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Wisconsin Historical Society acquires famed Baraboo theater

The Al. Ringling Theatre will become an extension of the society's Circus World

The Al. Ringling Theatre in downtown Baraboo. Photo by Bill Johnsen

The Wisconsin Historical Society will acquire the Al. Ringling Theatre in Baraboo after partnering with the nonprofit that runs the venue to raise more than $3 million.

The move is designed to ensure the long-term future of the century-old theater that once played host to vaudeville acts, opera and silent movies. 

The ornate theater will become an extension of the Circus World museum. It will slowly ramp up to a full programming schedule of touring acts while continuing to host community events. 

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“The pandemic was really difficult for a lot of arts organizations and particularly the theater. We didn’t have anything for about nine months, and then very limited programming after that,” said Charlene Flygt, president of the board for Al. Ringling Theatre Friends, Inc.

“It just became clear that the model that we had used to try to operate and sustain the theater was no longer workable,” she said. 

Al. Ringling Theatre Friends is a volunteer-led nonprofit that has run the theater since 1989. Discussions for a change in ownership began in July 2022. The organization partnered with the Historical Society to raise $3.07 million from local, private donors to fund the acquisition. 

Those funds include a $2 million endowment for the theater that will be held at the Baraboo-based Community Foundation of South Central Wisconsin. Another $1 million will go toward facility improvements. 

The most recent restoration of the theater was completed in 2016, and focused on the inside of the hall, box seating area and gallery lounge, according to the theater’s website. 

“From the curtain forward through the house and the lobby — it’s absolutely glorious,” said Scott O’Donnell, the executive director of Circus World museum.  “This (restoration) will be from the curtain back, so that we bring the theater up to modern day theatrical touring expectations.” 

Flygt said she has volunteered in every position, from box office and concessions to major fundraising. But she said her favorite role is giving tours to newcomers. 

“You just think it’s a little sort of unassuming place, and you walk in and often people’s jaws will drop because it’s so unexpectedly beautiful with gold and maroon draperies and columns,” she said. 

‘Sky’s the limit’

Charles August Albrecht “Al.” Ringling opened the 700-seat theater in 1915. He was a co-founder of the Ringling Brothers Circus that was headquartered in Baraboo from 1884 to 1918. Circus World sits on the Ringling shows’ former winter quarters. 

“The Al. Ringling Theatre is one of the first examples of opulent design applied to the moving picture theater in this country and it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in May 1976,” said Christian Overland, the CEO of the Wisconsin Historical Society. 

In its early years it featured performances from actors like Lionel Barrymore and Mary Pickford. Now, the theater hosts graduation ceremonies, community bands and choirs, and local repertory theater. 

Circus World is one of 12 historic sites in the society’s portfolio, and the theater will become an extension of the Circus World’s operations. 

O’Donnell said the theater will become a part of the daily experience of visiting the museum, and help the Circus World expand year-round programming. Currently, circus performances only happen during the summer months. 

“That’s sort of weather-dictated because it’s tough to be under a big top in the middle of February,” he said. 

O’Donnell wants to see the near-daily programming at the theater and is looking at starting a film festival. 

“It’s such an opportunity to fill it with dance recitals and opera singers and classical music or stand up comedians or Broadway talent,” he said. “Sky’s the limit, I suppose, of what you could do.”