A look back at the Brazilian Ball, the annual black-tie extravaganza that taught Toronto to party

A look back at the Brazilian Ball, the annual black-tie extravaganza that taught Toronto to party

During its heyday, the Brazilian Ball was where you’d find drunken CEOs and socialites in a conga line with nearly naked carnival dancers

(Image: Courtesy of Brazilian Carnival Ball)

Toronto, unlike Rio or Montreal, never had a reputation as a party town. The late society figure Anna Maria de Souza worked harder than anyone else to change that. Her annual bash, the Brazilian Ball, was, at its peak, the biggest of the big-ticket charity events. Everyone who was anyone in the world of politics, business or media attended. The Braz, as it was known to regulars, was that rare combination: an obligatory social event that was also a blast.

De Souza threw her first carnival-themed party in 1966. Born in Brazil to a wealthy family that owned and operated a coffee plantation, she’d married John Marston, a Canadian importer of orange juice, and moved to Toronto in 1965. Although the city’s social circuit embraced her as a vivacious, exotic beauty, she grew homesick. Her solution: throw a dance in the basement of St. Ines Church at Dundas and Grace Street. The party, like its hostess, was a novelty in staid Toronto.

In 1981, after she and Marston divorced, Anna Maria’s friends Murray and Marvelle Koffler (of the Four Seasons and Shoppers Drug Mart fortune) proposed a blind date between her and the investment banker Ivan de Souza. “They said I should meet this beautiful blond,” he remembers. Their first date took place in the Courtyard Café of the Windsor Arms. They fell in love that night and married the following year.

As her annual party grew in popularity, de Souza donated her profits to various charities and moved the date from winter to spring, when many of her friends had returned to the city from tropical vacations. The so-called glit

ter girls—socialites like Catherine Nugent, Cathie Bratty, Bonnie Gottlieb, Fran Sonshine, Trudy Bundy, Heather Reid and Janice O’Born—joined the ball’s organizing committee, and made it a platform to exert their influence over the city’s social scene.

Sinclair Russell, then Toronto’s most flamboyant event planner, recalls attending a “fancy schmancy” lunch at Winston’s in 1983 with de Souza and her friends, where they asked him to create an unforgettable spectacle. He did so by draping the entire Four Seasons ballroom, including chandeliers and tables, in black fabric and contrasting “jungle tones,” and hiring six brawny young men from a midtown gym to pose as Incan gods on pedestals—they wore feathered headdresses, loin clothes and bronze body paint. As guests entered a dimly lit ballroom, dry ice swirled around, a drum beat grew louder, and then the statue-like figures began to gyrate, prompting a few surprised women to shriek.

What started in a church basement became the city’s swishiest big-ticket event—everybody who was anybody attended

That Four Seasons ball was also the first time de Souza flew in a troupe of traditional folk dancers from Bahia, Brazil. “One of the dancers ended up coming home and staying with me for several months,” Russell says with a laugh. “I told Anna Maria it was the ultimate party favour.” In subsequent years, de Souza replaced the folk dancers with as many as 70 carnival dancers from Brazil, who would don spectacular headdresses, diamanté G-strings and skimpy bikini tops, and lead partygoers in a conga line.

As the Brazilian grew, it relocated from the Four Seasons to the Inn on the Park and then eventually to the Metro Convention Centre, which could accommodate the 1,200-person guest list. Some partiers would become so drunk they’d end up, quite literally, finishing the night under the table.

One regular I spoke to attended the ball eight months pregnant one year, feeling a little self-conscious about her gown, only to spot a Brazilian performer in a G-string who appeared to be due at the same time. At another ball, the much-talked-about guest of honour was Luciana Gimenez, the Brazilian model who broke up Mick Jagger’s marriage to Jerry Hall. She arrived in a sheer, skin-tight black gown and was promptly encircled by admiring men.

(Image: Courtesy of Brazilian Carnival Ball)

For some, it was a coming-of-age party. The National Post party columnist Amoryn Engel attended her first ball in the mid-’80s, when she was only 13. Her mother, the society writer and party queen Naomi Engel, took her as a plus-one. “It was a grand affair back then and I was so excited,” she says. “I remember my mother coming down the stairs in a long, glamorous gown and then, at the party, watching these serious businessmen with their eyes bugging out of their skulls as the dancers jiggled past them.” Heather Gotlieb, who once co-chaired the ball with her husband, Max, a partner at Cassels Brock, recalls the event’s signature moment, in which carnival dancers moved through the crowd and pulled captains of industry out of their seats to boogie. Those who weren’t picked managed to sneak in a dance of their own later in the night. “They’d return to their wives and say, ‘Oh, I was just chatting with a friend at the bar.’ Meanwhile they’d be absolutely covered in body makeup.”

The ball’s high point occurred in 2002, when, as a one-time experiment, de Souza moved it from the Convention Centre to what may well be the most lavish party-venue-for-rent in the Western world: the Château de Versailles. That event, which I covered as a reporter for the Globe and Mail, raised roughly $2 million for France’s Louis Pasteur Institute, an infectious disease research centre. Annual Braz attendees flew over for the chance to mingle with a list of European royalty that included the elegant 81-year-old Madame la Comtesse de Paris, Her Royal Highness the Princess Isabelle d’Orléans-Bragance—the woman who would have been Queen of France if it weren’t for that pesky revolution.

The only damper on the night was the dress code—the carnival dancers were required to wear nude body stockings in keeping with palace rules of decorum. But even this was thrilling to the Toronto contingent, who were secretly delighted to learn that prudish Canadians were more liberal than the French.

Every year, dancers in diamanté G-strings would pull captains of industry out of their seats and make them boogie

In 2007, Anna Maria de Souza died of cancer at Princess Margaret, a hospital for which she’d raised millions during her life.

The ball that followed de Souza’s death raised a record-breaking $7 million, but subsequent years couldn’t keep up the momentum. In 2010, it raised less than half a million for the ROM. The fundraising drop could partly be blamed on the recession, but the ball had also been eclipsed by a new generation of lavish galas, aimed at the city’s younger wealthy set. The spectacle of G-strings and oiled pecs no longer seems novel when up against celebrity DJs and raffle prizes from blue chip artists. “My contemporaries are more interested in a smaller, salon-style do,” says Amoryn Engel. “They’re less likely to get out their cheque books for a party with 2,000 people at the Convention Centre.”

Ivan de Souza decided this year will be the event’s last. He moved the ball to September, near the anniversary of his wife’s death. The recipient charities will be the De Souza Institute, which runs a training program for nurses in cancer care, and the Canadian Association of Psychosocial Oncology. There will be tributes to the ball’s past chairs and honourary chairs, and police chief Bill Blair will provide a mounted show on the street outside the convention centre. In the 46 years since its inception, the ball has raised more than $57 million for various causes, including most of Toronto’s hospitals, universities and cultural institutions. Its true legacy, however, the achievement we’ll remember most, is that the Braz taught stodgy Toronto how to loosen up.