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Slightly spooky stories: Phantoms of the Grand Opera House (4 photos)

In 2006, a pair of British psychics were brought to the downtown site and concluded there were two spirits attached to the location

The Grand Opera House of Barrie was cursed, you might say, from the beginning.

In the 1890s, the townsfolk of Barrie were becoming eager to cast aside their backwoods reputation and embrace some cosmopolitan culture in the form of an opera house.

Who better to champion their cause than the handsome and wealthy young Sidney Sanford, full-time Simcoe County treasurer and part-time local theatre actor?

Sanford was only too happy to oblige. He had been feathering his cap with all the good things in life — a fine mansion house, a well-connected wife, a steamboat and summer house at Big Bay Point, the best of political and social alliances — and now he had the chance to hang his star on a charitable gift to the town of Barrie.

Unfortunately for Sanford, his desire to be the hero and finance this showpiece building became his undoing. The money that he spent was largely embezzled from the county and it was fast becoming in short supply.

The Opera House opened on Sept. 21, 1896, to the greatest of fanfare. Mayor Bothwell gushed about Sanford’s gift to the town and publicly thanked him for providing this place to “enjoy the theatrical and musical riches of the world."

What cost Sanford about $30,000 to build was sold to his wife’s uncle, James L. Burton, for $5,000 the following spring.

Soon after, Sanford disappeared and 12 years of secret pilfering came to light.

In September 1897, as the town and county continued their attempt to clean up the mess that Sanford had made, a suspicious fire at the Grand Opera House caused its closure for more than a month. The county added the repair bill to the stolen $62,000 that Sanford already owed.

Mr. Burton’s ownership of the Grand Opera House was short. The county removed it from his possession, while giving him one dollar in compensation, in order to somehow recoup part of their extensive losses.

John Powell, a well-respected retired military man and postal official, was put in charge of managing the Grand Opera House.

By 1905, Mr. Powell was able to buy the Grand Opera House for the sum of $4,000.

John Powell had found his calling. He became an outstanding theatrical manager and made many upgrades to the building, its décor, furnishings and musical capabilities. Powell made sure that the best of travelling entertainment stopped in Barrie.

The heyday of the Grand Opera House came during the years surrounding the Great War. From about 1920, a slow decline began, due in part to the advent of silent movie theatres.

Also, proprietor John Powell wasn’t getting any younger and by 1924, he was 80 years old. He began allowing a series of lease holders to operate the Grand Opera House under his supervision.

Charles Butcher, the last of those lease holders, had a very brief tenure. In January 1926, John Powell passed away. His son, also named John Powell, took over the running of the business and in turn leased it to Butcher who intended to concentrate mainly on moving picture shows.

That was October. By early November, under circumstances reminiscent of the 1909 Guthrie case, the Grand Opera House had burned and Charles Butcher had been charged with arson!

Much like the Guthries, Mr. Butcher was not local. He had arrived from Port Sydney, Ont., only weeks earlier and was living in a room at the Simcoe Hotel.

After the second show closed at 11 o’clock on the night of Nov. 6, 1926, Mr. Butcher sent two young employees down to the railway station to send film reels from the show back to Toronto while he himself locked up. Just prior to that, all three had made separate trips back into the building as, one by one, they remembered that they had forgotten something inside – an overcoat, a newspaper and an exit light left burning.

Charles Butcher headed to a café on Dunlop Street and it was there that he heard the fire alarm bells ring less than an hour later. He returned to the Grand Opera House and witnessed flames coming through the roof.

Chief Stewart, of the Barrie Police, was on the scene quickly and found each of the three people who were last in the Grand Opera House nearby. Immediately suspecting arson, he asked the trio to accompany him to the station for an interview. The result was the arson charge for Butcher as he had been the last person inside the now burning building.

However, the charges did not stick. No real concrete evidence could pin the cause on Charles Butcher, which frustrated many. Even the judge called it a “bad fire” and that “the feeling on the street was that the fire looked un-wholesome” yet no proof of guilt could be obtained.

The Powells were left with a ruin. They offered it to the town for $2,000, but the offer wasn’t accepted.

In 1930, the walls of the upper floor were removed for safety reasons and the half building stood far removed from its glory days and served variously as a discount store, car show room, fruit market and lastly, a night club.

If any of the business who occupied the space in the mid- to late-20th century had any odd experiences in the building, they haven’t been widely reported.

The night club, known as C’est La Vie, was quite vocal about the strange goings on during their residency in the remains of the Grand Opera House.

In fact, with nothing to lose and no further business to gain, the manager of C’est La Vie decided to have the occurrences investigated by a pair of psychics, as the building was slated for demolition and their tenancy was about to end.

The psychics were two British women who worked for a television show called Rescue Mediums. In 2006, they were brought to Barrie without any knowledge of where they were going nor what they were investigating. The episode that was produced is entitled Last Call and can easily be found and viewed by those interested.

As the team approached Barrie by car, the ladies already had an impression that something theatrical was involved. C’est La Vie staff greeted the psychics with stories of disturbances with most associated with the basement, a place that some staff members refused to go.

The psychic ladies and their camera crew toured the building and felt that the basement was associated with an ‘ancient tragedy,' which sounds like it might predate the structure itself. They felt that a group of frightened people had once gathered there.

In a part of the basement where the fire was theorized to have started, the women smelled the strong odour of smoke. They also commented that any fire here was surely arson.

In conclusion, they said that it was their opinion that two spirits were attached to the old Grand Opera House site.

One is a rather angry man in a white shirt, sleeves rolled up. He has come to get something. Is this the arsonist, one of the trio who came back into the building, possibly on pretense, just before the fire?

The second is more benevolent. This spirit followed the ladies out of the basement. He wanted them to know that he watches over this place and is saddened by the upcoming demolition. It doesn’t matter, though. He promises to haunt whatever is built on this sight.

John Powell, is that you?

Today, the Grand Opera House site is a patch of grass and a pathway at the western end of the Collier Street Parkade.

Mary Harris

About the Author: Mary Harris

Mary Harris is the Director of History and Research at the Barrie Historical Archive. The Barrie Historical Archive is a free, online archive that centralizes Barrie's historical content.
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