 1904 was working in the office of Chicago architect Edmund Krause. George

Rapp helped on Krause’s design of the Majestic Building in Chicago which featured a theatre and high rise office tower. Sometime after the Majestic Theatre opened on January 1, 1906 the Rapp brothers opened their own firm and by 1907 were starting to design theaters across the upper Midwest. One of the first was in Des Moines, Iowa over 300 miles from Chicago. How two relatively unknown architects secured a job so far from their home office is explained by the fact that the Rapps had somehow secured the patronage of the Western Vaudeville Managers Association (WMVA) – a booking agency for chains of vaudeville theaters including the Orpheum circuit-- whose offices were in the new Majestic Building. The Rapps were put in charge of remodeling existing WMVA theaters and for designing new ones. The new Majestic Theatre in Des Moines was one such commission. For the next four years the Rapps would have at least one new theatre on their drawing boards each year. The early Rapp theaters were designed with French Second Empire facades incorporating arched windows and a mansard roof. Their use of French style would be a hallmark of their careers but their early designs concentrated the nod to France on the exterior of the theaters. The best example of this was realized in the 1910 Majestic Theatre in Dubuque, Iowa. In 1911 the Rapps designed the Orpheum Theatre in Madison, Wisconsin (not to be confused with the current Orpheum) which also used a French Second Empire façade. All of these theaters incorporated the center entrance flanked by two stores with a suite of offices above.

Interiors all included a balcony making them well-appointed but typical vaudeville theaters of their day. The design reported in the Baraboo papers from 1912 describes such a theatre and it is likely the Al. would have looked a lot like the 1911 Madison Orpheum if Al. Ringling had started construction that year. As luck would have it fate intervened and the Rapp brothers’ career was allowed to mature before an entirely new design was drawn for Al. Ringling in late 1914.

 
   

The Al. Ringling Theatre would have looked quite a bit different had it been built in 1912 to the plans described in the newspapers at that time. The design would probably have resembled the 1911 Orpheum Theatre in Madison which was designed by Rapp & Rapp with a French Second Empire façade and typical vaudeville theatre interior complete with balcony. Image courtesy of Paul Wolter.


Chapter 5 – Plans Change - The 1915 Theatre Design

 

The plans for the Al. Ringling Theatre that we know today are dated February 17, 1915 and were drawn up by the Chicago firm of Rapp & Rapp founded by brothers George L. and Cornelius W. Rapp.

The plans called for a much different theatre than the one that had been described in the Baraboo newspapers almost three years earlier when Al. Ringling first announced that he would build a new opera house. Most likely also from the drawing board of Rapp & Rapp, the earlier design would have resulted in a theatre with a symmetrical three story façade and an interior with balcony. Fortunately, Al. Ringling delayed the construction of the theatre which allowed the Rapps’ design ideas to evolve and mature. This happened especially after each of the brothers visited Europe. Older brother Cornelius went to Europe and North Africa with his bride on an extended honeymoon in late 1911. Returning in March 1912 he reportedly encouraged his brother to go. George returned in late 1912 having visited France and Italy. One place that both brothers must have certainly visited is the Palace of Versailles in France and its two theaters. The largest of the two, L'Opéra Royal de Versailles, was designed by Ange- Jacques Gabriel, with interior decoration by Augustin Pajou. It was constructed between 1765 and 1770 and built entirely of wood painted to look like marble with gilded details. The oval plan of the auditorium was especially noted by the Rapps as well as the giant Corinthian columns and mural-painted ceiling. The other theatre at Versailles is located behind the Petit Trianon, a small chateau on the grounds of the palace. Built for Queen Marie Antoinette the theatre also features an oval plan, gilded

details and a mural on the ceiling. Nearby is the Hameau de la Reine, or “hamlet of the queen” a grouping of rusting-looking thatched roofed buildings clustered around a small manmade lake. This retreat and playground for Marie Antoinette is pictured on the fire curtain of the Al. Ringling Theatre and is titled, “Serenade au Petit Trianon”.

When the Rapps returned to Chicago in 1912 they started to incorporate their first-hand experience of French palatial architecture into their new theatre designs. The brothers were not new to the French style but seeing things for themselves gave them a more authentic reference point. Their earliest theatres were designed with French Second Empire facades and some of their early interiors

were described as “in the Louis XIV style” but this described only the decoration applied to typical vaudeville theatre architecture consisting of a main floor, mezzanine boxes, balcony, proscenium opening and side boxes. In 1913 the Rapps tried something unique with their design for the New Orpheum Theatre in Champaign, Illinois. Abandoning the traditional balcony, the Rapps laid out the auditorium in an oval shape with the stage cutting off one end. The auditorium was ringed with two- story Corinthian columns with projecting boxes between them. The whole was topped with a domed ceiling and central chandelier. This arrangement gave the effect of a French opera house instead of an American vaudeville theatre. The exterior of the Champaign Orpheum was also influenced by the Rapps’ experience in Europe. Designed with an asymmetrical façade the main entrance was evocative of the Petit Trianon.

