AMBROSE SMALL
What Happened to the Entertainment Impresario & Does His Ghost Still Haunt the Theater that He Loved? 

 

Ambrose Small, the Canadian entertainment figure, vanished on December 2, 1919 and his disappearance was  sensational and mystifying that it made a permanent mark on North American history. The marvelous and controversial showman would have undoubtedly wanted it no other way!

Ambrose Small was born in 1863 and at the age of 13, went to work in his father’s modest establishment, Toronto’s Warden Hotel. As he grew older, he began managing the hotel bar and booking entertainment for the customers. With these minor musical acts, he realized that show business was to be his life’s work. In addition to working for his father, Small also took a part-time job as an usher at the Grand Theater. He slowly worked up the ranks to assistant manager and then booking manager, arranging for florid and spicy melodramas for the venue. These programs met with much success and Small began to prosper. He also began to buy interests in small theaters in and around Toronto. His ambition was to own the Grand Opera House, but his offers to buy it were frequently refused. This made him all the more anxious to own it and he began to work ever harder to amass the necessary wealth.

Small also began to acquire a couple of different reputations. One of them was as a daring gambler. He was never afraid to bet huge sums on races and while he always paid off when he lost, he was not above being involved in fixed races either. He managed to win $10,000 in one race that was said to be fixed and not surprisingly, he was said to have been the one who fixed it. He started to gain a number of enemies in racing circles and in his romantic life as well. The short but handsome Small, with his luxuriant walrus mustache and fancy clothes, was a notorious womanizer. He was often seen squiring young and beautiful women about town, especially the gorgeous showgirls who worked the local theaters. He left many a hopeful starlet feeling both used and disappointed when he moved on to another attractive lady.

This is why it must have come as a great surprise when the rakish Small, just before his 40yh birthday, suddenly married Teresa Small, the wealthy heiress to a brewing fortune. What did not come as a surprise though was when Small began to use Teresa’s money to purchase scores of small theaters and to book the biggest-named talent that he could find into them.

Small finally had his fortune and he finally realized his dream of owning the Grand Opera House. Within a few years, Small began to grow tired of his marriage and secure business life and he began gambling and seeing women again. In order to conduct his affairs discreetly, he ordered that a secret room be constructed to adjoin his office at the opera house. The room was fitted with heavy drapes to muffle sound, a deep Oriental carpet, a well-stocked bar and a gigantic bed with satin sheets and pillows. Many a beautiful young woman was willingly ravished in the clandestine chamber.


Teresa Small

As his fortunes grew, Small continued to make enemies. He made his prejudices well known to anyone who would listen, even strangers. He disliked children, Catholics (which was interesting considering that hi wife was a devout Catholic) and the poor and felt that giving anything away to a charity was foolish. His continued gambling didn’t help most to like him either but as he grew more and more daring with his wagers, he began to win more and more. Small was able to keep informed of the races at every track in the United States and bet on most of them. He became more interested in wagering than in running his theatrical empire, which now included almost every theater in eastern Canada. He spent huge sums of money and treated his employees and business associates with disdain. Small placed much of his business dealings in the hands of his private secretary, John Doughty, who was well aware of his employer’s dark and secret habits. Doughty though, had secrets of his own.


Grand Opera House

By the late 1910’s, the high life began to take its toll on Small. His hair had started to gray to recede and his face was always reddened by broken blood vessels, the result of too much drinking. While he was still gambling, his wagers began to be tamed somewhat and his womanizing was mostly confined to his long-time mistress, Clara Smith. He was also beginning to tire of the theater business and wanted out.

In 1919, Small and Teresa began negotiating the sale of the Small chain of theaters to a British-owned firm, Trans-Canada Theaters Limited. The deal was concluded on December 2, 1919 and the Small’s received a check for $1 million, with an additional $700,000 to be paid to them in installments over the next five years. The husband and wife endorsed the check and deposited it in their account at the Dominion Bank at 11:45 in the morning.

That afternoon, Small told his lawyer, E.W.M. Flock that he planned to inform his secretary John Doughty that not only had Doughty been retained by the new firm as a secretary and booking manager, but he would see a substantial increase in salary. Attorney Flock saw Small again later that evening (around 5:30) at the Grand Opera House. Small was in a fine mood, laughing and smoking cigars to celebrate the sale of the chain. He spent a few minutes with Small but then left to catch a train. As he walked out of the front foyer of the opera house and into a driving snowstorm, he looked back and waved at the smiling Small. It was the last time that he would ever see his client.

