A deceptively small town off the beaten path, Baraboo is where the five Ringling brothers launched a showbiz dream that took them to the top of the big top. This is where they raised their first tent. Where they developed a rare working chemistry (no contracts ever signed) that made them the envy of the show world. Make no mistake, my friend, this is the place. Give it a little of your time — it seems to float in limbo like Brigadoon — and you can get answers to questions you never asked but should have ... Talk to a towner and chances are, she knows someone who knew somebody who was there when the red wagons rumbled and the elephants roared. And did you realize that ...
The combined genius of the brothers crowds the barns and the files, the train yards and the halls of Circus World (they’ve dropped "Museum" from the title). Among the attractive displays at the fabulously upscale Irvin Feld Center, my absolute favorite is a revelation: the most emotionally engaging photo I have ever seen of the brothers (Otto was away at the time -- you can view it right here, down below.) They appear serenely linked by a shared sense of divine destiny. From whence the mindset? From Al? From all four in blessed unspoken camaraderie?
Altogether, a magnificent collection which likely dwarfs any other such facility on the planet, luckily Circus World was recently given a reprieve under the new direction of Stephen Freese ... Here in its spangled shadows, you’ll glimpse the tarnished trappings of a once-superior amusement giant that ruled sawdust lots from coast to coast — long before the decline of so many great American icons. Before Santa Fe’s Super Chief faded into Damtrak mediocrity ... before Ford lost out to Toyota, circus to cirque ... Here, I walk the streets listening for clues, reaching for fresh insights at ground zero... hoping to make contact ... Can you hear me, Charles? Alf T.? Al? What did you guys really think?
On a Thursday evening, into the Al Ringling Theatre I venture.
Did you know that, according to the theatre Historical Society of America, this was the country’s first "movie palace"? A man near a popcorn machine waiting for an audience to appear tells me with a shrug that if somebody does show up, he will run the film ... How poignant ... I have just come from the dineresque Little Village Cafe down the street, where a perfect Caesar salad with chicken was served me while Ella on cd sang from the great American songbook. (Try their blackened salmon, another treat.) Now, the movie guy is encouraging me to take a look-see in the empty theatre, and I am awed by its grand tattered opulence.
My digs are another civic landmark — the Gollmar House, a bed and breakfast in a stately old Victorian on Third Street now run by John and Sharon, who display a certain delight in hosting strangers from afar. They have assigned me the Queen Ann upstairs. Other than being chased by an invading bat while John and Sharon are out taking a "walk," the furnishings are old world fine. The late Don Marcks would have felt perfectly at home here. And I am fairly shocked to learn that the Gollmar Brothers put out the fourth largest rail show in 1916. Please sign me up, somebody, for circus 1A. Blame it on those Ringling press agents.
Baraboo, rife with Ringling lore, is also culturally "with it." At Annie’s Village Booksmith each Friday evening, poets from nearby gather to share verse (from young love lost to post-hippie anger) with like-mined souls. Encouraged by Sharon of Gollmar, I have come here to sample the soft cozy ambiance after taking in the film "Blades of Glory’ at the Al Ringling — Nine teenagers and I showed up to give the guy at the popcorn machine a reason to turn the projector on. (Note to the avid restorationists known as Al Ringling Theatre Friends: the gas lamps, smelling too much like unlit pilot lights, are a tad unsettling.)
Earlier that day in the depths of Circus World’s vast archival regions, reinstated archivist-in-chief Erin Foley invites me to dig for some truth through the imposing Ringling-Barnum archives. Boxes upon boxes. I select a couple, and in them discover stunningly rare handwritten notes by John Ringling North that put far more emotion into a man too often viewed as distant and unengaged. And for a bonus, CW's "Heavy," who restores wagons and oversees the grounds, drives me back to an off-site shed that shelters carnival wagons, among them Foley & Burk's Thimble Theatre fun house. The thing fascinated me at the Sonoma County Fair in my boyhood ... Next dream: to see the Thimble Theatre up and open for business again ... Heavy also takes me on an impromptu tour of the imposing train barns nearby , which someday may be opened to the public. What bold industrialists the brothers were!
At lunch, Erin and I find a table at the Opera cafe upstairs on Oak Street in one of the town’s older buildings. The place is a buzz with the chatter of ladies who lunch... Gracious is the atmosphere ... In the evening, I sit on a bench at town square, observing the passing scene. Boys on bikes. Girls making an impression. Men walking dogs.
The next morning at the Gollmar, a kindly retired dentist who hardly looks or acts his nearly 88 years named Bob Dewel arrives to share breakfast with me and two other Golmar guests. We are dazzled by a succession of irresistible plates, a feast fit for Ringling royalty prepared by Sharon and served by her waiter-bus boy husband John. And of course, we talk circus. Did you know, for instance, that there was an eighth Ringling boy named George? He died in infancy. And here I must tell you, with great regrets, that an entire roll of film I shot containing pictures of this time-period's events was completely lost.
.... A few hours later, Bob offers to give us his Al Ringling Theatre tour, and what an eye opener it is. More Ringling facts and mythology — they haunt this sacred palace, and Dr. Bob is determined not to let the world forget. Not to let a landmark fall into tragically irreversible disrepair as so many have. What a lucky town: the good doctor who once drilled for gold is now drilling through paint and fabric for color authenticity to help restore a theatre to the way it actually was in the beginning, and he is drilling for funding from people of means. The town only has two in the millionaire class, he shares, and one of them (name not given) is connected to the circus. Bob is also a self-effacing organist of superb keyboard skills who thrills us with a few tunes. The music is sent gloriously through 600 pipes. Movie palace, yes. "We’re not good at promoting ourselves," Bob will state more than once during the tour.
We are invited backstage to examine the old gears and pulleys, and then up to the balcony to view the very seat at which, it has been carefully surmised, Al Ringling himself sat on opening night, November 17, 1915 when a touring production from New York of Lady Luxury brought the curtain up on the virgin stage. Louise Ringling sat next to the now virtually blind Al, painting for him pictures of the event. To reach their private box, the two had crossed the street and entered through the stage door, then up a private staircase so that Al could avoid lobby talk. Within six weeks, the mightiest of all the Ringling brothers (sorry, John) was dead ...
From circus to rails. Returning to California on the Coast Starlate, what a treat to discover on our consist a parlor car from Santa Fe, circa 1956, named the Pacific. Shades of rail travel USA when trains competed for customers as today’s pc makers do. Remember the free market? Remember the California Zephyr, the Milwaukee Road's Hiawatha [above, left], Rodgers & Hammerstein on Broadway, and the Greatest Show on Earth under the greatest big top on earth?
Remember, too, when Al Ringling built a palace with a hundred thousand dollars of his own money and in only seven months. And if this town’s kindly dentist turned scholar has his way, Baraboo residents and visitors alike will forever be reminded of what a triumphant and very tangible legacy Al Ringling left the town in which his dream became a reality – and of what a great showman he really was. Oh, those five amazing brothers ... By the way, did you hear about the time when Otto made a bold move to ...
[Except for photos of the Al Ringling Theatre, all other shots are from the camera of Showbiz David]