Opened in October 1914 the Champaign Orpheum was the template for the Al. Ringling Theatre with modifications due to lot size but more importantly Al. Ringling’s budget. Although slightly smaller, the Al. Ringling Theatre would cost fifty percent more than the Orpheum. Ringling’s seemingly bottomless checkbook allowed the Rapps to design a more lavish façade entirely out of terra cotta for the Baraboo theatre instead of a mix of common brick and other materials. The interior of the Al. Ringling Theatre would also incorporate hand painted murals, more applied plaster ornament, more light fixtures and an organ. Despite the differences the two theatres share the commonality of their oval auditoria which gives the feeling of a French opera house from the late 18th century. Out of the 300 plus theatres that the Rapps would eventually design, only these two theatres are known to have been built without a balcony making them unique in the history of early American theatre design. Fortunately for Baraboo, Al. Ringling delayed building his legacy theatre which resulted in a much more dramatic design. With the final plans in hand, construction on the theatre was poised to begin in the spring of 1915 as soon as the frost was out of the ground. Over the next seven and a half months Baraboo would witness one of the most complex, well-orchestrated building projects it had ever seen.

The New Orpheum Theatre in Champaign, Illinois was constructed the year before the Al. Ringling Theatre and served as a template for the latter theatre. Al. Ringling’s larger budget allowed the architects to create a more lavish façade and more ornate interior. Both theatres were designed after French opera houses from the late 18th century and neither has a balcony making them unique. Courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives, RS 39/2/24, Box 1, Folder 303-389, Image Number: 376


Chapter 6 – Construction Begins

By the spring of 1915 all of the pieces were in place for the construction of Baraboo’s new theatre to finally begin. Al. Ringling had settled his financial and personal issues and new plans were in hand to start construction. The land for the theatre on the north side of the square had been cleared of old buildings three years prior and in late March of 1915 a Chicago contractor arrived to begin construction. The first thing to be done was the pitching of a tent for the storage of tools and shelter for the workmen during inclement weather. The tent brought back memories of the bigger tents that had been erected to show moving pictures on the site of the new theatre during the previous two summers. In 1913 F. A. Phibrick leased the land and put up a sizable tent and christened the operation the Star Theatre. The motion pictures were such a hit that in July the top of the tent was painted black so that shows could begin earlier in the evening. The next summer Ed Rooney and his sister set up the Airdome Theatre and considered including vaudeville and other acts to the supplement the moving pictures. The two temporary venues, though popular, were about as rustic as one could imagine compared to the new luxury theatre that was about to be built.

The tool tent that the contractor erected was put up on the vacant lot across the street from Al.

Ringling’s mansion on Broadway, not on the site of the theatre itself as the new building would need every foot of room and then some. Months earlier Ringling sought and obtained permission from the city fathers to acquire three feet of the alley behind the theatre because the foot print of the theatre required the extra land. After construction started another obstacle had to be overcome when it was discovered that an adjacent brick building to the east of the theatre site actually sat nine inches across the line but had been there so long it had squatter’s rights. The building was one of the oldest on the square and had been constructed as an annex to Baraboo’s first wood courthouse. The small brick structure was constructed in 1850 to house important county offices and safe guard documents. By 1915 the brick structure was the back end of the wooden building that sat next to the theatre for the next twenty years in stark contrast to its elegance. The owner agreed to have the offending wall torn down as long as the new brick wall of the theatre would become the new west wall of the old building.

By the first week of April excavation for the new theatre was commenced under the exacting eye of contractor Headley W. Wiley of Wiley Brothers Construction of Chicago. By 1915 the firm had already built several theaters designed by architects Rapp & Rapp and had completed the New Orpheum Theatre in Champaign, Illinois five months before starting on the Al. Although the theaters shared some design similarities the bigger budget for the Baraboo theatre as well as the emphasis on more fire-proof construction meant more work for Wiley Brothers.

With the frost out of the ground, the work of removing an estimated 1,500 cubic yards of earth by hand was commenced with local teamsters being hired to take the dirt away. Anyone needing fill was encouraged to take advantage of the opportunity. One person that did was Al. Ringling’s cousin, Charles Gollmar, who was planning on constructing a Sears mail-order home that summer and needed fill for his lot on 11th Street. Anyone who looked at the construction site carefully during excavation would have noticed that only the stage area would have a basement and that a large oval shape was laid out for the footings of the auditorium. Excavation work lasted for about two weeks and was finished on April 17.

