By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published May 07, 2024 at 9:01 AM

Urban Spelunking is brought to you by Nicolet Law

BARABOO – For nearly 110 years, the Al. Ringling Theatre, 136 Fourth Ave., has been a center of Baraboo’s entertainment world, and that’s saying something in a town that boasts a high-flying history of fun.


But now, the death-defying theater joins the Wisconsin Historical Society family, falling under the purview of the nearby Circus World Museum to help ensure its future. It’s a perfect match for the theater and the museum, both of which are inextricably linked via circus maven Al. Ringling.

“Ringling was all about Baraboo,” says Dave Saloutos, Performance and Marketing Director for Circus World.  “This theater was his gift to this community.”

In March, WHS announced that it had been gifted, free and clear, the Rapp & Rapp-designed vaudeville, cinema and playhouse by the Al. Ringling Theatre Friends, Inc., which helped line up just over $3 million from community donors.

Although the publicly visible areas of the theater underwent a big restoration in 2015-16, this latest infusion of financial resources will allow WHS to do more, says Director of Circus World, Scott O’Donnell.

“Through the generosity of local donors from the Baraboo area, we will undertake a million-dollar full rigging renovation of the stage in the early winter months of 2025,” O’Donnell says, "updating the rigging to match modern theatrical needs, while preserving the historic integrity of the Al. Ringling Theatre.”

fly loft
The fly loft and rigging.

There have been some shows, such as “STOMP,” that had considered performing at the Ringling only to ultimately skip it due to outdated production infrastructure. This work should prevent that happening again by setting up the theater’s back of house for the future.

That, too, will carry on a Ringling Theatre tradition, as no expense was spared in building the opulent and modern showhouse.

Who was Al. Ringling?

Charles August Albrecht Rungeling (aka Al.), born in 1852, was the son of German immigrant harness maker August Rungeling, who moved his family from Iowa to Baraboo (with a stop in Prairie du Chien) in 1875, later changing their surname to Ringling.

Ringling Brothers
The Ringling Brothers, with Al in the upper right corner.

Five of the seven Ringling boys were circus fanatics, having caught the Big Top bug when seeing the circus in McGregor, Iowa. They set up a circus in their yard and in 1882, the five performed together for the first time, with two dancing, one singing and two playing musical instruments in a vaudevillian performance in Mazomanie.

Two years later, they bought a wagon, rented a horse and partnered with “Yankee” Robinson and set up a circus.

Robinson died not long after and the Ringling Brothers – now joined by their other two brothers – were off and running, becoming the premier name in circuses to this very day.

In 1907, they bought out their largest competitor to become Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, aka “The Greatest Show On Earth.”

Sixty years later – not long before I'd have seen the show myself for the first time at Madison Square Garden – the Ringling family sold the name.

From 1884 until 1918, the Ringling Brothers maintained winter quarters at Baraboo, and by the time the theater was built in 1915, Al. Ringling was also considered the town’s leading citizen.

Thus, it was perhaps no surprise that when various plans to replace the town’s opera house – which had been destroyed by fire 1905 – faltered, Ringling stepped in and committed in 1912 to built a replacement on Baraboo’s main square.

The theater

Though it took a few years for plans to come to fruition, it was worth the wait, as renowned Chicago theater architects Rapp & Rapp drew an incredible building, the February 1915 plans for which survive in the Circus World Museum archives.

linen blueprints
Original Rapp & Rapp drawings on linen.
Rapp and Rapp linenX

“The theater is said to be based on the Opera House at the Palace of Versailles, and while it certainly draws from French theater designs in general, it more closely resembles that of the Grand Theatre in Bordeaux,” O’Donnell says.

“Both theatres were likely seen by the Rapp brothers during their design-inspirational European visit in 1911.”

That it would also show moving pictures should have been no surprise, either, despite the nascent nature of the industry at that time.

black tent
The black tent (in the background).

In fact, as early as the 1890s, Ringling was showing silent films in a black tent at the circus, and before construction began on the Ringling Theatre, F.A. Philbrick successfully screened moving pictures in a tent he dubbed the Star Theater on the site.

Vacant site
The vacant site before construction began.

In March 1915, however, construction on the palatial new theater began on the former site of the Wisconsin House hotel, across the street from Ringling’s own house, from which he could keep an eye on progress. (That beautiful 1906 house, incidentally, is open for visits and has a brewpub that brews a beer according to a recipe found beneath the floorboards of the mansion!)

