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Bluma Appel gave advice to so many people in the arts - from producers to mere reporters - she couldn't possibly remember all their names. No matter, to the Toronto-based philanthropist who died on Sunday of lung cancer at the age of 86, everyone was "dear."

That endearment even applied to the trainload of comedians whom Appel and Byron Bellows, her personal assistant and long-time friend, joined en route to the annual Canadian Comedy Awards in London, Ont.

"I don't think she missed an awards," says Mark Breslin, comedy impresario.

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Appel helped to establish the awards, started in 2000, and supported a $10,000 bursary for emerging comics; as with all of her widely dispersed acts of philanthropy, the amount wasn't huge, but the impact was.

"It's the only time I can think of," Breslin says, "that anyone from the Canadian establishment took comedy seriously."

Establishment? Emerging from a hard-working, Montreal Jewish family, Bluma Levitt entered the philanthropy world thanks to what she called "indulgence" from her husband, entrepreneur-millionaire Bram Appel.

In her early adulthood, she tried her hand at so many ventures - women's suit designer, political adviser, investor in theatre projects - that she seemed confident about knocking on any door.

"We've been in her apartment on Hazelton Avenue [in Toronto's Yorkville district]when she's gone to her phone and called the Prime Minister's Office to find out about support for one of our tours," says Marshall Pynkoski, co-artistic director of Opera Atelier.

Appel was an early supporter of his 22-year-old company, he says, because "she was looking to invest in people and organizations where her money would make a difference, it would make a return. She was very much Bram's wife."

Over the years, she became Opera Atelier's most influential patron, and not just in financial terms: She restructured the board, and shook down other patrons. "From the minute she gave, she felt she could ask other people. She told us, 'You identify givers, then you encircle them.' " Pynkoski did not realize that two weeks ago, when she wrote a $25,000 cheque that wiped out the company's deficit, it would be one of her last acts.

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Appel was a woman of strong opinions. Last December, when Canadian Stage was planning to mount a production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie (a play about the young antiwar protester who was crushed by an Israeli Defence Force bulldozer), Appel's was one of the loudest voices warning of the play's potential anti-Israeli effect on public opinion.

Few were surprised when Canadian Stage, whose main venue is the Bluma Appel Theatre, cancelled the production. "She would never fail to tell me if she loved or hated something," says Marty Bragg, the company's artistic producer. "But she was one of us. Her second sentence to me the day I met her was, 'Don't ever forget, Marty, I'm a producer too.' "

Producers are people who put talents and money together, and at this she excelled. She was breakfasting with friends in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., in 2002, Bellows recalls, when the group learned that Willowbank, a stately home built in 1834, faced demolition. American descendants of the owner wanted to save it, but could not get charitable status in Canada.

"Bluma said, 'Give me your cellphone,' " Bellows says. "She called lawyers, and in a week we'd launched American Friends of Canada."

Willowbank was saved, and is now the home of the School of Restoration Arts (the only one in North America), which offers courses in architectural heritage preservation.

A former art student, Appel was keenly interested in the Ontario College of Art & Design. Two years ago she launched an annual design scholarship. "Her generosity was personal," OCAD president Sara Diamond says. "She came to the students' shows, she was involved. We all thought she'd be around for a long time."

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Helen Burstyn is chair of the Ontario Trillium Foundation, the last board on which Appel served. "She gave away hundreds of thousands of dollars , but she was careful," Burstyn says. "She helped by telling people, in effect, 'You'd better not miss this, it's special.' And she was wickedly funny."

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