The Deppe Lumber Company of Baraboo won the bid to provide seven train car loads of lumber, some of which would be used for forming up the footings for the theatre, and over 1,200 barrels of cement for the job.

With construction begun the excitement about Baraboo’s new theatre would build over the coming months. Ironically, when it started Al. Ringling was over 1,400 mile away in Sarasota, Florida where he had spent the winter due to his deteriorating health. While he would have ups and downs over the coming months it was uncertain whether or not he would live long enough to see the theatre completed.

 
   

In early April of 1915 construction of the Al. Ringling Theatre finally started when the Chicago contracting firm of Wiley Brothers Construction arrived to oversee the project. The first order of business was to remove 1,500 cubic yards of dirt to prepare for the foundations. During the previous two summers the vacant lot on the north side of the square had been used to erect giant tents where motion pictures were shown.


Chapter 7 – Construction Continues – A Race Against Time

By the time Al. Ringling and his wife Lou arrived back in Baraboo in late April 1915 the excavation work for the new theatre had been completed and concrete was being poured into wooden forms to create the foundation. The couple had spent the winter in Florida due to the health of the elder showman and on their way home the couple stopped off in Chicago to speak with the architects about the furnishings and equipment for the new opera house.

The concrete work was labor intensive as ready-mixed concrete delivered by truck was still many years off and all the concrete for the theatre was made on site. A concrete mixer which itself weighed about a ton was brought to the site and loaded with the necessary ingredients to create small batches of concrete. The machine kept six men busy and reportedly could mix up to fifty yards of concrete a day. While it is not known exactly how much concrete went into the theatre’s construction, the largest footings were poured for the brick walls that would create the proscenium opening and separate the stage from the auditorium. These two footings were each a full two feet thick, ten feet wide and fifteen feet long and required over 22 cubic yards of concrete alone – enough for the basement of a small house. The concrete mixer would be used until nearly the end of construction as more concrete was used in the Al. Ringling then in other typical small-town theatres of the day. The building was built with as little wood as possible to make it as fireproof as possible. The floors were all made of poured concrete except for the stage floor. Even the roof decks over the foyers, projection booth and offices above the store fronts were made of poured concrete. Underneath the auditorium floor four giant heating and ventilation tunnels each large enough for a person to crawl through were made of poured concrete.

As the concrete work for the foundations wrapped up in early May, the bricks and bricklayers for the project started to arrive in Baraboo. Nearly sixty train car loads of brick would be used to build the theatre. A crew of seven brick layers arrived in early May and their number would double as the foundation work wrapped up. Arriving slightly earlier than the bricklayers, were the two enormous boilers that would heat the theatre. These needed to be positioned in the basement underneath the stage before it was too late to do so. The boiler room would be capped with an eight inch thick poured concrete ceiling weighing 22 tons.

In early May Al. Ringling’s health again took a turn for the worse prompting him to get his affairs in order and draw up a will which was signed on May 8th. The will made provisions for the theatre to be completed by his remaining brothers if Al. died before it was finished. A few days later all of his brothers and their spouses returned to Baraboo to see Al. for perhaps the last time. The newspapers reported that this was the first time since the death of Otto Ringling in 1911 that all of the remaining family members were in town at the same time. Fortunately Al. rallied and his health soon improved enough for him to be able to look out the windows of his mansion and watch the construction of the theatre across the street. No one knew for sure if he would live long enough to see it completed so Baraboo officials and other townspeople began planning an appreciation ceremony to be held some time during the early summer. As load after load of brick continued to show up at the construction site one thing was sure, the theatre would be finished no matter what. As walls and details began to show above ground the enormity of Al.’s gift began to take on a physical presence that could not be denied. Everyone just hoped that Al. would live long enough to see it completed.

 
   

As construction of the Baraboo’s new theatre commenced, Al. Ringling’s health took a turn for the worse prompting him to draft a will which provided for the theatre to be finished should he die before it was completed. Al. and his wife Lou, shown here in one of the last known pictures of the couple, returned to Baraboo in late April of 1915 after foundation work for the theatre had started.

 

Chapter 8 – The Largest Girder Gets Installed

By late May of 1915 the Al. Ringling Theatre construction site was abuzz with fifty workmen who were part of the well-oiled machine that Wiley Brothers, the general contractors, had assembled to build the theatre as quickly and efficiently as possible. Fifteen bricklayers and their helpers were hard at work laying the hundreds of thousands of bricks that would make up the exterior walls of the theatre and by late May the side walls had reached the first floor level. The brick walls of the stage house were also ready for the largest piece of steel in the theatre – the ten ton girder that would span the proscenium arch and carry the weight of the massive brick wall above it.

