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.
Baraboo and The Ringlings:
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.
On May 19, 1884, the Ringling Brothers were able to open their first real, if minimal, circus--traveling by wagon with a rented horse. Records show that by 1886 they had their own donkey and a Shetland pony, their first trick act. In general, their progress was slow. They had taken on veteran showman "Yankee" Robinson as partner, but Robinson died before the end of their first season. Four years went by before they obtained their first elephant. But their fortunes improved continually, and in 1890 their acts had to have railway cars for transportation. By 1900, Ringling Brothers had one of the largest shows on the road, and began absorbing other circuses. By the time they were able to buy out James A. Bailey's show, the year after Bailey's death in 1907, they had under their control the largest circus in America: The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The Ringling Brothers portion of the circus maintained its winter quarters in Baraboo.
By 1912 Al. Ringling was Baraboo's leading citizen, one of the best-known names in Wisconsin, and a national and world traveler, with world renown due to the circus. During his visits to Europe, he was fascinated with the beauty and majesty of the European Opera Houses. Yet Baraboo was home, and it appears from the very beginning that the theatre project was intended as a memorial gift to the city.