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Samba swan song: Toronto’s Brazilian Carnival Ball comes to an end

Dancing Girls at the Brazilian Carnival Ball 2011.

Tom Sandler/The Globe and Mail

Some might miss the dancers and their nearly naked bodies spray-painted in gold. For others it will be the live samba music, inevitably driving enough to get those with two left feet onto the dance floor. And most have been missing founder Anna Maria de Souza since her death in 2007. But before the feathered headdresses and beaded bikinis are put away for good, the Brazilian Carnival Ball, Toronto's longest-running – and most star-spangled – gala fundraiser will have one last hurrah on Sept. 15. As a single annual event, the ball is among Canada's most successful, having raised more than $57-million over its history, each year for a different set of charities (this year's beneficiaries are the Canadian Association of Psychosocial Oncology and the De Souza Institute Foundation). Through what many describe as incomparable persistence and joie de vivre, Ms. de Souza persuaded Toronto's power players and elite influencers that this was the single most important event on their social calendar. And for a long run, it was. Three days before the fifth anniversary of Ms. de Souza's death, the ball that she began in a church basement 46 years ago will have its swan song.

The bloom years

In 1975, nearly a decade after her first carnival-themed get-together, Ms. de Souza staged her soirée in the Sutton Place Hotel on Bay Street. As it expanded, the ball flirted with various venues across Toronto – mostly hotels but also the Eaton Centre and the Granite Club – before landing at the Convention Centre in 1998.

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My parents took me right at the beginning when I was still in school. My mother and father are Canadian but very much associated with Brazil and we had just come back from living there. There were 20 or 30 people, max, and mostly Brazilians in the basement of a Yorkdale restaurant. ... There were a bunch of balloons and some food. My parents brought the records.

Catherine Nugent, long-time chair and honourary chair and close friend of Ms. de Souza's

In those early years, the Glitter Girls [a catchy name for the city's core socialites] worked their asses off. My year was the last time we made our own centrepieces. I had everyone in the city – babysitters and nannies – all making paper flowers. We needed two million flowers but we did it.

Janice O'Born, chair/co-chair 1996 and 2009; owner of Axispa

The flock

Ms. de Souza encouraged guests to dress in costume – and there was a core group (Catherine and David Nugent, Catherine and Rudy Bratty, Nancy Paul) that always did. Beyond the night itself, the Brazilian Ball also produced a glossy magazine filled with pages upon pages of revellers, helping to position the event as Toronto's gold standard in galas.

In its day, it was the biggest and glitziest Hogtown event around. You saw politicians, bankers, captains of industry cheek-to-cheek with semi-naked Brazilian dancers, all in the name of charity.

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Ivan Fecan, honorary chair, 2006

To me, it was always the epitome of a gala or what a ball would be. I think it just had that much of a reputation and that much clout and more and more people wanted to go. You can't duplicate your first time at the Brazilian Ball; it just blows you away. People tell you about it, but when you get there, it's better than what you've been told.

Heather Gotlieb, co-chair, 2006

It [was] half the fun, deciding what to dress up as. People were extraordinarily creative! One group came as a forest. These are called blocos – a reference to the thousands of people who would dress the same to parade down the avenue [in Rio].

Catherine Nugent

The control centre

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Each year brought a new beneficiary and new co-chairs as selected by Ms. de Souza. Many attribute this variety tothe Brazilian Ball's success. Executive director Kathie Gayda and director of decor Luis de Castro have been among the ball's few constants.

I had worked in fundraising previously and then Bonnie Gottlieb hired me in 1995. By the time the ball came around, I was eight months pregnant. The day before, I needed to sit on the floor at one point and Bonnie said, "Are you having the baby now?!" I told her no, but we laughed because the money would be benefiting Mount Sinai's diagnostic centre and there would be a lot of obstetricians in the room.Kathie Gayda, executive director, Brazilian Carnival Ball

I have a team of 10 to 15 to assemble the space, and then to take everything down, there are 20 people. That's the hardest part. I can take away all the table linens and chair covers in an hour. We run because nothing else can be done before that. Then the chairs and tables get taken away and finally the panels. By the time I leave, it's 9 or 10 in the morning.

Luis de Castro, director of decor, Brazilian Carnival Ball; owner, Dream Maker Events

Bodies and beats

Within a cavernous space at the Convention Centre, the ball would take on the spirit of a gargantuan, glitzy, high school prom.

The first year we did it at the Four Seasons, I thought we were going to get closed down because of all those naked guys covered in gold. A lot of mouths dropped. But since half the authorities were at the ball, it was okay. We got up to some crazy things.

Catherine Nugent

The night of the ball, Anna would want to stay until the very bitter end. There would always be people still dancing at 2 a.m. and the band stayed on. So we would, too.