The steel girders for the theatre arrived on three rail cars with the larger pieces ranging in size from 34 feet in length to the largest which was just over 51 feet long and four feet wide. This girder arrived on two rail cars and even its unloading was a spectacle as it had to be jacked up after which the rail cars were removed and replaced with two heavy-duty lumber wagons. Six horses pulled the ten ton girder to the site. Fortunately the high bridge at Oak Street existed then making it unnecessary to pull the giant girder down into and up out of the river valley which existed between the rail yard and the square.

The work of raising the girders was sublet by Wiley Brothers to the Wm. Wayman Company of Chicago with Mr. Wayman himself arriving at the site to personally supervise the setting of the heavier pieces. The proscenium arch was actually to be spanned with two pieces of steel – a two foot by 47 foot girder which would sit directly above the opening and ten feet above this the ten ton girder would support the weight of the rigging for the scenery and equipment as well as part of the weight of the roofs of the stage house and the auditorium.

Raising the giant girder was a unique spectacle for all those who gathered on the square when the day finally came to put it into position. The girder was lifted by means of a gin pole and a 25- horsepower winch. The gin pole consisted of two eight inch square timbers which towered up approximately seventy feet. The pole would have stood nearly vertical at the position needed for the girder and would have been held in place by the use of guy wires attached to the top. The girder was then lifted by use of a cable and a pulley attached to the top of the gin pole. After everything was hooked up and ready the process of lifting the girder into position took a little over an hour. There was much more steel to be installed but with this major piece in place the south wall of the stage house could be completed.

The steel workers at the site were the highest paid workers of the job earning 68 cents an hour. The work was hazardous and on larger construction sites it was generally accepted at the time that on average one man would be killed for each floor of a building’s height. Fortunately up to this point there had been no accidents at the theatre construction except for the breaking of Contractor Wiley’s transit which been damaged at some point during construction.

As the steel and brick work continued Baraboo’s citizens could get a sense of the immensity and complexity of the theatre’s construction. They would soon get a glimpse of the elegance of the new theatre as the terra cotta pieces for the façade had also arrived and the masons would soon start putting them in place around the entrance to the theatre even though the second story had not been built yet. The juxtaposition of finished pieces against the backdrop of a building that wasn’t even close to having a roof yet was only proof that the theatre was being built as fast as possible and anything that could be done, was done to keep things on schedule.

 
   

The ten ton girder above the proscenium arch was the largest piece of steel used in the construction of the theatre. The beam had to carry the weight of the brick wall built above it which in turn supported additional beams for the scenery and the roofs of the stage house and auditorium. The steel workers who wrestled it into place were the highest paid workers of the project earning 68 cents an hour.


Chapter 9 – Al. Rallies and Orders a Pipe Organ

With the improvement of Al. Ringling’s health by June of 1915 the elder showman was able to be up and about and even enjoy an automobile ride around the city. The turn of events was a welcome one as he had been so close to death the month before that all of his remaining siblings had rushed back to Baraboo to say their goodbyes. With his renewed energy Al. Ringling once again paid particular attention to the construction of the theatre that would be his lasting legacy. The theatre was well underway with brick walls going up to the second floor level and steel beams being placed to carry the curved wall of the upper auditorium.

As Al. Ringling watched his new theatre take shape his thoughts turned to how the building would be used. His desire to make sure the theatre was as well-equipped as possible manifested itself in an unexpected telephone call to downtown piano merchant William Aton. Ringling requested Aton to furnish specifications and pricing for a pipe organ for the theatre which used patented Hope-Jones technology. Aton promptly complied and produced details for a Wurlitzer Hope-Jones Unit Orchestra organ which would cost $9,000, a nearly 10 percent addition to the entire cost of the theatre.

The introduction of pipe organs to theatres occurred slowly after the turn of the 20th century. Early installations were merely transplanted church organs and lacked the sophistication of later fully- evolved theatre organs. Many of the innovations which were made to the organ for the theatre were due to the genius of an English inventor named Robert Hope-Jones who moved to the United States and starting in 1911 collaborated with the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company to manufacturer a new type of organ. In contrast to a standard church organ, Hope-Jones electrified the organ allowing for the keyboards or manuals on an organ console to play different pipes at the same time and thus create a vastly wider array of sounds suitable for the accompaniment of silent films. The organ could also, through the use of pneumatic devices, play other instruments such as drums, xylophone, chimes and tambourine. Special effects sounds could also be created to simulate thunder, horse hooves, clapping and a wide variety of other sounds. The new style of organ allowed one person to effectively fill the role of an entire orchestra or if an organist wasn’t available it could even play itself through the use of roll player system much like a player piano. The organ was fitted with multiple rolls with different styles of music which could be changed with the push of a button depending on the scene in a particular film.

