C. August Albrecht Ringling was born in Chicago on December 13, 1852, the eldest of seven brothers (there was one sister), the sons of August Frederick Rungeling, an immigrant to the United States. Of the brothers, the founders of the circus included Charles, Otto, Alfred T., and John, as well as Al. As a group, the brothers were to make the family name, earlier simplified by their father to Ringling, synonymous with the American circus.
Al. Ringling was 23-year-old carriage finisher when the August Rungeling family settled in Baraboo in 1875 after brief stays in various towns in Wisconsin and Iowa. In his free time, Al. practiced circus acts and organized the local children into a little performing troupe. The first actual Ringling performance, where all five show-minded brothers took part, was presented as a vaudeville-type show in Mazomanie, Wisconsin, on November 27,1882. 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.
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 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.
Historic Theatre tours daily during the summer, 11:00 am, just $5 per person! See the theater on a guided tour and hear the Grand Barton theatre organ!
The Al. Ringling was "America's Prettiest Playhouse" from the very beginning. The American Theatre Historical Society says it "pointed the way to the great palatial theatres of the following decade...One of the finest examples of palatial design applied to a motion picture theatre in this country. The envy of Broadway."
Such are some of the accolades showered onto the theatre, and Baraboo and Sauk County can be proud hosts of this beautiful structure. But how did it all begin? Why a theatre of this magnificence in a town the size of Baraboo?
From the start, Baraboo appears to have always had a theatre, beginning with Taylor Hall in the tiny village in the 1850s. By 1880 there was demand for an Opera House, resulting in a structure seating 1,000. It was described then as a "commodious" place. Fire destroyed it in 1905, and the city soon offered $4,000, a fabulous sum in those days, as an inducement to a builder, but the offer went unaccepted. Several small theatres did exist during the time, the first moving picture being shown on November 12, 1897.