Three photos taken during construction.

After designing their first theater in Iowa in 1910, brothers Cornelius and George Rapp would go on to design more than 200 theaters across the country – mostly in the 1920s – including the Chicago Theatre in their hometown, as well as The Orpheum in Madison, and the Warner (now the Bradley Symphony Center) and Modjeska and the now-demolished Wisconsin and Uptown Theaters in Milwaukee.

Theaters, George said, were, “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 glazed polychrome terra cotta, or 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 the master touches of Germany, France and Italy, or at the carbed 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.”

This 1915 photo shows the original awning.
A 1925 view of the auditorium.

That ought to give you a clue about what you can expect at the 874-seat (now 710 seats) Al. Ringling Theatre.

When it opened on Nov. 17, 1915, patrons were greeted with a white terra cotta and polished granite facade, adorned with neo-classical detailing and a gorgeous arch.

In 1937, a new Rapp & Rapp-designed marquee replaced the simpler awning that had previous hung above the entrance.

If you stand across the street and look above the roofline, you’ll see what looks like a rotunda, offering a clue to what’s inside.

But first, you’ll step into the elliptical outer lobby, which once had a fountain. That has been gone since 1921, sadly, though its central sculpture survives on the staircase to the upper lobby.

The ceiling with its cherubs.

But what remains is beautiful. There’s a frieze copied from Luca della Robbia’s panels at the singing gallery in the Duomo in Florence. There are polychrome floral garlands and other details, too.

Most striking is the ceiling painting of cherubs – based on a similar work at Venice’s Hotel Danielle – that are said to represent the Ringling brothers and their sister Ida.

Where the fountain stood there is now an opening that leads to the theater's office space, which occupies former retail space. The original theater offices – with a fireplace, vault and big windows overlooking the square – were located just above these stores.

The Ringling office, above and below.

Step through the French doors and you’re in the inner lobby that encircles the rear and sides of the auditorium. Original light fixtures – converted from gas – adorn this relatively conservatively decorated space, which has stenciled wall panels.

inner lobbyX
main staircase
Staircase to upper lobby.

It’s worth noting here that Wiley Brothers were the general contractors on the more than $100,000 project and the interior decoration was by G.A. Brand (which also executed the murals in the auditorium) and the light fixtures were by Victor S. Pearlman ... all three from Chicago.

Baraboo’s own C.L. Kleckner did the woodwork.

The upper lobby is reached by a staircase on the right side of the main lobby. It leads not to a balcony but to 17 boxes that each held six seats.

Governor's box
The views from the governor's box (above) and Ringling's box (below).
Ringling boxX

Ringling’s own box was dead center, opposite the stage and above the central entrance, and a governor’s box, closest to the stage on the right side, has its own staircase.

“The box with the worst view of the stage is the governor’s box,” O’Donnell notes, “but it was the best for addressing and being seen by the public.”

ladies' lounge
The ladies' lounge.

Three governors have used the box, including Gov. Tony Evers, O’Donnell adds.

The boxes still have their original chairs.

Though the ladies' lounge isn’t especially large, a grand staircase leads up to it. Almost hidden just up those steps, to the right of the lounge’s French doors, is the door that opens onto the steep staircase up to the projection booth.

Up in the projection booth.

Up there are a few intriguing things, including reels with film still spooled on them and a circular opening in the floor down which it appears all sorts of things were tossed in the past, including printed materials that could hold some bits of theater history.

The French Renaissance auditorium is a sight to behold, with its curved back wall and row of elevated boxes, It really does look like a European opera house.


There is a central chandelier (which can be lowered for cleaning and maintenance via a crank above the ceiling), Corinthian columns, rococo plaster work, those G.A. Brand murals – some of which were painted by Brand himself – red velvet drapery ... it all looks a bit like one of those incredible vintage circus wagons you’ll find a few blocks away at Circus World Museum.

The seats are all from 1934 (when the originals were replaced) – they’ve been re-upholstered, of course – and the arm rests still have the slots used to hold tickets showing which seats had been sold.

Vaudeville lights
The vaudeville lights (above) and the view from the stage with the footlights at the bottom (below).

Flanking the stage are the original vaudeville-era lights that indicated which act was currently on stage.

Onstage, the footlights remain, as does a fire curtain painted by Chicago-based scenic house Sosman & Landis.

fire curtain
The painted fire curtain. (PHOTO: Circus World)

When I visited, Saloutos worked his magic and the Barton organ that was installed in 1928 rose up on a lift on the left side of the orchestra pit. He then sat down, flicked some switches on the console and began to serenade us.

