Ambrose Small & The Grand Opera House

In yesterday’s Toronto Star, I wrote about the 90th anniversary of the disappearance of wealthy theatre owner Ambrose Small. “On Dec. 2, 1919 the circuit-owner deposited $1 million – an advance on the previous day’s sale of his seven properties – spoke to his wife Theresa on the steps of the Bond St. Orphanage, and returned to the Grand, at Adelaide and Yonge Sts. From there he vanished.”

For nearly a decade, Small’s name made sensational headlines, from his disappearance, the reading of his will in 1924 and the demolition of the Grand Opera House in 1928. The discovery of a secret, lavishly furnished room behind his office, perhaps used for the many improprieties for which he was later accused, was but one of the strange revelations during an investigation which unfolded in the early days of the 1920s, amidst a regional smallpox outbreak, a housing shortage and much social change.

The investigation brought no leads or clues into his whereabouts. One of the lead investigators, through the advice of a medium, maintained Small was buried in a 70-acre plot near Scarborough Heights; another medium insisted he’d been poisoned; years later, another psychic claimed his remains had been burned in Montreal. (Mediums were quite popular at the time, as bereaved relatives tried to contact loved ones who perished in World War I or succumbed to the Spanish Influenza. One of their champions,  novelist Arthur Conan Doyle, spoke on the subject from London on Jan. 2, the day before the press announced Small’s disappearance: “I believe another generation will not have passed before the age-long mystery of death will have been solved and communion of the spirit people universally acknowledged and approved.”)

A veritable Jimmy Hoffa of the 1920s, Small was supposedly sighted in Mexico, England and the Orient. There were several charges of impersonation: a deranged patient in a Wisconsin hospital claimed to be Small, and an inmate in an Indiana prison, claiming to be the missing impresario recovering from a bout of amnesia. It carried out like a stage show at one of Small’s theatres, which also included the Grand Theatre in London, Ont.

Toronto’s Grand Opera House, built in 1874, was destroyed by fire in 1879 but later rebuilt to its original design. Small purchased it in 1903 and quickly turned it into a popular vaudeville house. The shows were advertised on the back page of the Toronto Sunday World, a heavily-illustrated and photo-rich paper which catered to general bonhomie of the era. Like the Royal Alexandra on King St., the Grand would occasionally play motion pictures. On January 14, 1917, backed by a full orchestra and choir, one could see D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance.

Small also owned the Majestic Theatre, another Adelaide St. vaudeville house. According to the 1951 Film Weekly Yearbook, it was sold in 1916 to N.L. Nathanson, who was still a few years away from forming Famous Players Canadian Corporation.

But ninety years ago this week, the sale of Small’s properties to Trans-Canada  Theatres Ltd. and ensuing disappearance happened at a pivotal point in the history of Canada’s entertainment industry. Paul Moore,  author of Now Playing: Early Movie-going and the Regulation of Fun, notes that in 1919, things were about to change. “By then, Allen’s picture palaces already formed a national chain, and the creation of Famous Players movie theatres was just weeks away,” says Moore. “The very idea of a regional circuit of playhouses, which Small pioneered in Canada, was being replaced by the big business of national movie palace chains.”

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