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The Grand Mystery of Ambrose Small

One of the greatest unsolved mysteries in Canadian history is the disappearance of theatre magnate Ambrose Small.

At the time of his disappearance, Small was 53 years old and at the height of his career. A successful Canadian theatrical producer and self-made millionaire, he owned theatres in 7 cities and controlled bookings in 62 others across Ontario. Although he lived in a Toronto Rosedale mansion, the showcase of his pride was London, Ontario's Grand Theatre (on Richmond Street), which he rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1900 and owned and operated with a passion.



The glamour of theatre either began to wane for Small, or it was in the coming of motion picture technology that Small saw the opportunity to unload his business. On the day before his disappearance from downtown Toronto he sold his chain of theatres for $1.7 million. On the afternoon of December 2nd, 1919, Small deposited the cheque in the bank, had lunch with his wife and then returned to his work at the Toronto Grand Opera House (demolished in 1946). According to the Globe and Mail, "Small left the theatre, purchased a newspaper and then disappeared."

Police suspected foul play due to Small's sizable fortune. During an extensive search of the Rosedale ravine, detectives received reports that a night watchman at London's Grand Theatre had talked to Small on the night of his disappearance. Although this seemed improbable, Small's favourite theatre was literally dismantled by local police and investigators in a thorough search, but no body was ever found, and the money in the bank remained untouched. In 1923 he was pronounced dead, but the case was not actually closed until 1960. The story of Ambrose Small's disappearance has resurfaced several times in literary form, including Michael Ondaatje's novel, In the Skin of the Lion, and in Fred McClement's "The Strange Case of Ambrose Small", which forms the basis of "Sleeping Dogs Lie" -- a made for TV movie aired by the CBC in 1999.

The question of what happened to Ambrose Small remains unanswered; however, since the time of his vanishing, his spirit is said to be watching over "his" theatre in London. Many of the theatre staff as well as cast and crew members have reported seeing his apparition in various parts of the building such as the balcony and catwalks, even floating above the heads of an unsuspecting audience during performances! There have also been many reports of phantom footsteps, lights and other electrical appliances turning on and off by themselves, and more recently, strange hissing sounds of no apparent origin resonating throughout the theatre. Most notably, in the 1970s, Small's ghost is credited to have saved the theatre's most prominent architectural feature from unintentional demolition. During extensive renovations, a backhoe was tearing down part of the west wall, which contains an enormous arch with an irreplaceable hand-painted mural which was the theatre's focal point. Inexplicably, the backhoe stalled. Engineers later determined that the machine had stopped one brick short of having the priceless feature come crashing to the ground. The wall was immediately shored up and the last supporting brick is showcased in a display case to this day.

Apparently, the ghost of Ambrose Small is not the only one to haunt the theatre. An apparition of a woman, believed to be a former cleaning lady, has been sighted on the stairs of the theatre and when the Grand hosted a production about the Black Donnelly's it's reported that the entire clan (or at least their manifestations) turned out to join the cast and crew.

Further details and history can be found at the Grand Theatre's website at http://www.grandtheatre.com/

Thanks to Ingrid

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