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ambrose small 1905Ghost of the Grand
by Christopher Doty

Something has been bumping around London's Grand theatre for years. Is it the former owner?

Ambrose Jospeh Small was the most successful Canadian theatrical entrepreneur of the first half of this century. Within four decades he rose from the position of usher to the owner of a successful chain of live theatres across Ontario. The jewel of his empire was London's Grand Opera House, now known as the Grand Theatre.

An astute and sometimes ruthless operator , Small stepped on his share of necks during his monied business career. One New York producer branded him "a damned liar and a damned thief" while Small's wife claimed her husband "wouldn't have given away ten cents unless he was getting 20 cents back ."

But Small is not remembered so much for his life as for his death - or rather - for his disappearance . Hours after selling off his theatrical circuit for the then-astronomical sum of $1,750,000 the 52-year-old businessman stepped onto Younge Street in Toronto and vanished.

The investigation for Small's body was fruitless. Years later a second-hand story emerged that a local fruit vendor had witnessed a man stuffing something down the Grand Theatre's coal chute . The story was partially backed up by a stage hand who claimed some particularly pungent fumes belched out of the theatre's chimney on the evening of December 3, 1919 - the night after Small disappeared. Police reportedly sifted the Grand's huge furnace for human remains, but without success.

Five years later Small was declared legally dead. However, it was not the last Londoners would hear of Ambrose Small.

It's difficult to tell how the Grand became one of three known Canadians theatres to be haunted, but by the late 1940s part of its heritage included the legend that Small's spirit walked the stage after every opening night. Toronto-born comedian Beatrice Lillie supposedly saw the ghost beckon to her during a May 1927 performance. London historian Orlo Miller claimed that as she moved towards the spectre, a prop chandelier came crashing down on to the stage, narrowly missing Lillie.

Whether true or not, the incident proves Small's ghost was familiar with the then popular Lon Chaney film, The Phantom of the Opera.

In July of 1956 Miller was at it again, claiming that actor Charmion King saw a man standing at the foot of thestairway to her dressing room. When shown a photograph of Small, she identified him as the stranger. Years later, King denied the story but commented on the curious ability of the theatre's fly tower to "sing" on the night of a good performance.

A 1960 rehearsal of Gore Vidal's Visit to a Small Planet (which again involved Orlo Miller!) was stopped cold when a theatre seat suddenly flipped down to accommodate the posterior of an invisible audience member . "After a few minutes the seat went back to its original position," noted cast member Don Fleckser. "Now, you can tell me the seat just fell down, but you can't tell me it fell back up again."

The most compelling argument for a spiritual presence occurred on a summer evening in 1957 when a teenaged Jay Campbell and friend noticed a figure climbing a ladder up off stage. "It really didn't look like a person but from the waist up it had the form of a person," recalled Campbell who now serves as the meteorologist on a local television station. "It had an aura about it. "

It's possible that Campbell and his friend imagined it all - but it's unlikely they could have shared the same hallucination. By the 1970s the Grand had clocked enough ghostly visitations to prompt two seances on its stage during the summers of 1975 and 1976 . While the medium in charge never contacted Small, he was told the answer to the millionaire's disappearance would be found in the theatre's west wall. Unfortunately, this lead wasn't pursued during the Grand's 1977 renovations. The west wall was the only one left unexcavated.

But some of the Grand's regulars aren't so easily convinced by Small and the supernatural. Retired theatre manager Bill Trudell, who worked many late nights at the Grand in the early 1940s, was in an ideal position to see the ghost but never heard so much as chain rattle. "Where he was at that time I don't know," shrugged Trudell. "The ghost of Ambrose Small is a lot of malarkey."

During its centennial celebrations in 2001, the Grand Theatre officially recognized Small's contribution to its legacy and lore by hanging his portrait on its second floor poster lounge. Despite recent efforts by researchers, the ghost of the Grand has been largely absent for the past 25 years. The Avon Theatre in Stratford now claims to be the base of Small's supernatural wanderings.

More fact and fiction on Ambrose Small

Ambrose Small: Case Closed
Proposal for a new television documentary promises to blow the lid off Small's disappearance.

Dead Men Do Tell Tales
Detailed look at Small's career as a theatre magnate and ghost - though some of the material appears to have been cribbed from this web page! Someone get my lawyer on the phone...

Haunted Hamilton
Good overview of Small's life and career - even though it tries to claim Small's spirit is haunting Hamilton's Tivoli Theatre. Back off and get your own ghost!