Originally, the theater had a Wurlitzer organ that was centered in a smaller orchestra pit. That one had a mechanical roll player so the organ could provide music even without an organist.

According to a post on, that organ (an Opus 29, a 2 manual/6 rank) had been installed at the Frement Theatre in Oakland in 1913, but had been rpossessed by Wurlitzer, rebuilt as an Opus 70 and sent to the Ringling in 1915.

barton organX
playing the organX

“Ringling Theatre bought a 3 manual/9 rank, Mighty Golden-voiced Barton Organ,” the CinemaTreasures post notes.

“This made sense because Dan Barton had toured in 1909 with the Ringling Brothers Circus. In fact, the organ console style used in this theater, and many other installations, is referred to as the ‘circus wagon,’ because of its lavish use of carvings and the red and gold coloring.”

When the Oshkosh-made Barton was added, the orchestra pit was enlarged, requiring the removal of a row of seats.

Backstage, there are dressing rooms beneath the maple stage floor, and they maintain their original feel and details like corner sinks, too. At the bottom of the stairs is a large mirror that many believe to be haunted.

A backstage dressing room.

Lionel Barrymore is among the famous folks who performed here, as is Count Basie.

Sadly, Al. Ringling himself didn’t get to enjoy the theater much. He died on Jan. 1, 1916, leaving it in the capable hands of house manager C. Leonard Roser, who ran the place for more than 35 years.

Ringling’s nephew Henry Ringling Jr. owned the theater until his death in 1955, when it was sold. It was later purchased by Milwaukee’s Dr. and Mrs. Leon Mudd, who undertook a restoration in the 1980s.

In 1989, fearing it would be sold and turned into a multiplex, ART Friends of Baraboo bought the Al. Ringling Theatre and they were the folks who did the 2015-16 restoration, preserving this gem for the future.

“Amazingly, the theatre has remained almost completely intact over the years, despite some 1970s renovations made with the best intentions that were corrected in the 1990s,” notes

“The theater continues to mainly screen movies, but is also used for live shows, concerts and community gatherings,” including school plays and concerts.

In fact, for about a half a century from 1915 onward, the theater hosted the graduation ceremonies for Baraboo High School and surrounding communities.

It truly is a community center.

The future

Now, the Circus World Museum staff has begun booking the venue. While they inherited the scheduled community theater performances, they’ve secured appearances by Chuck Wagner and Eric Michael Gillett (Broadway and television and films actors and Ringling Bros. circus personalities), jazz singer and musician Gunhild Carling and Charo.

There is also a slate of holiday movies set for late in the year.

“Celebrating the transformative experiences that the arts, in all of its forms, can afford the human experience is an awesome responsibility,” O’Donnell says. “Having just announced our initial slate of shows, with more to come, has been met with excitement within our local community and beyond.

“Adding the Al. Ringling Theatre to Circus World and Wisconsin Historical Society holdings, aligns perfectly in our mission to preserve and interpret Wisconsin’s greatest stories. The legacy of the Ringling Bros, creating an iconic all American brand still known the world over, is intimately associated with the performance arts.”

Find a complete schedule online here.

Tours of the theater are also available, and you can find details on those here.

“The strength of the Al. Ringling Theatre will elevate the vibrancy of Baraboo’s downtown business district and allow for visitors from beyond our community to visit and explore all of the dynamic offerings that our community has to offer,” O’Donnell says.

up on the roof
Up on the roof.

“While some circus arts will be shared at the Al., Circus World will remain the home to celebrate the over 100 circuses that have called the state of Wisconsin home. That said, we look forward to adding tours and some programming at the Al. Ringling Theatre as part of the daily guest experience at Circus World.”

At a time when many glorious theaters have been shuttered or, shudder, demolished, it’s thrilling to see this stunning place not only survive but continue to thrive and shine as a beacon for its community.

“The Al. Ringling Theatre since its inception in 1915, has been the regional home for the arts. Keeping the theater connected to local arts organizations while welcoming national and international artists to its storied stage is our opportunity and goal,” O’Donnell says.

“That, coupled with special events, interfacing with Dells conventions, being a stunning wedding location, a potential home to a film festival and more will keep the Al. Ringling Theatre not only America’s Prettiest Playhouse but an incubator for the arts serving rural communities.”

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.