Al. Ringling Theatre, Baraboo
by Allie Schaitel, Arts Wisconsin intern, UW-Whitewater
The Al. Ringling Theatre in Baraboo has a rich history as a beloved symbol and treasured resource for its community. The Ringling family, immigrants from Germany, settled in Baraboo, WI, in 1875. The first Ringling performance was a vaudeville-type show in Mazomanie in 1882. C. August Albrecht Ringling (Al.) and his brothers Charles, Otto, Alfred T., and John, founded their first circus in 1884. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus became the largest circus in the United States. 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. The Al. Ringling Theatre was the first major theater designed by renowned theater architects C.W. & George Rapp of Chicago and opened in November 1915 as a gift to Baraboo.
The $3 million restoration of the theater, with a grand reopening in February 2016, was a quarter century in the making. The restoration process, which returned the 1915 playhouse to its original grandeur, repaired, restored and revitalized the building after one hundred years of use. The restoration, most of which was raised from generous private sources, featured the work of craftspeople and artisans who labored tirelessly to bring the theater back to its former glory.
Stephanie Miller-Lamb, Executive Director, explains that the restoration was a success, surpassing their expectations. “The incredible work by so many craftspeople has returned the hall to its original splendor; it’s truly a spectacular sight! The aesthetics are really a show unto themselves, adding an element of marvel to the audience experience. The community has been thrilled to be back in the hall, with a steady stream of musicals, concerts, dance performances, and film, since the hall’s reopening at the end of February. Our community’s youth are the largest users of the space and they have been awed and in wonder at the glory of their home stage. We’ve also seen new interest in the theatre from local businesses. We’ve hosted some new events including business seminars and VIP receptions, bringing yet another kind of audience to the hall. To put it simply, the restoration has given the theatre a new life! The restoration has inspired us to bring our community new ideas in programming and to build outreach programs that offer the best possible opportunities for living with the arts.”
Interesting artifacts from the theater’s history were uncovered during the restoration, including a vintage adding machine, historic photos, and a 1947 ledger showing transactions between the Ringlings and local firms such as Pointon Heating and Hill Electric, businesses that still exist – and were hired to help with the restoration project.
The theatre has evolved from the original legacy of Al. Ringling’s theatre into a venue for nationally recognized talent, community groups, youth programs, concerts, plays, and more. Its mission ‘to provide a dynamic center for the arts, culture, and entertainment and to inspire educational opportunities for Baraboo and south central Wisconsin in a unique historic theatre palace’ is certainly being fulfilled.