Production dives into mystery of Grand Theatre founder’s disappearance

Ambrose Small in an undated photograph. Toronto Star Archives/Toronto Star via Getty Images

London’s Grand Theatre is looking inward as part of a new ghostly production taking the stage this week diving into the local landmark’s history, and the century-old mystery surrounding its founder.

The production, Grand Ghosts, written by Trina Davies and directed by Jillian Keiley, runs until Nov. 5, and centres around the disappearance of theatre magnate Ambrose Small in 1919, a day after he sold his theatre holdings.

“In his wake, Ambrose left behind his enormous fortune, a jealous wife, a disgruntled employee, gambling buddies, a mistress, and a ghostly mystery waiting to be solved,” a description of the show reads.

In the production, the other ghosts who haunt the Grand return to relive what happened on the day Small went missing, according to the show’s description. The production is presented in the style of vaudeville to match the era, with Small portrayed by actor Jesse Gervais.

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“When you’re playing in a space where the ghost of the said character you’re playing is there, it demands a certain amount of respect and reverence,” Gervais told Global News.

“It’s extremely intimidating because the people of London all have an idea of who this person was, and he was an extremely charismatic and formidable business man, like a huge theatre magnate in Ontario.

“People had reason to be upset with him the way he built his business, and he was a highly problematic character, but very well loved.”

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Small, 53, vanished on Dec. 2, 1919, a day after he sold his theatre assets for a total of $1 million to Montreal-based Trans-Canada Theatres, Ltd., with another $750,000 to be paid out in annual instalments of $37,500 over the span of 20 years.

“It is understood that the purchasers now control practically all the theatres playing legitimate drama west of Montreal, except the Royal Alexandra and the Princess in Toronto,” a story in the Globe, published Dec. 23, 1919 reads.

The deal, the report said, was “supposed to have been completed a few days ago,” and that, “Mr. Small’s interests in Ontario comprised 62 theatres owned and booked.”

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Small had already been missing for weeks, however his disappearance wasn’t reported until early January, in part because he had a history of going off the radar and because his wife asked police to remain mum, believing he may return, according to the book, The Missing Millionaire by Katie Daubs.

“MR. A. J. SMALL BANKS MILLION, THEN VANISHES,” blares a Globe headline from Jan. 5, 1920, noting the possibility of foul play.

“Mr. Ambrose J. Small, former owner of the Grand Opera House, and one of the best known theatrical men in Canada, deposited in the bank on December 2 last a marked cheque for a million dollars,” the article reads.

“Later in the day he concluded the business of this transaction with his solicitor, E. W. Flock, in the office of the Grand Opera House. About half-past five he left the office, and has not been seen or heard of since.”

The Globe and Mail via ProQuest Historical Newspapers

Small left his office with no luggage, and “not much money either, it is thought,” the article notes, adding it was speculated the 53-year-old, who “was naturally of a nervous temperament,” could have been stricken with sudden memory loss, or may have been the victim of a holdup.

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Ominously, the general manager of Trans-Canada Theatres, Ltd., George F. Driscoll, told the newspaper that in their last conversation when the deal went through, Small said that “he would now go away for a rest.”

A nationwide search was initiated, and a $50,000 reward was offered for information on Small’s whereabouts. In the following months, newspapers reported numerous possible sightings of Small, all of which proved to be false, including several which involved dead bodies.

Small’s secretary, John Doughty, was later convicted of stealing $105,000 in bonds from Small’s safety deposit vault. Doughty had also been accused of conspiring with others to kidnap Small, however the charge was later dropped.

The missing theatre magnate’s body was never found, and he was declared dead in 1924.

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It’s still unclear what happened to Small, but in the decades since, legend has grown that he may have been murdered and that his ghost haunts the theatre, with supernatural incidents, phantom sounds, and purported sightings reported by actors, crew members, and others over the years.

Gervais told Global News he did a deep dive into Small’s disappearance in preparing for the role, and heard tales of ghostly appearances from staff at the Grand.

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“The wardrobe people have seen Ambrose in the corner reading a paper, or sometimes they’ll just hear Ambrose turning pages in the corner. Things would go missing,” Gervais said.

“Even when we were in our tech rehearsal, the stage right balcony seats, where Ambrose’s office would reside right behind, the light just wouldn’t turn out. The technical people were trying to turn the light out, but for some reason it just wouldn’t go out.”

The production also stars, among others, Jan Alexandra Smith as Small’s wife, Theresa, Tess Benger as Small’s mistress, Clara Smith, and Cyris Lane as Doughty, Small’s secretary.

“The story of Grand Ghosts goes about conjuring the spirit of Ambrose Small,” Gervais says.

“Every year, Ambrose Small has an opportunity to re-enact the moments before his death, and if he’s successful in essentially finding out who killed him, he has an opportunity to be released from the Grand to live as other free spirits might.”

Grand Ghosts runs until Nov. 5 on the main Spriet Stage. Tickets can be purchased through the Grand Theatre’s website.

— with files from Jacquelyn LeBel

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