Okay! So, I promised you more adventures here in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and today is the day! We are going to do some exploring of some sites that are connected to the Ringling Brothers. The weather is perfect here today with tons of sunshine, a few puffy clouds floating around, and a pleasant breeze, so let’s get started!
First, we need to fuel up, so we are going to grab some breakfast here at the Broadway Diner. This is a 1950s diner that was bought and then moved from New Jersey to right here in Baraboo. The atmosphere and service are fantastic! It is not your typical diner or restaurant by any means. I mean, where else can you watch most of your food being made right there behind the eating counter? Now, I will say that this is a very popular spot and you may have to wait a little for a seat, but the food and the atmosphere are worth any wait. This food is yummo! So, with this hearty breakfast and an excellent shot of morning caffeine in us, let’s get going to our first stop on this day’s adventure!
Today we are going to start at the Al Ringling Theatre. Al had wanted to give back something to the community that had been his home for many years and finally decided upon building a theater. But not just any theater. It had to be as modern and as safe as he could make it for the time. He found an architect and had plans drawn up. Then in 1915 a very intense seven month build started. Yes, seven months. Most of the construction of the building was done with brick, steel, some concrete, and marble. Very little wood used. He also included the new electrical lighting, but had gas lights added for those times when the power was out. Let’s be real. This is Wisconsin, and power outages are a real thing, especially then.
Are you ready for the tour? Our tour guide is waiting for us, so we better get inside. I have to admit that the original main lobby is stunning with the marble tile floor. Murals on the walls and ceilings, and the multiple friezes that run around the entire lobby. The original ticket box is still here as well, where you would purchase your tickets AND receive a program. From here you step into the ‘horseshoe’ lobby, which runs around the edges of the theater proper. It also has the staircases that lead to the second floor boxes and the men and ladies ‘retiring rooms’, which are so beautiful. The theater itself is magnificent, glorious, overwhelming even! (Can you tell I’m kind of blown away? You will be too!!) Al wanted the best for his patrons and he got it for them. Do you remember what I said about Baraboo before- location, location, location- well, that let this theater flourish, and much vaudeville and other theater troupes turn a ‘dark night’ (a night with no performance and thus no income) into a performance night.
Traveling troupes and performers that were going from Chicago to Minneapolis. They could add a performance night in by changing trains or switching rail lines at Madison and going to Baraboo. Patrons could come in the same way, and could even purchase their theater ticket at the railroad office when they purchased their rail tickets. Most acts had ladies that walked across the stage with signs to announce the next act or performer. Al Ringling wanted his theater to have more class. So he insisted on having programs that had the acts designated by letters and the letter of the act would be lit at the side of the stage on the light board. There is color and elegance everywhere in this theater, from the seats to the cherubs in the murals on the ceilings. But even more important, there are acoustics, as sound is everything in the theater. Al had the theater used for more than just traveling theater troupes. They also showed movies in this space.
To do so, an organ was installed. The first one is gone, but the second organ and the lift that they placed it on are still part of the theater. The organ was used because movies came with a score for an organ, or sometimes a small band/orchestra. Our tour guide is one of the few who has played this Mighty Barton Organ, and she is playing a piece that is showing off the Baton’s impressive sound! Wow, just wow! This was a seven-month build and Al was there every day that he could be and when he couldn’t be, he oversaw things from a rocking chair in his bedroom window. The theater opened on November 17, 1915 with the performance of “Lady Luxury”, a musical comedy. The theater was sold out. Unfortunately, Al never got to see just how wonderful his theater would become, as he died just six weeks after the opening performance. Well, as much as I would love to sit here and listen to more music and hear more about this beautiful building and its history, we have to keep moving. It is time for the next part of our adventure here in Baraboo.
Right out front of the theater, we are meeting up with Shelley, the proprietress of Baraboo’s Rickshaw Tours. Let me tell you, Shelley is a fantastic lady, knowledgeable about Baraboo and its history. She knows the who, what, when, and where. She does all kinds of tours, so be sure to call her and hook yourself up with a tour of this wonderful town. I know I’ll be calling her up for another one or two. Shelley has dropped us off at our next destination, The Ringling House Bed and Breakfast. She promised to pick us up to take us to our final destination later, so that she can show us even more of Baraboo.
The Ringling Bed and Breakfast is a unique piece of property and history here in Baraboo. Charles Ringling was the last of the Ringling Brothers to build here in Baraboo in 1901. What became the carriage house was here as a barn, and was expanded upon to house his carriages and a chicken coop. On the upper level with the hay storage, he had an area built for his homing pigeons he loved to race when he had the opportunity. There was even a greenhouse area added to the building. His home had many modern features including a fire suppression system that was fed by a cistern, two safes- one was a walk-in safe in the basement where it is believed receipts from the circus were kept, and a walk-in ice chest that was lined with lead. There was even a small elevator, adding around 1915. We have heard that there are rumors around town that there was a tunnel system that connected Charles’ home to the circus and some of the other family homes. However, no tunnels have been found.
Julie told us they were looking to do something different, like a bed-and-breakfast, when they found this place for sale. They are both history buffs and loved the architecture when they saw the home. They enjoy sharing the history and beauty of the home with their bed-and-breakfast guests and others who tour the home and they have come to love Baraboo as well. I must say, I’d love to spend a week and soak it all in and learn even more! The rooms bring the time of the early 1900s to life. The dining room with its beautifully built-in cupboards, the table and sideboard that belonged to Henry Ringling, and the woodwork that ties the who room together. The front sitting room flows into the music room that is made complete with a baby grand Steinway piano. From there, you can venture into the library and see the glass-fronted bookcases that have a beautiful stained glass detail in the glass doors. Here you will see even more of the Ringling family history in pictures and belongings scattered about the room.
Charles eventually left Baraboo for Evansville, Illinois and then Sarasota, Florida, where he spent the rest of his life. Henry Ringling took over ownership of the home when Charles left. The last Ringling decent to live in the house died here in 2005. She left the house intact, except to remodel the kitchen so that she could do cooking demonstrations. That remodeling has made it easier for Julie with the bed-and-breakfast.
Well, it is time for us to meet up with Shelley again to learn more about Baraboo history and get a ride to our next destinations here in Baraboo. But, that will have to wait for the next time we meet here. I promise I’ll tell you more soon in Baraboo, Wisconsin Adventures Continued!
By Marilu Miller
Photos By DWT
Featured Image By Driftless Area Magazine