Mr. Aton wasn’t the only one surprised by the addition of the pipe organ to the theatre. The architect and builder also must have been surprised as no provisions are made for an organ console let alone organ loft on the plans for the theatre. Fortunately the building was still at a stage where it was possible to design a room for the organ pipes and equipment high above the east side of the auditorium. The organ console which looked much like an upright player piano would be placed in the center of the already tiny orchestra pit. The only alteration to the decoration of the auditorium, still a long way off, would be the substitution of open lattice work in the coved ceiling panels above the first house right box to allow the sounds from the organ loft to fill the auditorium. The decision to add an organ to the theatre was a prudent one, the wisdom of which even Al. Ringling could not have predicted. Five months later when the orchestra which was supposed to play for opening night failed to show up, the organ was put to the test and passed with flying colors.

In June of 1915, Al. Ringling surprised everyone including his architect and builder by announcing that he wished to install a $9,000 pipe organ in the theatre. The design change was placed just in time as it was still possible to build a room high above the auditorium to house the organ pipes and equipment. The original organ console, shown here in the middle of the tiny orchestra pit, could play itself if needed through the use of paper rolls much like a player piano. The original organ was replaced in 1928 when the current Barton organ was installed.


Chapter 10 – A Day of Appreciation

On June 24 of 1915 the citizens of Baraboo paused for an afternoon of speeches and testimonials to thank Al. Ringling for his gift of a new theatre which at the time was less than half finished. Businesses closed and several thousand turned out to gather on the court house square opposite the theatre construction site. Al. Ringling was slowly driven by car from his mansion to the square where he heard speeches thanking him for the new theatre. After he returned home the crowd gathered around his mansion and sang the national anthem. While people were hopeful that Al. Ringling would live long enough to see his theatre completed, community leaders must have certainly felt relieved that they had properly lauded the showman while they had the chance. Construction workers most likely stopped work for the ceremonies but the break was only a minor pause in the rapid pace at which the theatre was going up.

 
   

A day of appreciation for Al. Ringling was held on June 24, 1915. Several thousand people gathered on the square and later around his mansion to thank the veteran showman for his magnificent gift in case he died before it was completed.

In the month after the day of appreciation the public would see the front façade shoot up to the second story with the elliptical curve of the upper auditorium wall rising behind. Masons, who had been on the job for several weeks, were busy using up the 59 train car loads of brick that the building required. And, even though there was very little wood used in the structure of the building, carpenters were constantly at work making forms for poured concrete floors and beams and building scaffolding for the masons. By mid-July the project was ready for the skilled steel workers to return to lift and install the steel beams and trusses that would support the roof over the auditorium. Gin poles were once again used to carefully lift and maneuver the pieces into place.

Masons were also busy placing terra cotta pieces on the front façade whenever there was a wall to attach it to. Made to look like stone, the terra cotta was made of glazed fired clay with each distinctive piece made in a mold so that identical pieces could be duplicated more easily by using the same mold over. The whole process was far cheaper than carving stone. The terra cotta pieces were also hollow making them lighter and easier to work with. Terra cotta would be used to cover the façade of the theatre and to dress the top of the visible portions of the elliptical brick wall surrounding the auditorium. While the terra cotta was only made to look like stone, the base of the façade of the theatre was covered in real granite from New Hampshire.

By late July the façade was taking shape and people could discern where the ground-floor shops, with offices above, would be to the left of the entrance and see the graceful outline of the opening for the French doors for the ladies lounge on the second floor. And while the great arch high above the entrance was yet to be installed more decorative pieces of terra cotta like the capitals of the double pilasters flanking the front doors could be admired.

As the summer of 1915 continued the theatre took on the final outlines of its exterior form.

While the façade was promising to be elegant and beautiful at least one of Baraboo’s three newspapers admonished its readers that the exterior would pale in comparison to the interior once it was finished. Readers would be able to judge this prophetic statement for its validity in four more months when the theatre was set to open.

By mid-July of 1915 the exterior form of the theatre was rapidly taking shape. Behind the terra cotta façade the steel beams and trusses for the auditorium roof were set in place with gin poles one of which is visible in this picture.


Chapter 11 – The Exterior is Completed

In early August of 1915 the masons set the last pieces of the front façade of Baraboo’s new theatre. When the wooden scaffolding was taken down the name of the benefactor who was making it all possible would be visible to anyone passing by. The words AL. RINGLING THEATRE could be seen high above the main entrance and appeared to be carved into the “granite” that made up the front of the theatre. The material was actually terra cotta, a lighter and more economical alternative, which fooled more than one newspaper reporter. The lighted marquee that we know today with Al.’s name in gleaming neon would not be added to the theatre for another 22 years. While there was still a fair amount of work left to do on the façade including the installation of all of the windows and doors the final outline of the theatre was complete.