Ivan X. de Souza, husband of the late Anna Maria de Souza; president and chief executive officer of The Brazilian Carnival Ball

By the end of the night, there were always a few over-refreshed bold-faced business names trying to out-samba the impossibly hot dancers, much to the horror of their wives.

Ivan Fecan

Grands scandales

Many years ago, cordoned off near the entrance to the Ballroom was a "water-ski surfboard" donated by David Nugent as a raffle prize. A slightly inebriated woman stumbled over the rope to get closer to the prize. In trying to step over the rope, she tripped and took a fall. She sued the Convention Centre and the Brazilian Ball for millions of dollars. Due to her minor injury, she claimed loss of sex and companionship with her husband and loss of ability to care for her children and husband. The case never went to trial after our lawyers responded.

Ivan X. de Souza

When Anna Maria was alive, it had a totally different vision and it reflected her personality, which was very inclusive; she was hardworking and dedicated to raising essential funds. That was her mandate. In the last few years, I think it has changed and now we have other hospitals doing large fundraisers and are now competing for dollars that would have once gone exclusively to the Brazilian Ball.

Janice O'Born

In 1999, I received a package at the office; it looked like a copy of the Brazilian Carnival Ball Magazine, but Ball had been changed to "Balls." The cover was a hilarious and very revealing photo. Hudson was shooting the dance floor to capture the parade and inadvertently captured a gentleman in his kilt and nothing more. All was revealed hanging below. That dancer didn't even have the cover of at least a little glitter that the others did.

Kathie Gayda

The big bucks

Attendance at the ball does not come cheap. Tables cost $15,000, $25,000 or $50,000. The entry level for a sponsorship is $75,000. Single seats are priced at $1,500. The result: record-level fund-raising. The University Hospital Network has received more than $10-million from the Brazilian Ball through the years.

Everyone wanted to have the Brazilian Ball – it brought profile and funds to your organization. When it was for UHN, it was a great way of telling our story and raising significant funds at the same time.

Tennys Hanson, president,University Hospital Network Foundation

When you think of the early years when they were trying to raise thousands, and in the latter years millions, back then to raise half a million for a cause was a lot of money.

Gord Nixon, president and CEO, Royal Bank of Canada

The year my wife Shari co-chaired the ball, they raised over a million dollars. That's a very large amount. And for struggling organizations to have their endeavours supported like that, well, this would be the biggest donation they got by far.

Tony Fell, honourary chair, 2005; former chairman, RBC Capital Markets

I chaired it in 1996 for Sunnybrook. We raised $2.6-million and bought a helicopter. Three years ago I chaired it for Sick Kids and we raised $2.7-million – and that is net, not gross. We were the only ball that ever had a member of the royal family attend, Prince Andrew.

Janice O'Born

Although the ball continued after Ms. de Souza 's death, she was its heart and soul. In 2008, the ministry of health and long-term care supplied a grant of $15-million over five years to found the De Souza Institute as a tribute to Ms. de Souza for her contributions to Ontario.

Anna and the ball are a part of Canada's recent history and illustrate one of the great success stories and important contributions of immigrants such as Anna to Canada.

Tennys Hanson

I think when Anna died, a little bit of heart and soul went out of the ball – for me, anyway. She was a tremendous ambassador for Brazil in Canada.

Catherine Nugent

She always wore a feather headpiece to the ball. As the event got closer, she asked if I had chosen a dress and kept asking about the colour. The night before, she gave me a feather headpiece and, of course, the pink was identical to the dress. I was really moved.

Heather Gotlieb

When the ball drops

No one could replicate Ms. de Souza's panache. But an era of economic uncertainty has altered the perception of such splashy events and made fundraising dollars less available.

I believe the era of large balls is over. Fundraising has moved to other types of events: runs, bicycling, tournaments. It's a whole new approach. I think you need to drive more funds to the bottom line and get more focused attention on what's important.

Ivan X. de Souza

Corporate donors are getting more sensitive to money being spent on the event's cost rather than going to the cause. Today, the fundraising mentality is about lower cost, more intimate, one-on-one – and educating people.

Janice O'Born

Moving Forward

I have a huge picture of Anna at my warehouse. Sometimes I talk to her. I'll say, "Do you like this" or whatever. I love her so much. For me, this event is the most emotional of all and comes from the heart. I gave everything I had to it.

Luis de Castro

It's a matter of turning our attention now to those who have been diagnosed with cancer and are living with cancer and this is a growing population. I have decided to dedicate the rest of life to the De Souza Institute Foundation, which raises funds for those coping with cancer. I hope it will be my legacy.

Ivan X. de Souza

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