What better way to celebrate the history of America’s original movie palace than by shooting a movie about it?
Five students at the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County are compiling a historical video archive about the Al. Ringling Theatre. The footage is designed to serve as the basis for a film and book celebrating the theater’s centennial. The students’ tasks has included interviewing locals who have performed at the theater or spearheaded efforts to renovate it.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is how involved the community is with the theater,” student Jason Chatman said.
He’s part of Michael Jacobs’ class, History 225: 100 Years at the Al. Ringling Theatre. Students have spent the semester interviewing community members, setting up a Facebook page and combing through historical Ringling documents.
“This is a lot more work than I thought I’d be doing,” student Elizabeth Onheiber said. “It’s like taking a drink out of a fire hose — it’s a lot at once.”
The project is a partnership between the campus, the Al. Ringling Theatre Friends and the Sauk County Historical Society.
It started with an idea for a trailer to be shown before movies to commemorate the theater’s history and promote renovation efforts.
It has expanded into a push to create a video archive of the theater’s history and to provide footage a professional director could use to put together a documentary. The project secured a grant from the Sauk County Board’s art and historical preservation committee to pay for Jacobs’ time.
Students are learning the craft of historians, Jacobs said, looking through unprocessed Al. Ringling papers at the Historical Society and interviewing community actors.
They’ve also become crusaders, promoting the Ringling Theatre — whose design was inspired by the Palace of Versailles — as America’s original movie palace.
“I liked the fact I was helping out with a cause,” Ryan Rott said.
“I just wanted to be a part of saving the Al.,” Heather Breunig added. “It’s such a great venue.”
The class plans to present a public forum at the end of the summer to showcase its work. The students then hope to hand off the project to professional directors and writers to finish the job. “I want to see it done professionally and look good,” Onheiber said. “That’s going to give the whole thing more credibility.”