Remembering Walter Carsen, Arts Patron Extraordinaire

by Julia Phillips Smith

Photo by Simon P

Although I knew he couldn't possibly keep going forever, it still came as a shock to hear of the passing of Walter Carsen.

The centre shown above that bears his name was one of many gifts bestowed upon his beloved National Ballet of Canada. Until the mid-90s, the company had rehearsal space, office space and other functions spread between unconnected properties in downtown Toronto. Walter Carsen's generosity made it possible to truly base the company in a home that helped it grow into one of Canada's Top 100 Employers this year.

The National Ballet of Canada is one of my great passions as well. I worked for nearly a decade at its former home theatre as an usher, purely as a means of indulging my insatiable appetite for ballet. During that time, I saw Walter Carsen often, as he not only donated much-needed funding to the company in a time of declining financial support for the arts, but he attended every performance while the company was in season.  

That's right: Wed. evening / Thurs. matinee / Thurs. evening / Fri. evening / Sat. matinee / Sat. evening / Sun. matinee.

For the spring, fall and winter seasons. For years.

That kind of real support, where the dancers knew he would rejoice at their individual promotions and debuts into the great roles, was like the American Express ads: priceless.

My fellow ushers and I recalled how down-to-earth he was, chatting just as easily to staff as to his fellow ballet patrons. He joked and laughed and gave out advice on how to beat a sore throat as he strolled past us into the backstage dressing room area. Hard to believe he would have been in his 80s at that time. He always gave a little excited leap up the stairs.

Walter Carsen came to Canada fleeing the Second World War as a German of Jewish descent. I can't help thinking that, although a sinister force in the world tried its very best to wipe out Mr. Carsen and his entire cultural group, what better way to counter that attempt than to flourish in his adopted home, unfailingly support the arts over decades of continuous giving in ways huge and small, live to be 100, and then pass away on Thanksgiving Day.    

Photo by Helen Tansey

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