The 1889 Birdseye map, above, of Baraboo shows the Grande Opera House at the upper right at the northwest corner of Fifth and Oak. No picture has been discovered of the building which served as Baraboo’s largest meeting space for over 20 years. The Baraboo square is shown at left surrounding the old brick courthouse which burned down in December of 1904 just a few months before the opera house.
This year marks the centennial of construction of the Al. Ringling Theatre. This twice-monthly article will chronicle construction of the theater as it happened 100 years ago and discuss the details of its design, construction and history.
The Al. Ringling Theatre might never have been built in 1915 had it not been for a fire that occurred in February 1905. The victim was the Grande Opera House, which sat on the northwest corner of Fifth and Oak — where the building that houses the Coffee Bean Connection now stands. Despite its name, the Grande was not a particularly grand building. But it was nonetheless Baraboo’s largest assembly space, reportedly being able to hold up to 1,000 people.
The building might have been more ornate had it actually been built as a theater, but it was originally built in 1884 as a roller skating rink. The 1880s marked the first of several boom periods for the activity and Baraboo was not left out when John Hull and a partner invested $5,000 in the construction of the building, which was somewhat of an engineering marvel of its day. The wood building measured 120 by 60 feet, fronting on Oak Street with the main hall being most of the building at a commodious size of 100 by 60 feet. The main feature of the building was that the roof was supported by curved trusses, eliminating the need for interior posts that would interfere with the “healthful exercise of skating” and with sight lines when the building was used for assemblies.
The skating rink opened in late March 1884 with 150 pairs of skaters taking to the hard maple floor and with at least as many spectators lining the walls and taking in the music of the Baraboo Brass Band. As Baraboo’s largest hall, the building was soon used for other events. A masquerade ball was given less than a month later and other performances were held, but the building did not have a formal stage.
A more legitimate performance space, albeit much smaller, was built the same year in the second floor of a new brick building at 518 Oak St. Thompson Warren, who was busy that year enlarging and transforming the old Sumner House Hotel on the square into the Warren Hotel, constructed the Oak Street building to house a pool hall on the first floor and an opera house on the second floor complete with scenery from Chicago. The space housed the Garden Party Café until its recent closure.
The roller skating craze in Baraboo slowed down after a few years. In an ironic twist of fate, the roller skating rink was purchased in 1887 by George Capener, who converted it into a proper opera house. Meanwhile, Warren’s second-floor opera hall was eventually converted into a roller skating rink due to its small stage and seating capacity.
Capener was a local architect and builder who remodeled the roller rink by adding a 30-foot deep stage across the west end of the building. Scenery was ordered from Chicago and the floor was lowered in front of the stage to improve sight lines. More than 700 seats were permanently added to the new opera house, which officially opened in September 1887 with a performance by the Alvin Joslin Comedy Company. Theatergoers were delighted by the performance and the elaborate scenery. One scene portraying Pier 29 in New York City with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background elicited loud applause, but the newspaper reported that the railroad and bus scenes had to be omitted as they could be produced on the largest stages only.
Despite its limitations Capener’s Opera House, later dubbed the Grande, fulfilled the need for all types of entertainment and public assemblies. In 1897, the opera house advertised a demonstration of Thomas Edison’s Projectoscope, which would display moving pictures of cars, burning buildings, ships going down at sea, “and other startling scenes, as real as life.” This may have been the first moving picture exhibition in Baraboo. In later years, the Grande Opera House hosted such notables as William Jennings Bryan, John Philip Sousa and Robert M. LaFollette.
For nearly 20 years the opera house met the need for a large auditorium space in Baraboo, but this ended Feb. 22, 1905, when the building burned to the ground. A nearby resident is reported to have heard an explosion, after which the building was quickly engulfed in flames. The fire was so intense that several nearby homes were scorched and at one point one of the fire hoses caught on fire and burned through, allowing water to fly in all directions.
A newspaper account noted that since the old opera house was now out of the way a fine new opera house could be built in keeping with the new post office and courthouse, which were under construction. It would be 10 years, however, before Baraboo had a new space that could hold as many people as the Grande. Al. Ringling would eventually build it, but in February 1905 he was busy planning his own mansion. This would require his attention for the next two years.
