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Grand Opera House

Grand Opera House
Plaque no. 19
Date of plaque unveiling
11 April 1975
Rev. Orlo Miller
471 Richmond Street, London, Ontario (present site of the Grand Theatre)

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The first Grand Opera House was built in 1880 at King and Richmond streets. Destroyed by fire on February 23, 1900, a new opera house was built at 471 Richmond Street and opened on September 9, 1901 under the partnership of Ambrose J. Small of Toronto and Col. Clark J. Whitney of Detroit, Michigan.

This theatre hosted great actors such as Sarah Bernhardt, Hume Cronyn, Sir John Gielgud  and Jessica Tandy. It was built on part of the cemetery of St. Lawrence Church, the first Roman Catholic church in London, dating from 1833 . During the theatre’s construction workers found bones, including a skull that the newspapers appropriately named "Yorick".

Ambrose Small began his career as a bartender and usher, and through hard work and business acumen acquired more than 90 theatres in Canada and the U.S.

The Grand incorporated advanced design ideas and had one of the largest stages in North America, capable of mounting a full-scale production of Ben Hur, complete with horses. The theatre had superb acoustics, three balconies, and seated 1,800.

In December 1919, sensing the future impact of motion pictures, Small sold his chain of theatres for $2,000,000. That same day, he left his Toronto office and was never seen again. Many searches were conducted in Toronto’s Rosedale Ravine and London’s Grand Theatre. Several theories for his disappearance were advanced, for example that he had been murdered and his body burnt in the theatre’s furnace. Over the years many strange occurrences such as falling props and collapsing sets have been reported. During a Noel Coward play a huge arc light inexplicably fell from high above the stage, narrowly missing the cast.

The ghost of Ambrose Small is said to haunt the Grand Theatre to this day.