Next time you see a play here, just remember you aren’t watching alone.
The Grand Theatre on Richmond Row has been around since 1900, and for more than a century has been a storied locus of London’s art and theatre scene.
The building’s walls have seen the Grand Opera House change its name to the Grand Theatre, switch hands from Famous Players to Little London Theatre, the Spriet Stage renovated into an Olympic track for a Spring 2018 performance of Chariots of Fire, and even hosted – a ghost?
That’s the chilling question at the center of the Grand’s history.
In a stranger than fiction tale of lust and money, on Dec. 2 1919, the theatre’s rakish owner, Ambrose J. Small, vanished from the Grand’s Toronto location never to be seen again. The day before Ambrose’s mysterious disappearance, he sold his chain of theatres to the Trans Canada LTD for $1 million, with annual consecutive payments totaling to $750,000.
Ambrose never saw a penny of the $1 million or the $750,000. On Dec. 2, he had lunch with his wife Theresa Small, met his lawyer E.W.N. Flock, bought a newspaper, and vanished into the stormy night.
Since his mysterious disappearance, rumours have been swirling about foul play.
Due in part to Ambrose’s womanizing and gambling ways, when Theresa took a full two weeks to report his disappearance, public opinion speculated on her involvement. Ambrose’s secretary, John Doughty, also coincidentally vanished on the same day as his boss. He was found a year later in Oregon working under the name of Charles B. Cooper, with a collection of $150,000 in bonds stolen from Ambrose’s vault.
While Doughty was sentenced for larceny, nothing was ever confirmed about Ambrose’s disappearance or whereabouts.
They say that Ambrose’s ghost haunts London’s Grand Theatre today.
When I heard about the theatre’s sensational history, I knew I had to investigate for myself. I got the opportunity to check out some of the theatre’s most famous ghostly hot-spots and walk the same corridors that Ambrose did.
This door behind the left balcony box beside the Spriet Stage leads to the once occupied office of Ambrose Small. Now locked and covered in dusty fingerprints, this door opens for no one.
“Ambrose are you in there?” My guide Martyn Hartley knocks on the door. “I’ve never heard an answer.”
On the day of Ambrose’s disappearance, a watchman of the theatre reported that he saw Ambrose coming into his office in London. A statement fact he swore by, but that no one could ever prove.
Famously, Ambrose Small’s office in the Toronto theatre was where he did many rakish and salacious acts. He ordered a secret room constructed that connected to his office, and was outfitted with a well-stocked bar and a lush satin bed.
London’s Grand seems to boast a similar history.
There used to be a staircase that ran from behind the stage and dressing rooms into the office – one that actresses were said to frequent.
“He was a bit of the man for the ladies,” Martyn hints.
The Arch and the 1978 Renovation
In 1978, the Grand’s Proscenium arch needed to be reinforced. When construction crews came near the arch their equipment inexplicably stalled and wouldn’t start again.
“They investigated, and when they went to the back of the pillar they found that if they had dug into the pillar, then the whole lot would’ve come down because it was supported on one brick,” Martyn recalls.
One brick, strangely saved, that stood between the theatre and its demise.
“Ambrose is really watching over his theatre, that’s what a lot of people think – like a benevolent guardian.”
Backstage there exists a mirror in a darkened corridor, one that actors have said shows more than just one’s face.
Or one face, for that matter.
I stood staring into this mirror as Martyn told me about the eerie reflections people have reported seeing there.
“The actors would look into the mirror before they go on to make sure their makeup and costumes look right – and it’s been said that as they’ve been looking in this mirror, somebody else has been standing there behind them.”
Was it Ambrose or another spirit? Who knows? Naturally, I immediately vowed to never look into a mirror again.
The Grand on Richmond Row wasn’t the first Grand, the theatre was constructed in 1900 after a fire destroyed the previous location at Richmond and King.
Martyn tells me the current Grand rests on the site of an “old Catholic Cemetery.” A locale straight out of every ghost movie ever written, which offers an unsettling explanation to some of the Grand’s ghostly reports.
The earliest story comes from the theatre’s construction days, when building crews unearthed a lonesome skull. They appropriately named the skull “Yorick.”
When standing in the basement near the entrance of the McManus Stage below ground level – you are essentially in the space of the previous, and possibly current, tenants.
Martyn tells me this spot was where a film crew caught on camera a disturbing sight.
“Hands. When they looked at the film they had taken there were actually ghostly hands reaching out of the floor,” Martyn recalls.
“No idea if they moved the graves – presumably they were relocated.”
Big thanks to the Grand, Kate Rapson, and Martyn Hartley for helping me dive into the theatre’s history.