Speculation about whether or not Baraboo would ever have a new opera house was put to rest in 1912 when Al. Ringling purchased the pioneer-era Wisconsin House on the north side of the square and had it demolished. During Baraboo’s infamous Whiskey War the old hotel was the first tavern to be emptied of its liquor by a group of women in 1854. Baraboo would have to wait another three years however before Al. Ringling finally got around to building his new opera house – the wait was rewarded by an even more elegant design than the one forecasted in 1912.
Opera house construction stalled
2015 will mark the centennial of the construction of the Al. Ringling Theatre. This bi-monthly article will chronicle the construction of the theatre as it happened 100 years ago and discuss the details of its design, construction and history. Paul Wolter is the current president of the Sauk County Historical Society and is passionate about the Al. and its place in early movie palace history
With the destruction of the Grande Opera House by fire in 1905, Baraboo was left without any place for large gatherings or performances. The loss of the homely structure was not entirely mourned as it was the hope of many that a new opera house would soon be built – a much grander one, consistent with the quality of the new civic buildings that had recently been built in Baraboo. These included the elegant new depot and railroad offices (1902), the Carnegie Free Library (1903) and the new post office and court house which were both under construction in 1905. By the end of the year, a plan was implemented to convert the old Catholic church into an opera house. The first show was given in the remodeled building almost a year after the fire. This was seen only as a stop gap measure and the desire for a new opera house lead to several schemes in succeeding years to raise the money necessary to build a respectable building. Early plans asked people to donate to the cause, an idea which never resulted in enough money for an investor to take on the rest of the risk. The most serious scheme came in 1911 when former Baraboo boy John H. Kartack offered to build a $30,000 opera house if local investment would amount to $15,000. Subscribers were offered a return on investment of 5 percent per annum but the enticement was not enough and the plan fell apart in the summer of 1911.
Finally in March 1912 Baraboo was abuzz with the news that Mr. and Mrs. Al. Ringling had completed the purchase of the old Wisconsin House on the north side of the square and would build a lavish new opera house on the site. All three Baraboo newspapers reported specific details about the proposed building assuring people that this time the opera house was for real. It was also reported that the Isenberg Bros. construction firm had been engaged to begin tearing down the pioneer-era Wisconsin House immediately.
The old hotel was a storied landmark with two distinct parts. The east portion of the building was built of brick in 1850 with a western addition built of wood years later. The original portion was reportedly the first brick building in Baraboo and was sometimes known as the Little Dutch Tavern. Most notably it was the site of the opening round of Baraboo’s infamous Whiskey War of 1854. The “war” was conducted by a group of about 50 women who had been bolstered in their temperance-minded beliefs by at least two of Baraboo’s clergymen. The group had long wished that Baraboo would go dry and according to one history book the final straw occurred when one of the village’s habitual drunks and domestic abusers drank himself to death. Apparently an abusive husband and father was better than none at all in the days before social safety nets. To remedy the situation the group of women assembled on a May morning and marched to the Little Dutch Tavern determined to rid Baraboo of its demon liquor. After the group gained entrance they carried out all of the kegs and barrels of liquor and emptied them in the street with their hatchets. After succeeding at another establishment, the affair turned more violent when “French Pete”, the owner of the third stop, barred the door. Accounts vary but a gun appeared and may have been fired and at least one poor soul on the defensive side of things last his pants in the scuffle. After the sheriff finally arrived and literally read the riot act the crowd eventually dispersed.
By 1912 the Whiskey War was an amusing anecdote from Baraboo’s pioneer past and the story and many others were undoubtedly recalled when the old tavern and hotel was pulled down. As the site was cleared Baraboo looked forward to a grand new opera house. The April 25 edition of the Baraboo Republic reported that the blue prints for the new opera house had arrived by express but also broke the bad news that Al. Ringling did not expect to build it that year. No reason was given but rumors had been circulating in town that Mr. and Mrs. Al. Ringling were moving to Chicago. The blinds had been closed at the Ringling’s palatial house for some time and the household things had been packed up and made ready to move. The same week another newspaper article happily reported though that the Ringlings would remain in Baraboo and things at the mansion were being unpacked. Even so, the opera house would not be built in 1912, 1913 or even 1914. The intriguing newspaper articles from 1912 only hint at the turmoil in the Ringlings’ private lives. Marital problems plus an ongoing feud with the State of Wisconsin over income taxes would delay the construction of the opera house but what Baraboo was eventually rewarded with would more than make up for the wait.
