A Grand Celebration

The Grand Theatre, Downtown Kingston, Kingston Arts CouncilThe Grand Theatre opened its doors in 1902 on the site of what was once Martin’s Opera House, which burnt down in 1898. The original structure, built in 1879 by local businessman William C. Martin, saw huge success as it presented over 1200 live performances of opera, band concerts and touring artists such as Oscar Wilde. Three years after the fire, local millionaires and theatre lovers Ambrose J. Small and E.J. Barker Pense stepped in to rebuild the theatre, naming it The Grand Opera House. Once again, playing to Kingston’s love of art and culture, the Grand was host to an impressive selection of performers including Sarah Bernhardt, Al Jolsen and Harry Houdini. Upon its reopening in 1902, it was rated one of the most modern theatres in Canada.

In 1919, Small sold The Grand and all his other theatres for $1.7 million and promptly disappeared the following day. Stories flew that Small had been murdered but the case was never solved. Some say his ghost haunts the Grand Theatre to this day. Rumours aside, the theatre sold once again in 1938 to Famous Players, who turned it into a cinema and saw great success until 1961 when they shut the theatre down indefinitely. A parking syndicate purchased the property with the intention of turning it into a lot. Naturally, this is when a concerned group of Kingstonians stepped in and rallied together, as we do, to see this plan put to a stop.

The City heard the outcry and purchased the theatre in 1962 and reopened it in 1966. This effort between the concerned citizens and the City of Kingston marked a major milestone in Kingston’s cultural life as it gave the Grand Theatre a third life and also led to the creation of Ontario’s oldest Arts Council, The Kingston Arts Council. The mandate of the Kingston Arts Council was to “sponsor, encourage and foster excellence in the arts” and this sentiment still holds true today. Acting as an organization that represents all of the artists in Kingston and the surrounding regions, the KAC has been devoted to nurturing regional artists of all disciplines and skill levels, and advocating on their behalf for half a century.

In their true fashion, the Kingston Arts Council has been hard at work planning the celebration of this historic partnership. On November 12, 2012 the City of Kingston will open the doors of The Grand Theatre for the 50th anniversary of this important moment in Kingston’s cultural history. Dubbed “the ultimate birthday party”, this event welcomes all Kingstonians to come and celebrate the arts and our fine theatre. This free event will feature a video documentary, an exhibition that traces the history of The Grand Theatre, and performances by The Limestone Trio, Emily Fennell, Spencer Evans, Jonathan Stewart, KinetiQ Crew Break Dancers and Blue Canoe Theatre. And, of course, there will be birthday cake. It all starts at 7:30PM on November 12, 2012, at The Grand Theatre and all are welcome to attend.

Thanks to Vintage Kingston for today’s pic.

Danielle Lennon

Danielle Lennon is Kingstonist's Co-Founder. She was the Editor, Community Event Coordinator and Contributor at-large (2008-2018). She is otherwise employed as a section violinist with the Kingston Symphony, violin teacher, studio musician and cat lover. Learn more about Danielle...

6 thoughts on “A Grand Celebration

  • Anyone out there know how far the investigation into Small's disappearance got? Seems as though someone of his stature doesn't simply disappear without a serious effort to track him down. Even decades later it would make for an interesting story, if there is anything to actually tell that is.

  • The Small case has been well documented. It was a very high-profile disappearance and police investigated and followed clues for decades. There are a number of books (and many articles) on the subject, and the story is presented fictionally in Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion. That said, his involvement with Kingston's Grand Theatre was relatively minor. It was just one of his many real estate holdings – his principal investment was in the Toronto Opera House. Contrary to the article, he was not "local" and disappeared in Toronto, so hard to say why Kingston's Grand Theatre might be haunted by him. Local lore not really suported by the facts.

    • You're right, Small was not local. My source suggested that both he and Pense were Kingstonians but Small was actually from Bradford and lived in Toronto. It's funny, when you look up his disappearance, there are quite a few claims of him haunting places in various cities. I think the idea of him haunting the Grand is simply a fun story to tell. Thanks for the details!

  • 'In 1919, Small sold the theatre for $1.7 million "

    …..1.7 million dollars seems awfully high for 1919?

    • Sorry, that should have said "his theatres". He owned many. The change has been made, thanks!

  • Maybe they could celebrate by improving the seating. Those seats are so steep you need a sherpa.

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