A short time later, Small also left the opera house. Bundled up against the biting wind, cold and snow, he made with way to the corner of Adelaide and Yonge, ducking into the shelter of a newsstand operated by Ralph Savein. The newsstand owner knew Small well as he habitually checked the racing results in the paper each day. Small always picked up the paper around 5:30 when it arrived by train, however on this day, the papers had not been delivered because the train had been delayed by a terrible snowstorm in New York. Savein said that Small cursed bitterly over the lack of the paper, which was something that he had never heard him do before. Small then trudged off into the snow and as he made his way down the block, Savein saw his form fade away into the blowing storm. He was the last person to report speaking with Ambrose Small.

Several days passed before anyone realized that Small had disappeared. His wife and friends were so used to his dalliances and gambling that they guessed he had simply gone out of town for a few days. They wanted to ignore his shortcomings so badly that they never dreamed he could have met with foul play. Once his disappearance became official though, the authorities launched the biggest manhunt in Canadian history. Teresa Small offered a staggering $50,000 reward for information on her husband, inspiring every amateur sleuth and crackpot to join the hunt with the legitimate detectives already on the case.

Meanwhile, the police were also seeking John Doughty, who had (coincidentally, it turned out) vanished on the same day as Ambrose Small. The authorities learned that Doughty had not taken kindly to losing his position with Small and before leaving town, he had gone to the Dominion Bank and, using Small’s key to his safety-deposit box, had absconded with $100,000 in negotiable Victory bonds. Doughty was found one year later, working in a Portland, Oregon paper mill under the name Charles B. Cooper. He was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for the theft of the bonds but was cleared of having anything to do with Small’s disappearance. He didn't learn until his capture that he had never lost his job at all and would have received a much larger salary with the new company.

As the hunt for Ambrose Small continued, many began to fear that the theater magnate had been murdered. A man named George Soucy, a publishing house employee, reported that he had seen Small being forced into a car on the evening of December 2. Also, on that same night, a caretaker named Albert Elson insisted that he had seen four men burying something in a ravine just a short distance from Small’s home. A cleaning woman, Mary Quigley, swore to police that she had seen a notice pinned to the wall in the Convent of Precious Blood, located on St. Anthony Street, which requested “prayers for the repose of the soul of Ambrose J. Small” several days before the public or the press knew that he had vanished!

These turned out to be some of the best leads that the police had but they were among the hundreds that actually came in. The authorities conducted a painstaking search for the missing man. Every business in Toronto was searched and all six cities where Small had theaters were scoured for clues. Toronto Bay was dredged several times and the basement of the Small mansion on Glen Road was excavated. The search continued for years and even as late as 1944, investigators were still digging up the basement of the Grand Opera House, hoping to find Small’s bones. They also tore up the floor boards and pried off wall panels in the search. Years later, a second-hand story emerged that a local fruit vendor had witnessed a man stuffing something down the theatre's coal chute. The story was partially backed up by a stage hand who claimed some particularly pungent fumes belched out of the theatre's chimney on the evening of December 3, 1919 -- the night after Small disappeared. Police reportedly sifted the Grand's huge furnace for human remains, but without success.

Teresa Small was interrogated several times about her husband’s disappearance. She was convinced that he had been done in by one of the countless women he had been involved with over the years. She knew all about his affairs but had ignored them for a long time. Finally, she had demanded that he stop seeing all of them, including his mistress Clara Smith, after Teresa discovered several obscene letters that Clara had written to Small. She had placed the letters on the dining room table so that he would know that she had seen them. Small came upon the correspondence and destroyed it all, insuring his wife that his cheating days were over. This occurred in 1918 but Teresa did not know that her husband had continued seeing Smith up until the day that he vanished. In fact, he even had dinner with her on December 1. The police concluded that Smith knew nothing of her lover’s fate.

By 1920, the case had become desperate and the police had resorted to following ridiculous stories and what turned out to be frequent hoaxes. That same year though, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer who created Sherlock Holmes and who was known in England for helping the authorities with a number of seemingly unsolvable crimes, was touring the United States. A reporter asked him what he thought of the Small disappearance and he admitted that he was intrigued and had been following the story in the papers. He was asked if he might help out with it and Doyle agreed that if asked, he would consult on the case. Within days, newspapers in Canada and the United States were running headlines that cried “World’s Greatest Detective to Solve Small Case” and “Sherlock Holmes to Reveal Toronto Mystery”. For some reason though, Doyle was never asked to consult and his interest in the case turned to other things.