Little is known about the married relationship of Al. and Lou Ringling. In the spring of 1914 Al. Ringling filed for divorce but later that year patched things up by giving his wife $100,000, an amount equal to what it would take to build the theatre. Al.’s tax issues and marital troubles delayed the construction of the theatre for three years.
Taxes and Personal Problems Delay Theatre Construction
Speculation over whether Baraboo would ever have a new opera house ended in 1912 with the announcement that Mr. and Mrs. Al. Ringling would build a lavish new theatre for the city. All three of Baraboo’s newspapers reported that this would be a joint project by the couple. The Baraboo Republic stated, “One of the good features is that the building will be the property of Mr. and Mrs. Al. Ringling as they say, “equal partnership”. Mr. and Mrs. Ringling have planned many features of the great shows and it is safe to say they are competent to plan this opera house.” Over the next three years while the theatre construction was delayed due to financial and personal issues, the project would come to be seen as strictly Al. Ringling’s alone.
The financial issue began in 1911 when the State of Wisconsin enacted an income tax which amounted to 6% of annual incomes over $12,000. The Ringling brothers balked at the new tax for several reasons but their loudest argument against it was the fact that most of their income was made outside of the state. No doubt Al. did not want to over extend himself should he be required to pay state income tax and thus an expense such as a new theatre would have to wait. As the Ringling brothers threatened to move their circus operations out of Wisconsin altogether, appeals to the legislature to be exempted from the tax moved slowly through the capitol halls. In February of 1913, almost a year after the theatre was announced, the architect for the project wrote Al. Ringling asking him if he would be ready to proceed in a few weeks. Al. responded that the legislature was in session and that a decision would be made soon regarding the tax exemption. Although the tax issue was resolved favorably in April of 1913 and the Ringling brothers were granted an exemption, construction of the theatre still did not go forward however due to the trouble in Al.’s personal life.
While little is known about Al. and Lou Ringling’s private lives, by the spring of 1914 their marriage was in serious trouble and almost ended when Al. filed for divorce. The reason for the action is not known today due to the loss of certain court documents, but the private married life of Al. and Lou Ringling is one that is full of mystery from the beginning. Lou was born as Eliza Morris about 1851 in Pennsylvania, but moved to Iowa as an infant and eventually to McGregor, Iowa at age 12 where her father John Morris bought and operated a hotel. The nomadic Ringling family also lived in McGregor during this time and it is possibly that Al. Ringling and Eliza Morris knew each other as children. In 1867 using the name Louisa, Eliza Morris married Jefferson Redding in Prairie du Chien and the young couple is listed in the 1870 census living in the hotel of John Morris. Louisa’s life after this remains a mystery. She may have had up to three children with Jefferson Redding none of which seem to have survived. Her marriage to Redding also did not survive although it is unclear whether the couple divorced or if Redding died. Ultimately she did marry Al. Ringling but the exact date and place are open to interpretation. It is believed that the couple was married in December 1883 but no official documentation has yet been found. Seven years later in November 1890 Al. and Lou Ringling made a trip to Hoboken, New Jersey and were married again as Theodore Albert Runglung and Annie Eliza Morris. The reason for such action, far from the inquiring minds of Baraboo, can only be speculative but most likely something arose which called into question the validity of their earlier marriage. The November 1890 date is cited in the 1914 divorce proceedings. Fortunately Al. and Lou did patch things up and the couple did not divorce. In August of 1914 Al. Ringling gave his wife $100,000 to smooth things over, a sum equal to what it would take to build the new theatre the following year. Construction did begin in March 1915 and by this time one issue in Al.’s life that would actually hasten rather than delay the theatre was his health. By 1915 Al. Ringling was dying and as the year wore on it was unclear whether he would even live long enough to see his legacy gift completed. Fortunately he did make it to opening night and what he gave the city in 1915 was even more unique than what had been planned in 1912.
