RIO DE JANEIRO — The Copacabana Palace Hotel, a Rio landmark that once hosted European royalty and Hollywood movie stars but fell on hard times, has been taken over by the American businessman who restored Europe's Orient Express train.
"The Copa," on Rio's famous Copacabana Beach on the South Atlantic coast, has been declining for more than 20 years. But James Sherwood has pledged to restore the hotel's glory.
The new general manager, Philip Carruthers, would not say how much Sherwood paid in September to buy a controlling interest in the hotel. Local press estimates ran from $70 million to $100 million. But he said no expense would be spared to modernize and improve the hotel.
"The hotel is considered to be part of the country's heritage, so the facade won't be touched. But the inside will be completely modernized, so we can make the place successful again," Carruthers, a Brazil-reared Englishman, said.
Sherwood is chairman of the London-based, $2-billion Sea Containers Ltd., a leading producer of shipping containers.
Sea Containers owns 42% of Orient Express Hotels Inc., which will run the Copa. The purchase of the hotel is the first tourism investment in South America by Sherwood, whose firms already run hotels in the United States, the Bahamas, Italy, Scotland, England and Portugal.
Orient Express Hotels refurbished the famous train of the same name, which during its heyday in the 1920s ran from Istanbul, Turkey, to London, crossing the English Channel by ferryboat.
The train, which suspended service in the early 1970s, resumed operations in 1983 and now makes twice-weekly runs between London and Venice.
"The Orient Express has been re-established as a luxury form of transport, fully restored in 1920s style," said Carruthers, adding that Sherwood hopes to do the same with the Copa, once considered one of the world's 20 best hotels.
"Mr. Sherwood has always been keen on the hotel. It's an imposing building on an extraordinary site, with wonderful black and white pavement," said Sea Containers Ltd. spokeswoman Naida Stancioff in London. She was referring to the wide mosaic sidewalk that lines the 2 1/2-mile long Copacabana Beach.
The Copa, inaugurated in 1923, was the creation of Brazil's then-president Epitacio Pessoa, who lamented Rio's lack of a first-class luxury hotel to accommodate prominent visitors with the same pomp with which Pessoa was received in Europe.
Businessman Octavio Guinle, whose family controlled the Copa until it was bought by Sherwood, told Pessoa he would construct a hotel to rival Europe's finest if he could install a casino. At the time, Rio had no large tourist market and Guinle felt gambling was necessary to make the hotel profitable.
Pessoa agreed. Guinle imported cement from Germany, marble from Italy, crystals from Czechoslovakia and furniture from France.
The hotel, designed by architect Joseph Gire, contains 223 rooms, including a huge presidential suite overlooking the ocean, 14 party rooms, a theater and the "Golden Room" for special attractions. The facade, inspired by hotels in Cannes and Nice, France, is a mix of classical styles.
The hotel has been famous for social significance--people here say there was a time when coming to Rio and not staying at the Copa was like going to Rome and not seeing the Pope.
Over the years, Maurice Chevalier, Nat King Cole, Edith Piaf and Ella Fitzgerald performed in the Golden Room.
The hotel has welcomed world leaders ranging from Dwight Eisenhower to Eva Peron, Fidel Castro to the Shah of Iran. Animals were prohibited in the Copa after Magda Lupesco, paramour of King Carol I of Romania, kept eight Pekingese in her room and they ate the drapes.
The most legendary stories concern movie stars.
Orson Welles threw a bed into the swimming pool from his second-floor window after Delores Del Rio broke off their romance.
In 1939, Errol Flynn pranced naked through the halls. Nudity reared its head again in the early 1960s when Jayne Mansfield nonchalantly sat topless at pool side and made headlines for a week.
Other famous guests of the Copa have included Brigitte Bardot, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable and Tyrone Power.
In 1946 President Eurico Dutra outlawed gambling, and the Copa casino closed. But the hotel continued to reign as queen of Rio's social life until 1960.
In that year, the national capital was moved from Rio to the inland city of Brasilia, and the hotel lost the glamour of putting up visiting VIPs.
The real crunch came in the 1970s, when several international firms opened modern five-star hotels in Copacabana. By the early 1980s the number of Copa employees had been cut by two-thirds, and the hotel was barely breaking even.
"The Copa had been resting on its laurels for years. The owners were so used to being the hotel in Rio they felt they no longer had to compete," said Carruthers.
He said current problems range from leaky plumbing to shoddy interiors.
But renovations, set to begin by next April, should be completed by mid-1991. Carruthers said there are even plans to reopen the Golden Room and bring back world-class performers.
"When the work is completed, the Copa will be the best hotel in Rio again," he said.