High above the alley on top of the stage house the final height of the theatre was established with the construction of the two stage vents which were eventually clad in corrugated sheet metal. The two metal towers actually covered the smoke hatches which would expel smoke from the stage in case of fire. If a fire started the hatches would open and create a chimney-like effect in the fly loft which would draw fresh air in through the exits of the auditorium giving people more time to escape. The smoke hatches along with the asbestos fire curtain, which would be installed to isolate the stage from the auditorium, were a major part of the fire safety equipment installed in the building.  These items and the numerous exit doors which all opened out were a part of good modern theatre design influenced in part by the aftermath of the 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago in which over 600 theatre goers had died. The tragedy had been the result of a perfect storm of bad design, poor safety training and mechanical malfunction and was a major wake-up call to the importance of theatre safety. The realities and importance of fire safety were certainly not lost on Al. Ringling who had his own mansion built of poured concrete, steel and stone and outfitted with internal fire hoses. For the theatre he had also required that the building be as fire-proof as possible no matter what the cost. The result was that the Al. Ringling Theatre was built with more labor intensive poured concrete floors and roofs and with clay tile walls instead of wood framing. All plaster work was also done over metal lathe instead of wood lathe.

While the masons and steel workers completed the exterior shell of the building, inside, plumbers under the employ of Otto Schadde of Baraboo, the only local contractor on the job thus far, were busy installing a train car load of pipes to feed the steam heating system and outfit the bathrooms and dressing rooms. Close behind, and wherever possible the lathers were installing metal lathe for all of the flat plaster work.

In mid-August two train car loads of ornamental plaster pieces arrived. At least one newspaper reported that originally it was intended that the ornamental plaster would be cast in Baraboo but on account of the heavy rain and damp conditions it had been decided to make it in Chicago. The rain in August had caused some significant delays and threatened to derail the ambitious pace of construction, but as the month wore on the crews did the best they could. The first injury at the job site occurred the same month when the left index finger of August Henrickson of Baraboo had to be amputated after being crushed by a piece of steel.

As construction moved to the interior where it would be less visible to the passerby, the citizens of Baraboo would have less to look at over the coming months. Of course construction sites in 1915 were virtually open to the public however so anyone that was curious could walk into the building to check on progress.

 
   

The last terra cotta pieces of the façade of the theatre were set in August of 1915. After the scaffolding was removed the words “AL. RINGLING THEATRE” would be seen in the arch over the front entrance. On the roof of the stage house, the steel framework of the two towers covering the smoke hatches would be the highest point of the building, some seventy feet off the ground.


Chapter 12 – A Magnificent Interior Takes Shape

While Al. Ringling had been confined to his palatial home for most of the summer of 1915 due to his health, by the end of August the elder showman was able to take a couple of trips. A jaunt was made by automobile to Spring Green so that Ringling could attend the Gollmar Brothers Circus when it showed there and a few days later Al. and his wife, Lou, went to Portage to see the Barnum & Bailey Circus. A Portage newspaper reporter noted their attendance and went on to praise the success of the Ringling

Brothers recounting the days when the brothers only had an overland show with “few wagons” and “limited paraphernalia.” A couple of weeks later in September a reporter from the Portage Register staff, perhaps the same one, made a trip to Baraboo to check out improvements in the circus city.

Among the things noted along with the theatre were the canning factory and the new sewer in Baraboo which would have a main pipe of 4 ½ feet in diameter. While the latter improvement was probably more important to everyday living than the new theater it was the theatre that captured the most attention. With molded plaster decorations now being installed some sense of the grandeur of the interior could be obtained. The Portage reporter also noted that the theatre would not have a balcony, only boxes, “it being built after a French pattern.”

The plaster decoration was carried out by the Architectural Decorating Company of Chicago under the direction of company manager James G. Smith, who was not only the supervisor but also an installer. A crew of fifteen plasterers was employed with a reported wage of nearly $40 a week each. One Baraboo newspaper reported that these men were well versed in their line of work putting in full days and that they were free from the “booze” habit. Four train car loads of ornamental plaster pieces were reportedly being installed over the flat plaster work which was being spread over expanded metal lathe. The flat plaster for the domed ceiling of the auditorium was applied over metal lathe attached to one inch channel iron which was suspended by thin metal rods from the metal roof trusses thus creating a hanging ceiling.

All of the decorative plaster pieces were manufactured by the Architectural Decorating Company and many of them can be found in their 1916 catalog which is now available on line. Their catalog gave architects and designers a quick visual reference to their products and what sizes were available. The decorative plaster pieces chosen for the Al. Ringling Theatre were some of the best the catalog had to offer in the very highest relief. While the general public may have believed that much of the ornament was hand carved specifically for the theatre, the very speed at which the theatre was built required the use of stock molds. Other theaters designed by Rapp & Rapp immediately before and after the Al. Ringling Theatre have some of the same pieces used in Baraboo but not with equal profusion.

