Keeper of the Ringling Bros. Flame

East Hampton fan helps tend the circus’s legacy at a Wisconsin mansion
Donald Horowitz collects circus memorabilia, including a circa 1950s pennant and chair from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and a tent stake he believes dates to the 1930s. Durell Godfrey

Children of all ages were dealt a crushing blow when, on May 21, after 146 years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus gave its last-ever performance, at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale.

Like the essentially defunct Cole Bros. Circus, which once erected the big top on the grounds of the Southampton Elks Lodge in the summer, the Greatest Show on Earth fell victim to declining ticket sales, particularly after the circus, under pressure from animal rights activists, eliminated elephants from its performances last year. The modern world’s seemingly limitless entertainment choices didn’t help: Young people are more likely to be engrossed in online gaming than gazing in wonder at a ring of snarling lions or trapeze artists high overhead.

For Donald Horowitz, a co-owner of Wittendale’s Florist and Greenhouses on Newtown Lane in East Hampton, May 21 was particularly bittersweet. With like-minded friends, he attended the last performance, one of hundreds he had witnessed.

“The audience was so enthusiastic,” Mr. Horowitz, who is from North Woodmere, said on Tuesday. “The circus has always been part of peoples’ lives. I saw young kids and thought, ‘They’re not going to have the opportunity anymore, their younger brother or sister will never have the opportunity.’ It’s a void, and I feel for the public and the little kids that will not see it.”

But the show must go on, and just as Gettysburg is to the Civil War, the Al. Ringling Mansion, in Baraboo, Wis., is to the Greatest Show on Earth, Mr. Horowitz offered. Which is why Mr. Horowitz and two longtime Ringling Brothers employees, Joe and Carmen Colossa, purchased it in 2013.

It was built in 1905 — boom times for the circus — by C. August Albrecht Ring­ling, the eldest of five brothers.

“By the 1900s, the brothers had a very successful show and started to build homes in Baraboo, their hometown and winter quarters,” Mr. Horowitz said. “Al built a very opulent home.”

The mansion offers tours, weddings and receptions, banquet facilities, and will soon feature a bed-and-breakfast. Now, more than ever before, it will preserve the circus as an integral component of American culture. “That’s become the new focus within my hobby,” Mr. Horowitz said.

The long and winding road to the East Hampton resident’s ownership of a mansion in Baraboo started early. “I guess it goes back to when I was in junior high school,” Mr. Horowitz said, and an interest in the logistics of traveling tent circuses. “I read everything I could find on the subject from the public library,” he said. “I saw a few shows, here and there, in high school.”

Attending college in Farmingdale, a circus came to town and sought students to help set up and load equipment, and Mr. Horowitz moved to live out every boy’s dream. “I thought I would never finish school,” he said. “But I needed to go to college.”

Years later, as an owner of Wittendale’s in the mid-1980s, “I drove by the Elks Lodge one day and saw the Cole Brothers circus setting up its tent.” Watching the goings-on, “everything I remembered reading was coming to life. Here it was on a smaller scale, even though Cole was large for a modern show: tents, trucks, equipment, electric, the big top, elephants, the cookhouse. That was the modern hook, almost like a magnet.”

The rekindled interest led Mr. Horowitz to discover and join the Circus Fans Association of America. “Then I discovered more people like myself. They have a national convention every year, and you get to meet other people. Through some good friends, I got to meet circus people.” He befriended many performers and crewmembers.

Mr. Colossa, a trainmaster, was with Ringling Brothers for about 14 years, Mr. Horowitz said. With her brothers, Ms. Colossa was part of a troupe of motorcyclists that spun at death-defying speed within a steel globe. “I was the best man at their wedding,” Mr. Horowitz said of the couple. “Through our friendship, it developed that we bought the Al. Ringling mansion in Baraboo, a circus community of sorts.” The city served as headquarters for Ringling Brothers and other circuses from 1884 to 1917. The Circus World Museum, the International Clown Hall of Fame, and the Al. Ringling Theatre are also in Baraboo.

The partners are restoring the mansion, which had been acquired by the Baraboo Elks Club in 1936, to the splendor of its heyday, Mr. Horowitz said. “The Elks lodge added very large ballrooms, so we’re in the wedding business as well, and host other parties that need space. We’ve had comedy events there, a battle of the bands. Joe’s hobby is the Titanic, so he’s created a ‘Titanic’ dinner with people in black tie and gowns, and actors that portray others from the ship.”

The bed-and-breakfast will open with two guestrooms in the fall, Mr. Horowitz said, and will ultimately offer five. The mansion is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the partners have created the Friends of the Al. Ringling Mansion, a nonprofit organization to which people can donate toward its restoration and acquisition of circus artifacts.

Mr. Horowitz visits the mansion approximately six times per year, and plans to attend an upcoming circus parade and Ringling Brothers reunion in Baraboo. “They’re expecting people that worked for Ringling for many years,” he said.

The demise of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus “put a real void in my activities,” Mr. Horowitz said. “When the show was nearby, I would keep track. As it went west, I lost track of where they were each week, but had friends on the show. I’d ask ‘Where are you this week?’ It was always a comfortable feeling knowing the show was out there, somewhere in America, and if not out there, in Florida, rehearsing for a new performance.”

Among the community of circus performers and crew, “It was always, ‘See you down the road,’ ” Mr. Horowitz remembered, “maybe the following year, or with another circus. Sooner or later they would resurface somewhere, but now with Cole Brothers and especially Ringling gone, it won’t be as easy.”

A handful of smaller circuses remains, Mr. Horowitz said, along with the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, which includes a circus museum, in Sarasota, Fla. “And the mansion in Baraboo,” where circus aficionados can meet two longtime Ringling Bros. employees. “People who lived it,” he said.