Theater Owner Ambrose Small Vanished In 1919: Does His Ghost Haunt The Opera House?

Ambrose Small Missing Poster [Toronto Police Department handout]

TORONTO, CANADA — On December 2, 1919, Canadian entertainment mogul Ambrose Joseph Small disappeared. Police have never successfully concluded what happened, nor has his body ever been recovered.

In the realm of Toronto theater lore, the vanishing of Ambrose Small has long been the stuff of legend, right up to ongoing talk that the magnate’s spirit continues to haunt the Grand Opera House, his flagship property.

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At 58, Ambrose Small loomed as a brash, famously ambitious public figure. He had worked himself up from ticket-taker and usher to ultimately being elected chairman of the Canadian Theatrical Managers’ Association and owning seven prestigious showplaces in Ontario alone, in addition to 62 other buildings.

On December 1, he made the deal of a lifetime (in his case, literally), selling the chain for a net profit of $1.6 million dollars (today, that would be $28 million).

The very next day, Small conferred with attorney F.W.M. Flock at Toronto’s Grand Opera House, where the mogul kept his central office. At around 5:30 P.M., Flock departed the theater, and he remains on record as the last person known to ever see Ambrose Small alive.

Ambrose Small Missing Poster [Toronto Police Department handout]

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At first, few noticed Small’s absence, as he had been known to slip off by himself for extended periods, often to indulge his signature vices: sex, liquor, and gambling.

In addition to his office, Small had a secret “playroom” at the Grand Opera House bedecked with an ornate bed, a full bar, and pornographic artwork. He was said to regularly entertain chorus girls and other female performers in his proto-swing-pad. Supposedly, they called him “Amby.”

Even so, Small apparently lusted for money most of all and strategically married Theresa Small (née Korman) — whose mother was wed to Small’s father — with an eye on inheriting the sizable Korman family fortune. Matrimony hardly slowed down Small’s salacious ways, however.

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Initially thinking her husband had taken off on another one of his runs, Theresa Small waited a full two weeks to contact the authorities. At first, Theresa put up $500 for information, but when police convinced her that Small had likely been kidnapped, she upped the offer to a staggering $50,000. Even so, nobody responded, nobody demanded a ransom, and nobody tried to siphon Small’s bank account.

The case became an international sensation. Every lead investigators pursued turned into a dead end. The most promising person of interest, Small’s assistant James Doughty — who also took off to parts unknown on December 2 — turned out to have just been an embezzler.

The press contacted iconic mystery author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and asked him to take a crack at the case. Alas, even the creator of Sherlock Holmes came away stymied.

In 1924, having come up with a half-decade of nothing, the Canadian government officially declared Ambrose Small dead.

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Various theories have emerged throughout the decades. Typical accusations attempt to pin the murder on Theresa but, time and again, she has been exonerated.

Toronto's Grand Opera House, 1874 [public domain]

Toronto’s Grand Opera House, 1874 [public domain]

As is customary in theater culture, many who have visited the Grand Opera House claim that they’ve encountered Ambrose Small’s restless spirit ambling about the rafters. No matter what, Toronto’s most famous disappearing millionaire took at least one endlessly compelling secret to his grave.

Read more:
Blog Toronto
Toronto Then and Now
Prairie Ghosts
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Main image: Ambrose Small Missing Poster [Toronto Police Department handout]



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