Al. Ringling was keenly interested in this aspect of the theatre’s construction because now the interior beauty of the theatre was taking shape. His fragile state of health often compelled him to ask if the work could be moved along any faster, but always with the caveat that only if the quality of the work would not suffer. As opening date started to dawn on the horizon his thoughts also began to turn to how to inaugurate the theatre.

 

The molded plaster decoration for the Al. Ringling Theatre was manufactured and installed by the Architectural Decorating Company of Chicago. Their catalog provided architects and designers a rich variety of molded plaster elements to choose from. The “choir” boys from the lobby of the theatre appear second from the top. Image courtesy of Paul Wolter.

 

Chapter 13 – Adding Opulence – Hand Painted Murals and Electric Lights

On October 26, 1915 the scaffolding in the auditorium which had been in place for most of the construction of the theatre was removed. In three weeks the theatre would open to the public for the first time. For two months prior the plasterers and decorators had been hard at work turning the muscular shell of the building into a European-style opera house. The plaster crew from the Architectural Decorating Company of Chicago had installed 80 tons of plaster including four train car loads of cast ornamental pieces. These skilled tradesmen earned just less than $8 per day. The plasterers left plenty of high relief surfaces to be decorated by the “brush artists,” from the great suspended oval ceiling resting on a five foot high frieze supported by two-story Corinthian columns in the house to the horseshoe foyers with paneled ceilings and walls. The plaster work was much appreciated by Al. Ringling who sent a box of cigars to each of the workmen who had been supervised by James G. Smith of the plastering firm. Smith commented to a local newspaper that no theatre in Chicago had the same level of quality as the Ringling theatre even though many of them were many times larger.

A crew of five men from the Gustav A. Brand Company also of Chicago went to work wherever and whenever they could on the decorative plaster adding the rich golds and browns that would make up the interior color palette. Gustav Brand was born and trained in Germany and was sent to Chicago in 1893 by the German government to work on the interior decoration of that country’s building for the World’s Columbian Exposition. Brand remained in Chicago and eventually started his own studio creating murals for public and private buildings. At the Al. Ringling Theater his crew would have charge of all of the decorative finishes and murals. On the ceiling of the auditorium a sky was painted complete with clouds to correspond with the 17 murals which were done on canvas before being installed on the curved arch of the ceiling. The murals were the highest level of art in the building each showing a different scene of classical figures depicting various pleasurable human emotions.

About the same time that the artists started their work the electricians began wiring the building. Conduit for the wiring had been installed in the poured concrete and brick walls when the building was being constructed and now the extensive electrical system could be completed and the artists could have better lighting. As the decorative work progressed the number of visitors also picked up to the point that they were starting to hinder work. One Baraboo newspaper recommended that if people must have a look that they should do so from the stage where they would be less of an interference, or better yet they should wait until the theatre was finished.

In the lobby the tile installers commenced laying the black and white checkerboard of tile on the floor and continued their work in the three stores along the front of the theatre. Meanwhile the plumbers were busy at work completing the installation of all of the plumbing fixtures in the building which included the toilets and sinks in the four public restrooms, private restrooms and eleven dressing rooms. Their work also included the sprinkler system over the dressing rooms and the eight fire hose racks and connections scattered throughout the building. The plumbing work was done by local contractor Otto Schadde and his crew. Schadde was a trusted professional of Al. Ringling’s having done the plumbing for the palatial residence the showman had built nine years earlier.

As the final decoration of the theatre took shape, Al. Ringling let the contract for one final building in Baraboo, a mausoleum in Walnut Hill Cemetery. The structure would be built by S. A. Collins of Reedsburg and composed of solid Vermont granite. As the details of the opening of the theatre consumed him, Al. was thinking ahead and preparing his final resting place. While he didn’t know if he would live long enough to see either structure completed he none-the-less poured himself into every detail of his legacy project.

The high-relief plasterwork, decorative columns and murals inside the auditorium of the Al. Ringling Theatre transformed the shell of the theatre into a European-style opera house. The Chicago artisans and artists who executed the work earned about $8 per day.

 

Chapter 14 – The Theatre is Finished

On November 8, 1915 Al. Ringling announced that his new luxury theatre would officially open on November 17 with a performance of the light comedic opera, Lady Luxury. Ringling had been able to book the New York show because it would be passing through Baraboo on its way from St. Paul to Chicago. The Baraboo Daily Republic informed its readers that the building would possibly not be entirely finished but that the “opera house proper” would be finished in time. Anything left undone by opening day was not for lack of trying though. During the last few days of the theatre’s construction dozens of people worked feverishly to finish things. The seats for the opera house had arrived on Halloween and were installed during the early days of November. The first fourteen rows of the main floor seating were upholstered with an “AR” monogram on the back of the seat. The remaining rows were un-upholstered and were priced accordingly. The boxes were furnished with padded wooden chairs done in a gold finish. Despite being the most expensive seating in the theatre they were easily the most uncomfortable.