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

And while the famous author was never asked to look into the case, the authorities were desperate enough in 1926 to contact a Vienna criminologist named Dr. Maximilian Langsner and to hire him to delve into the rapidly cooling affair. Langsner claimed that he was able to use psychic “thought processes” to find the missing man. While he was put up the finest Toronto hotel, conducting séances and “astral trips”, he sent the police out to follow his divinations, digging up half the countryside and finding nothing. When the detectives complained, he replied that the policemen were clouding his vision and he would have to look more later. Public outcry sent Langsner packing and the police department was left with the huge bills that he had run up on the official tab.

After 1919, Ambrose Small was “spotted” in hundreds of places from owning a hotel in South America to living it up in France with a girl on each arm and a champagne bottle gripped in each fist. A psychic envisioned him buried in the Toronto city dump. An old friend claimed to catch a glimpse of him on the street in London. The magician Harry Blackstone swore that he spotted Small gambling in a Mexican cantina.

Regardless, the courts pronounced him officially dead in 1923, after Teresa Small petitioned them to allow her to donate a substantial portion of his estate to the church.  She planned to will the entire fortune to the church after her death. This began a fresh round on controversy and mobs even descended on the courthouse, demanding that Teresa be investigated in her husband's disappearance. In the end, the courts ruled that Teresa Small's reputation was beyond question and she successfully inherited and willed her estate to the Catholic Church. But even after her death in 1935, the issue of a possible role in her husband's disappearance was so intense, that the Ontario Attorney General launched a special investigation into the fate of Ambrose Small. At its conclusion, they publicly declared that she was not linked in any manner to the disappearance, and that both lead investigators from Toronto Police and Ontario Provincial Police were unanimous in their conclusions that Teresa had nothing to do with the crime. However, this contradicts a letter that was allegedly found in 2001 that was written by  Inspector Edward L. Hammond, the lead Provincial investigator in the case. According to rumor, it not only details the real story behind the case, but a cover-up that was perpetrated by police officials and also the fact that Teresa Small not only arranged her husband's murder, but was present when it took place. To this day, the document has not been made public and has not been authenticated, deepening the mystery.

The Case of Ambrose Small was officially closed in 1960, so he has been placed in the “gone, but not forgotten” category from that point on. But even then, the police were still receiving and investigating letters purporting to disclose Small's burial location. As late 1965, Toronto Police detectives inspected a possible grave site in Rosedale Valley.

By 1970, the story was reaching mythical proportions: the ghost of Ambrose Small was reported haunting one of his former properties, the Grand Theater in London, Ontario and is credited to have saved the theatre's most prominent architectural feature from unintentional demolition. It's difficult to know how the Grand got its reputation for being haunted, but by the late 1940s part of its heritage included the legend that Small's spirit walked the stage after every opening night. Toronto-born comedian Beatrice Lillie supposedly saw the ghost beckon to her during a May 1927 performance.

In July of 1956 actor Charmion King saw a man standing at the foot of a stairway. When shown a photograph of Small, she identified him as the stranger.

A 1960 rehearsal of Gore Vidal's "Visit to a Small Planet" was stopped cold when a theatre seat suddenly flipped down to accommodate the posterior of an invisible audience member . "After a few minutes the seat went back to its original position," noted cast member Don Fleckser. "Now, you can tell me the seat just fell down, but you can't tell me it fell back up again."

The most compelling argument for a spiritual presence occurred on a summer evening in 1957 when Jay Campbell and a friend noticed a figure climbing a ladder up off stage. "It really didn't look like a person but from the waist up it had the form of a person," recalled Campbell, who later became a meteorologist for a local television station. "It had an aura about it. "

It's possible that Campbell and his friend imagined it all - but it's unlikely they could have shared the same hallucination. By the 1970's the Grand had documented enough ghostly visitations to prompt two séances on its stage during the summers of 1975 and 1976 . While the medium in charge never contacted Small, he was told the answer to the millionaire's disappearance would be found in the theatre's west wall. Unfortunately, this lead wasn't pursued during the Grand's 1977 renovations. The west wall was the only one left unexcavated.

What really happened to the theater mogul remains anybody’s guess and the mystery of Ambrose Small will undoubtedly live on for many years to come.

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