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Miranda Rites

The singer's influence will be evident at Carnival celebrations this weekend.

February 19, 1998|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Think Carnival and what comes to mind? A nonstop parade of dancing celebrants and colorful floats. The urgent, foot-tapping sound of drums echoing through the streets of Rio. Elaborate costumes, resplendent with feathers, sequins and glitter.

And, perhaps most of all, an image that for North Americans typically symbolizes Brazilian Carnival--a dancer wearing platform shoes, a slit skirt and a fruit salad headdress. An image, in other words, of Carmen Miranda.

Miranda continues to be a Brazilian icon 42 years after her death at age 46 of a heart attack (and 89 years after she was born on Feb. 9, 1909, a date in convenient proximity to the shifting arrival of Carnival/Mardi Gras). Americans barely familiar with the name of Antonio Carlos Jobim can offer an instant, verbal picture of Miranda.

This weekend, in the traditional Carnival celebrations (Mardi Gras is next Tuesday), her likeness will be seen around the Southland in numerous manifestations during Saturday night's Brazilian Carnaval '98 at the Hollywood Palladium, and, no doubt, in more personal variations at any number of private Carnival parties.

"She's the one who put Brazil on the map," says Maria Lucien, creator of the event at the Palladium, now in its 17th year. "Carmen Miranda was like Charlie Chaplin to me--that important. She knew how to present Brazil to Americans, with a touch of sophistication in the samba. And it worked, because what did Americans know about Brazil before she came on the scene?"

Miranda not only brought samba to America, she also brought a visual image. She almost literally invented the costume that was to become her trademark in the late '30s, when she was a major star in Brazil. Fascinated by the culture of the state of Bahia, she adapted the typical women's costume of the time--turban, starched skirt, large earrings, a variety of jewelry and trinkets--to her own style. Combined with a song, "O que e que a bahiana tem?" (What Does a Bahian Girl Have?), written for her by composer Dorival Caymmi, andsupplemented by coquettish gestures illustrating the words, the combination was an instant success. Bahian dress had always been a popular Carnival costume, but in Miranda's unique transformation, it became a virtually timeless icon.

"It was a great costume," Lucien says. "She didn't have a great body, she was very small, yet she looked like a million dollars. And women--and some men, too--know that it's a costume that makes them look sexy, so that's why they like to wear it."

When producer Lee Schubert persuaded Miranda to come to the United States in 1939, she wisely insisted upon bringing her own musicians, the Banda da Lua (Band of the Moon), an important factor in the introduction of Brazilian music in its authentic form to the United States. It's probably not stretching a point to suggest that her whirlwind impact, first on Broadway and later in her 14 films, represented the first real American fascination with world music.

By the '40s, Miranda had become inextricably linked with Brazil in the public mind. Her popularity was such that by the mid-'40s she was earning thousands of dollars a week (a huge amount for the time) and was one of the highest-tax-paying artists in the country.

If her image became a kind of stereotype--one that was offensive to some Brazilians (Jobim reportedly felt it was an affront to Brazil)--it nonetheless never lost its capacity to appeal to American audiences. (As early as 1941, Mickey Rooney did a Carmen Miranda takeoff in the film "Babes on Broadway.")

"You will see a lot of Carmen Mirandas at Brazil Carnaval '98," Lucien says. "And they will all be doing the samba, just the way she did."

Miranda's influence will also be present at Carnaval '98 in the sense of humor and fun--essential to her art--that will permeate the event's busy dance floor. And, equally important, there will be a constant atmosphere of affection for Brazilian culture. Although Miranda was actually born in Portugal, she considered herself a true Brazilian.

"She saw herself," Lucien says, "as a real Bahiana, a woman from Bahia, even though she wasn't even really a Brazilian."

Miranda, who lived for years on North Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills, would no doubt be delighted to see her continuing influence upon Carnival events around Los Angeles.

"Her spirit is always here at Carnival time," says Christiane Callil, whose impression of Miranda will be a centerpiece of the performance by the Girls From Ipanema at the Garden of Eden on Sunday. "Every time I sing one of her songs, I feel her with me."

Brazil Carnaval '98 is the centerpiece of this year's celebrations. But there are a number of other attractive festivities--commemorating both Carnival and Mardi Gras--taking place. Here is a selective list of some of the more intriguing events of the weekend:

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