Celebrating a haunted history with the Grand

By Whitney South, Best of London. 12.04.19  

One hundred years have passed since the Grand Theatre played its part in one of Canada’s most notorious unsolved mysteries — a story that will soon hit the revered stage, next season.

On Dec. 2, 1919, theatre tycoon Ambrose Small sold his empire for a record sum, deposited the money in the bank, and then disappeared.

As owner of The Grand and numerous other theatres across the country, Small was known as a ruthless businessman with a fondness for gambling and women; qualities that did not endear him to his employees, business partners, gambling rivals, or the ladies in his life.

After leaving his office that fateful day, he was never seen again — at least, not in the flesh.

From the time of his disappearance, Small has been spotted in and around London theatre (which was said to be his favourite) adding a sense of wonder to the already hallowed halls.

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 seven cities and controlled bookings in 62 others across Ontario. Although he lived in a Toronto Rosedale mansion, the showcase of his pride was London’s very own Grand Theatre which he rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1900 and owned and operated with a passion.

Now, it’s the Grand’s turn to tell the tale.

On Tuesday, in celebration of the anniversary of his disappearance, the Grand Theatre announced a captivating new play commissioned through its COMPASS New Play Development Program — Grand Ghosts, written by award-winning Canadian playwright Trina Davies — which will launch the 2021/22 season, with help from funding partner Tourism London.

"With Grand Ghosts, audiences will be invited on a ghost hunt to experience the Grand in a way they never have before,” Davies explained, adding areas of the theatre that have gone previously unseen by the general public will be exposed, along with the stories that are held within the building's 1901 bricks and mortar. “This hunt may open up something that has long been hidden within the theatre: the story of Ambrose Small, his disappearance, and all those around him that felt entitled to a piece of the action.”

No stranger to the COMPASS program, Davies’ work from the 2017/18 season, Silence: Mabel and Alexander Graham Bell, was not only well-received by London audiences, but went on to a successful run at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa the following year.

As someone who has immersed himself in the Grand’s history since his arrival to the position three years ago, artistic director Dennis Garnhum couldn’t be more excited for the new project.

“We couldn’t think of a better day to announce this new work that will be fun and very ghostly,” he said. “This play will draw in those who love local history, murder mysteries, and ghost stories alike.”

In addition to the announcement, Londoners were invited to a special event Dec. 2 — Ghost

Stories: The Disappearance of Ambrose Small, with Garnhum and Davies (participating online from the west coast) discussing the project alongside author and journalist Katie Daubs, whose recently released historical non-fiction, The Missing Millionaire: The True Story of Ambrose Small and the City Obsessed with Finding Him, will surely be a must-read before next season.

For more information on Grand Ghosts, as it becomes available, visit


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