Anyone passing by the theatre during the final two weeks of construction would have heard an interesting array of sounds with the ordinary construction noise mixing with the tuning and testing of the organ. The great machine had been installed in late October by hoisting the 428 pipes, 18 chimes, 37 note xylophone and other sound effects equipment up to the organ loft by block and tackle. The console which had an automatic roll player option was installed in the center of the orchestra pit and was connected to the pipes and sound equipment by hundreds of wires. The organ pipes were tuned and the automatic player was tested against the backdrop of noise from the carpenters, tinners, painters, tile layers, curtain hangers, electricians, seating installers and moving picture technicians.

Some of the most delicate and expensive items and therefore last things to be installed in the theatre were the lighting fixtures. Over 80 decorative fixtures supplied by the Victor S. Pearlman Co. of Chicago were installed ranging from the great central chandelier with its 48 lights to the delicate iridescent etched glass fixtures over each box. The lighting fixtures had cost a little less than $3,000 - 3% of the total cost of the theatre – or about the cost of an average house at the time. Thousands of incandescent bulbs were required for the lighting from the utilitarian fixtures in the dressing rooms to the 46 light bulbs which lined the edge of the front entrance canopy. The Baraboo Daily Republic deftly stated, “There is light everywhere.” Many of the lights would be under dimmer control so that elegant transitions could be made. For most visitors this would be their first experience with dimmable lights.

The wiring for the lighting and equipment had been done by an Indiana firm with assistance from H. L. Brewster of Baraboo who would be the electrician in charge at the new theatre and also be the man in charge of the moving picture machines. Nearly five miles of copper wiring had been pulled through the 7,500 feet of conduit which had been installed during construction.

Tickets for the opening of the new theatre went on sale on November 13 at the Corner Drug Store which opened at 8 a.m. Former Baraboo Mayor Edward G. Marriott was the first person to buy tickets and had been waiting outside of the store for several hours after awaking at 1:30 a.m. not able to sleep any longer. Marrriott may have been the first to stand in line but was not alone for very long.

Tickets sold out in three hours and twelve minutes with many people being disappointed. In all 450 seats were sold on the main floor in the upholstered section at $2 each and 322 at $1 in the rest of the main floor. Sixty box seats were sold for $5 a piece with the remaining forty-two box seats being used by family and friends. The total box office take for opening night was $1,522. This was more than enough to pay the Lady Luxury Company which charged $795 for their performance. The profit however was a pittance compared to the final cost of the theatre which would amount to $100,422.79. Money was not the object however. Al. had succeeded in what he set out to do, which was to build America’s prettiest playhouse and prove that “nothing is too good for Baraboo.”

 
   

Seats, drapes and light fixtures were some of the last items to be installed as the theatre was finished in November of 1915. All were of the best quality and added to the luxury feel of the theatre. Al. Ringling’s monogram was embroidered on the back of the seats in the first 14 rows of the main floor seating.

 

Epilogue –

Al. Ringling did live long enough to enjoy opening night at his theater on November 17, 1915. He sat in the center box with his wife Lou and possibly with some other family members like his nine year old nephew Henry Ringling Jr. who would grow up to one day own and operate the theatre. The opening night performance was Lady Luxury, a light comedic opera from New York. Al.’s idea to have an organ installed was a fortuitous one as the orchestra with the show did not show up.

A few days after the opening performance silent movies began being shown at the theatre. Al. Ringling obsessed over detail from the quality of the films that were shown to the need for glass slides for the projector to ask ladies to remove their hats. He died at his palatial residence on January 1, 1916 just six weeks after the theatre opened. His last known letter was dictated on Christmas Day in which he complained about the recent quality of the films that his booking company had sent to the theatre.

After his death, Al. Ringling’s will left the theatre to his remaining brothers. He most likely had asked them verbally to give the theatre to the City of Baraboo which the brothers tried to do in 1918. A satisfactory arrangement could not be worked out however since the brothers wanted to retain control of 3 of the 5 seats on a proposed management board. The theatre remained in Ringling family hands until 1953 with ownership being consolidated under Henry Ringling Jr. After his death the theatre was sold on land contract to private owners who operated the theatre largely as a movie house. In 1962 Ringling ownership officially ended and in 1989 the theatre was purchased by Al. Ringling Theatre Friends Inc., a non-profit dedicated to preserving the theatre and using it as a cultural center. In 2015- 2016 the interior of the theatre was restored to its 1915 splendor.

 

 
   

Photo courtesy of Bill Johnsen.