I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
A multi-millionaire with a flare for melodramatic spectacles created a last major one of his own. In December 1919, Ambrose Small sold his Toronto-based theatre empire for $1.7 million (about $25 million today) and then disappeared.
Rags to Riches
Ambrose Small is the epitome of someone from a humble beginning becoming immensely wealthy. He was born in Newmarket, Ontario in 1866 to 20-year-old innkeepers.
His parents were hard-working folk who moved to Toronto and eventually owned the Grand Hotel, which was next door to the Grand Opera House. By 1884, Ambrose was working in the theatre’s bar while running sidelines in horse racing betting and matchmaking. He was described as a “fast operator” and “brazenly unscrupulous.”
He moved to the Toronto Opera House and learned the theatre trade. By 1892, he owned a couple of theatres and set about building an entertainment empire. Soon, this included the Grand Opera House and half a dozen other theatres along with control of bookings at 62 more.
The word “Opera” may be misleading here. These was not a places where patrons could enjoy Verdi or Wagner. They were dedicated to what people who claimed membership in the intelligentsia might describe as tawdry entertainments, such as jugglers, singers, and comedians.
By end of the second decade of the 20th century the motion picture palaces were beginning to steal audiences away from the vaudeville theatres. Canny as always, Ambrose Small unloaded his holdings on to Trans-Canada Theatres Limited, which fared poorly from the deal and never completed payment of the full price.
The Theatre Magnate Disappears
On the morning of December 2, 1919, Ambrose Small and his wife, Theresa, left their home in the upscale Toronto neighbourhood of Rosedale. They went to the Grand Opera Theatre to receive a one million dollar cheque for the business.
The couple went to the Dominion Bank and deposited the cheque. Ambrose then dropped his wife off at the Catholic orphanage where she did charity work saying he would be home for dinner at 6 o’clock. Ambrose Small went back to the Grand for a meeting that ended at about 5:30 p.m.
When he didn’t show up for dinner there was no great alarm in the Small household. Mrs. Small knew her husband was a philanderer who frequently took off on carousing and womanizing sprees. She said “I believe my Amby is in the hands of a designing woman, somewhere, and will come back.”
But, he didn’t come back this time. The family kept quiet about his absence for a couple of weeks to avoid a scandal but eventually notified police on December 16. If there had been a trail to follow it had long gone cold.
The million dollars remained in the bank and no ransom was demanded. Indeed, on the day of his disappearance he had ordered a $10,000 Cadillac for his wife along with a fur coat and some jewellery.
The Search for Ambrose Small
It wasn’t until January 1920 that the public became aware that Ambrose was missing. A reward of $50,000 was offered for a still-breathing Ambrose, but just $15,000 for his body.
Tips flooded in to the police. Someone had seen four men dump something heavy in a ravine; another informant swore he’d seen Ambrose whizzing north in a speeding car and he appeared to be restrained by assailants. In April 1920, he was reported sighted playing roulette in Mexico. There was a hot lead to New York City that fizzled out.
For the newspapers, the story was pure gold. Circulation wars were raging all over North America and the Ambrose Small disappearance was meat and drink. If reports got a little embellished did it really matter? Writer Robert Thomas Allen told the story of “One enterprising paper found that Conan Doyle, creator of fiction’s Sherlock Holmes, was visiting New York, presented him with a brief of the Small case (which Doyle evidently accepted politely and then forgot) and ran the headline: ‘SHERLOCK HOLMES TAKES SMALL CASE UNDER WING.’ ”
The public couldn’t get enough of it; thirty years later, a writer digging into the yarn found that “In the library of one Toronto newspaper there are eight fat volumes of clippings on the case.”
The frenzied press coverage caused all sorts of weird people to get involved. Inmates in mental hospitals said they knew where Small was while others claimed to be the vanished millionaire.
A Viennese criminologist named Maxmilian A. Langsner promised his “thought wave” system would locate the missing man. It didn’t.
Of course, clairvoyants, mystics, and others in contact with the spirit world rushed to chip in with their help. Their results mirrored those of Herr Langsner.
Salivating at the thought of scoring fifteen grand, some people showed up with bodies they claimed to be Ambrose Small. Medical examiners offered different opinions.
Had unidentified flying objects been a thing in 1919, not doubt alien abduction would have been suggested.
Suspects in Ambrose Small's Disappearance
Theresa Small, the not-so-grieving widow, was an obvious suspect. With her cheating spouse out of the way she would secure his entire fortune. But, police concluded she was not capable of committing murder. But, was she capable of hiring a couple of thugs to do the dirty work?
John Doughty worked for Ambrose Small for the princely sum of $45 a week. Shortly after Small disappeared, so did Doughty along with $105,000 in bonds. Eventually, the erstwhile employee was tracked down to a lumber camp in Oregon. He was hauled back to Toronto, put on trial for theft even though he hadn’t touched the money. A jury found him guilty and he got six years. He could not be charged with murder because of the inconvenient absence of a corpse.
Another theory is that Ambrose Small irritated the wrong people in the business world. He was known as a chiseler, liar, and welsher, the sort of characteristics that tend to annoy people. Perhaps, a rival with connections in dark places arranged to remove a competitor.
Perhaps, Small had stashed away money that nobody knew about but him. Then, on December 2, 1919 he shaved off his luxuriant walrus moustache, died his hair and legged to some accommodating location where asking personal questions is frowned upon. Somewhere like Monte Carlo that W. Somerset Maugham described as “A sunny place for shady people.”
But, as a century has now passed, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know what happened to Ambrose Small.
- Ambrose Small had a secret hideaway built into his Grand Opera House in Toronto. A large painting of a naked woman adorned one wall and there was a bar and a luxurious bed upon which he could cavort with his chorus girls.
- David Belasco was a New York theatre producer who also had a trysting spot built above a stage so he could entertain actresses discreetly.
- The Grand Theatre in London, Ontario was one of Ambrose Small’s properties. In the 1970s, some major renovations were undertaken as part of which a wall was to be demolished by a bulldozer. The machine operator approached the wall and his engine cut out. He repeated the procedure and each time the bulldozer’s engine died. So, the demolition was done by hand and as bricks were removed a beautiful mural dating back to Small’s ownership was revealed. Those who believe in such things claim it was the ghost of Ambrose Small that killed the bulldozer’s engine.
- “Small, Ambrose Joseph.” Kathleen D.J. Fraser, Dictionary of Canadian Biography, undated.
- “The Mysterious Disappearance of Ambrose J. Small.” Grand Theatre London Ontario, 2001.
- “What Really Happened to Ambrose Small?” Robert Thomas Allen, Maclean’s Magazine, January 15, 1951.
- “The Disappearance of Ambrose Small.” Visit Haunted Places, undated.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor