The magnificent Grand Opera House was once located at 11 Adelaide St W (between Grand Opera Lane and Bay St, on the south side) in downtown Toronto.
Toronto’s Early Theatre History
One of the City’s first theatres was the Royal Lyceum that once stood on the south side of King St W, between York and Bay Sts. Built in 1848, it was Toronto’s first building constructed specifically for theatre use. The Royal Lyceum was destroyed by fire in 1873.
Shortly after the blaze, a group called the Toronto Opera House Company formed. They asked Charlotte Morrison, the former Royal Lyceum Theatre manager, to manage the new Grand Opera House and put together a company for theatrical performances.
The Grand Opera House Architecture
Renown theatre architect Thomas R Jackson of New York City was hired to design the Grand Opera House. Located at what was known then as 9-15 Adelaide St W, the exterior of the Second Empire style theatre was constructed using brick and stone. Stacked like the tiers of a wedding cake, the front block of the 3½-storey structure hid the back portion of the building that housed the auditorium, stage and fly tower.
The front piece was home to rented shops on the main level with offices and apartments on the upper floors. The theatre’s entrance was an elaborate arched portal with decorative windows on each floor. The symmetrical building also featured a mansard roof, tower and flanking end pavilions. Dormers livened the roofline while a royal coat of arms and a flagpole were on the top of the centre tower. For fire safety, Mr Jackson equipped the stage with two hydrants, plus the auditorium had fire escapes that could allow the theatre to empty within two minutes.
The Theatre’s Elegant Interior
Once inside, patrons walked through a 15 m or 50 ft corridor to the main lobby and box office. This area led to the 1,323-seat, domed auditorium. In the orchestra and balconies, theatre-goers sat on folding chairs while those in the plush Dress Circle and boxes sat on armchairs. Standing room and folding stools could accommodate another 500 guests. The stage was relatively large (16 x 20 m or 53 x 65 ft) and approximately two-thirds the size of the auditorium. The orchestra played from a sunken pit.
The beautiful building was heated by steam. The gas-lit chandelier over the auditorium dome, wall sconces and other chandeliers were turned on by an electrical spark.
The First Five Years & the Fire
For the gala performance in 1874, Mrs Morrison, who was also an actress, came out of retirement to tread the boards as Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal.
Even though the Grand Opera House was a centre for elite social activities and attracted major international acts, the elegant theatre was in financial trouble. It was sold at auction just two years after opening to Alexander Manning.
On a November morning in 1879, the theatre was destroyed by fire. Even though there were fire escapes and hydrants, the theatre’s stage carpenter and his wife and daughter, who lived on an upper floor in the northwest corner of the Grand proper, perished in the fire. A week later, an inquest into the fire concluded, and within days, the rebuilding of the theatre began.
The Grand’s Reconstruction
While the blaze had not destroyed the exterior walls of the theatre, the interior required significant work. The architectural firm of Lalor & Martin was hired to rebuild the theatre. Completed in February 1880, the interior of the Grand Opera House was virtually the same as Mr Jackson’s design; however, the seating capacity was increased to 1,750. Re-opening night was a production of Romeo and Juliet.
The Disappearance of Ambrose Small
Ambrose Small, a theatre magnate, took over the Grand Opera House around the turn of the 20th century. One of Toronto’s unsolved mysteries is his disappearance. On Dec 2, 1919, Mr Small closed a deal, selling his theatre holdings, including the Grand, for $1.75 million. That day, Mr Small’s wife Theresa deposited a cheque for $1 million into the Dominion Bank, the couple had a celebration lunch out with their lawyer Mr Flock, and then Mr Small went back to his office at the Grand.
Later that afternoon, Ambrose Small again met with his lawyer for about an hour then his lawyer left to catch a train back to his hometown of London, Ontario. Mr Small then went out to buy a copy of a New York newspaper and was never seen again. His wife thought he could be with his mistress, plus he was known to leave the City without informing anyone. Toronto Police were not made aware that Mr Small was missing until about four weeks later.
At that same time of his disappearance, his personal secretary John Doughty also went missing along with $105,000 in Dominion of Canada Victory bonds taken from his employer’s safety deposit box. Police caught up with Mr Doughty at a lumber camp in Oregon. He was brought back to Toronto, where he was questioned about his boss’s disappearance. With no proof that Mr Small was dead, Mr Doughty could not be charged. However, he was found guilty of theft and served just under five years in jail.
The Final Curtain
Plays at the Grand Opera House continued in the 1920s. Still, due to the disappearance of Mr Small, the growing popularity of motion pictures and competition from other live theatres, including the Royal Alex, the theatre closed. In 1928, stage settings and mementos from the visits of famous stars were removed from the Grand, and it was then demolished.
In 1960, the diligent Toronto Police Service officially closed the 3-foot thick file. It contained information on leads taking them across North America, numerous tips (including those from clairvoyants), and the keys to the long-ago demolished Grand Opera House.
The case remains unsolved to this day, and Ambrose Small’s disappearance eclipses the theatrical and architectural history of the Grand.
The John Kay, Son & Company/Wood Gundy Facade
So why does the building on the former Grand Opera House site have a building inscribed with the date 1898 on it when the theatre was at that location during that year? Today the site is part of the larger Scotia Plaza, bounded by Adelaide, Yonge, King and Bay Sts. At the location of the Grand Opera House is a new office building constructed in the late 1980s. The right half of the 5-storey structure has a façade that was relocated here from the John Kay, Son & Company store and later Wood Gundy office building that was once at 36-38 King St W.
Moving the façade from King St W to this building on Adelaide St W was part of the approval of the Scotia Plaza development. The John Kay, Son & Company façade was originally constructed in 1898. When Wood Gundy took over the building, they inscribed their name over the main entrance and inscriptions over the flanking doors. The first two stories are made of carved limestone, and the three upper stories are delicate terra-cotta. Completed in 1988, the move was an enormous task as there were over 1500 pieces, each weighing roughly 45 kg or 100 lbs.
Did You Know?
- “Treading the boards” or “trodden the boards” is a theatrical term meaning to act on stage.
- The Fly Tower is the area above the stage. Back when the Grand was built, the stage crew used this area to fly curtains, scenery, lighting, effects and even actors on and off the stage. They used a system of hemp rope, pulleys and sandbags to quickly and quietly perform the tasks.
- Adelaide St W was once known as Newgate St.
- In 1923, the reward for finding Ambrose Small was $50,000. His disappearance then became international news, with sightings of him reported in the United States and Mexico.
- When Mrs Small died in 1935, she left $2 million to charity. She was also the daughter of the Toronto brewing family, Kormann.
- When the Grand Opera House was demolished in 1928, the site initially became a Straight Service gas station and then a parking lot. In the late 1950s, an office building with space for the Board of Trade was constructed there. It was torn down for the present-day building that’s part of Scotia Plaza.
- Today, the only remnants of the stunning theatre that once stood there is the street name – Grand Opera Lane.
Grand Opera House Photos
- Lost Toronto by William Dendy
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Dec 1, 1879, page 2
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Dec 2, 1879, page 4
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Dec 23, 1919, page 8
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Nov 30, 1920, page 1
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Dec 31, 1920, page 1
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Jun 22, 1928, page 13
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Dec 23, 1955, page 5
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Feb 21, 1970, page A13
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Nov 7, 1974, page 13
- Toronto Star Newspaper Archives: Aug 20, 1984, page B10
- Vintage Photos: City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Public Library, Archives of Ontario, Library and Archives Canada & Toronto Police Museum and Discovery Centre (used with permission)
- Vintage Map: Atlas of the City of Toronto 1912 by Chas E Goad from the Toronto Public Library