Theatre Design Different in 1912
If the Al. Ringling Theatre had been constructed in 1912 it would have been a much different building than the theatre that was ultimately built three years later. At the time the theatre project was announced in 1912, all three Baraboo newspapers described a substantially different building than the one we see today. The newspapers all gave some of the same details regarding the proposed theatre suggesting that there was a press release issued to all three of them. The Baraboo Republic was the most descriptive telling its readers that the new theatre would have a footprint of 78 x 132 feet and be three stories high. There would be a center lobby of 24 x26 feet with a store front on either side. Above this would be a row of offices. Numerous exits were detailed coming from the main floor and the balcony. The stage would have a proscenium opening of 32 x 20 feet and a depth of 36 feet. Two star dressing rooms would open off of the stage and 8 more dressing rooms would be underneath it. The seating capacity would be 1,200 and the interior would most likely be finished off in the Louis XIV style. While none of the newspapers noted who the architect for the 1912 design was it can be said with some certainty that it was the Chicago firm of Rapp & Rapp, consisting of brothers George L. and Cornelius W. Rapp, who later provided the design for the theatre that was built in 1915. Several weeks after the 1912 newspapers announced the details of the theatre it was reported that the blueprints had arrived by express but that Al. Ringling did not expect to build that season. Several months later in early 1913 Ringling received a letter from George L. Rapp asking him if he would be ready to build soon and reminding him that the plans and specifications had been done for some time. The description of the 1912 design also matches the type of theatre that the Rapps had been designing up to that point.
Cornelius or “C.W.” Rapp, who was eighteen years older than George, had been a Chicago architect for some years before joining with his brother to start the firm of Rapp & Rapp in 1906 or 1907. George Rapp was university educated having earned a degree in architecture from the University of Illinois in 1899 and by 1904 was working in the office of Chicago architect Edmund Krause. George Rapp helped on Krause’s design of the Majestic Building in Chicago which featured a theatre and high rise office tower. Sometime after the Majestic Theatre opened on January 1, 1906 the Rapp brothers opened their own firm and by 1907 were starting to design theaters across the upper Midwest. One of the first of these was in Des Moines, Iowa over 300 miles from Chicago. How two relatively unknown architects secured a job so far from their home office is explained by the fact that the Rapps had somehow secured the patronage of the Western Vaudeville Managers Association (WMVA) – a booking agency for chains of vaudeville theaters including the Orpheum circuit-- whose offices were in the new Majestic Building. The Rapps were put in charge of remodeling existing WMVA theaters and for designing new ones. The new Majestic Theatre in Des Moines was one such commission. For the next four years the Rapps would have at least one new theatre on their drawing boards each year. The early Rapp theaters were designed with French Second Empire facades incorporating arched windows and a mansard roof. Their use of French style would be a hallmark of their careers but their early designs concentrated the nod to France on the exterior of the theaters. The best example of this was realized in the 1910 Majestic Theatre in Dubuque, Iowa. In 1911 the Rapps designed the Orpheum Theatre in Madison, Wisconsin (not to be confused with the current Orpheum) which also used a French Second Empire façade. All of these theaters incorporated the center entrance flanked by two stores with a suite of offices above. Interiors all included a balcony making them well-appointed but typical vaudeville theaters of their day. The design reported in the Baraboo papers from 1912 describes such a theatre and it is likely the Al. would have looked a lot like the 1911 Madison Orpheum if Al. Ringling had started construction that year. As luck would have it fate intervened and the Rapp brothers’ career was allowed to mature before an entirely new design was drawn for Al. Ringling in late 1914.
The Al. Ringling Theatre would have looked quite a bit different had it been built in 1912 to the plans described in the newspapers at that time. The design would probably have resembled the 1911 Orpheum Theatre in Madison which was designed by Rapp & Rapp with a French Second Empire façade and typical vaudeville theatre interior complete with balcony.