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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

The Last Hurrah

(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.