Let's get ready to rumba

Times Staff Writer

IN 1944, she was the highest-paid actress in America. And she wasn't even American.

Carmen Miranda was rich, powerful, a denizen of Beverly Hills and a household name everywhere. The "Brazilian bombshell" had landed on U.S. shores just five years earlier and wowed audiences with her Latin rhythms, exuberant songs and impossibly large fruit-basket headdresses, which only grew in proportion with her fame.

Today, Miranda, decked out in her prodigious turbans, remains a readily recognized icon the world over. But the woman who starred in such classic films as "The Gang's All Here" (1943) and "Springtime in the Rockies" (1942) wasn't always embraced so rapturously here in her hometown, where some critics blasted her as a sellout.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Miranda's death from a heart attack at age 46, and her homeland now appears ready to rehabilitate her reputation once and for all.

To commemorate, Rio's Museum of Modern Art, located not far from the bohemian neighborhood where Miranda grew up, is hosting through Jan. 22 one of the most comprehensive exhibits ever mounted on the actress' colorful life and times, and Ruy Castro, one of the city's best-known writers, has just published a 600-page biography of "the most famous Brazilian woman of the 20th century."

Both the book and the exhibit aim to shed light on a former star who, for many Brazilians, has been reduced to little more than a familiar name and a vague vision of tropical fruit.

In particular, admirers want to rescue from the dustbin of history a fact they feel is too often overlooked by her detractors: namely, that by the time Miranda hit Broadway, she was already a huge celebrity here in Brazil. Miranda's fame abroad, fans say, sprouted out of her success in her homeland and was hardly some fluke or mere invention of Hollywood producers.

"When she arrived in New York in 1939, she was already Carmen Miranda," says Castro, who spent two years researching his exhaustive biography. The book, "Carmen," is about to enter its second printing less than a month after publication.

Miranda was an indefatigable performer bent from girlhood on achieving stardom. Before moving north and taking the U.S. by storm, she recorded nearly 300 songs in 12 years and refined her act in late-night sellout shows at a popular Rio casino, becoming the toast of Brazil's music world.

Many of the items on view in "Carmen Miranda Forever," the exhibit that opened this month, are devoted to this early part of the singer's career.

The exhibit features 700 pieces of Miranda memorabilia drawn from public and private collections in Brazil, the U.S. and Europe, ranging from her official work papers as an entertainer in Rio to lobby posters for the films she made in Brazil in the 1930s, only one of which has survived (the black-and-white musical "Alo, Alo, Carnaval").

Several of her outlandish costumes, some weighing more than 40 pounds, with their signature headdresses and 6-inch-high platform shoes, have been restored and are on display. Miranda's broad smile and mischievously arched eyebrow beam from an assortment of old magazine covers as well as ads hawking soap and toothpaste. Her lips are never less than shockingly red, her head never bare of some flamboyant wrap.

"Her face is too heavy to be beautiful, her figure is nothing to write home about and she sings in ... sign language. And yet she is the biggest theatrical sensation of the year," reads one American magazine write-up soon after Miranda landed on the Great White Way. "There is no doubt that she has the stuff -- the stuff that used to be called 'it' and is now known as 'oomph.' "

Miranda was actually born in Portugal in 1909, the daughter of a barber and a homemaker who decided to immigrate to Brazil less than a year later. The second of six children, Carmen, whose real name was Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha, was raised in the artsy Lapa district and educated at a school for poor students.

To help support her family, she learned to design and make hats as a teenager, which proved an indispensable asset to her career. She got her first major recording break when she was 20, signed a contract with RCA Victor and, by the mid-1930s, had rocketed to national fame alongside the second most popular singer in Brazil at the time, her younger sister, Aurora, with whom Carmen performed a double act that spent several successful seasons on tour in Buenos Aires as "Las Hermanas Miranda."

The price of popularity

AFTER American impresario Lee Shubert saw Carmen perform at the Cassino da Urca in 1939, he invited her to New York. She and her band, the Bando da Lua, bowled over the audiences who came to see "Streets of Paris," a zany variety-type show on Broadway that also featured Abbott & Costello. Within months, Saks Fifth Avenue's windows were touting the Carmen Miranda look.

But catering to an American audience carried an artistic price.

"She had to adapt her musical repertoire and some of her style to be understood by Americans," Castro says. "She could never sing the great sentimental sambas, the delicious songs she used to sing here that depended on the lyrics [in Portuguese]. She had to find ... songs that she could sing very fast. Americans love that."

It didn't go down well with her compatriots. When Miranda returned to Rio in 1940, a frigid reception at the Cassino da Urca left her in tears. Critics said she had become too Americanized; her 20th Century Fox film with Don Ameche and Betty Grable, "Down Argentine Way," a hit in the U.S., was dismissed as offensive for its cartoonish depiction of Latin Americans.

Miranda would not set foot in her homeland again for 14 years, until just before her death. In the meantime, her star continued to rise in the U.S., where tax returns showed her to be the country's highest-paid woman in 1944, with a declared income of about $201,500 -- more than even Bob Hope or Cary Grant.

Her health problems increased too. After a nervous breakdown, she returned to Rio for a final visit at the end of 1954, spending part of her stay in complete seclusion at the renowned Copacabana Palace Hotel.

On Aug. 4, 1955, a few months after she went back to Los Angeles, Miranda taped a number for "The Jimmy Durante Show," during which she complained of being out of breath. Later that night, she died of a heart attack in the dressing room of her Beverly Hills mansion, collapsing onto the floor, her hand still clutching a mirror.

Tens of thousands turned out on the streets of Rio to mourn Miranda when her body was flown home. A small museum in her honor was established in the 1970s, but its funding by the state of Rio de Janeiro has been minuscule.

Some of Miranda's sambas, from earlier in her career, have become Carnaval standards in Brazil. But the singer still has her critics, those who credit her with the verve and drive to make it in Hollywood and blaze a trail for other Latin American performers but who are unconvinced by her career post-1939.

"She succeeded, earned money, achieved acclaim," says Joao Maximo, a music critic for the daily newspaper O Globo. But Miranda's hits abroad, such as "Mamae Eu Quero," have "little to do with Brazilian music," Maximo says. "Or to put it a better way, the 'Brazilian music' that she sang and danced was an invention of her and the Bando da Lua. And what do those bananas and big clogs have to do with Brazil?"

What now threatens Miranda's legacy most in her homeland is ignorance, not criticism, particularly among Brazilian youth, who are into hip-hop and rap and the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

It was to combat growing indifference that Kitty Monte Alto, vice president of CMG Worldwide's Latin America office here in Rio, spearheaded the retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Besides Rio, the exhibit is scheduled to travel to Sao Paulo and to Curitiba, the capital of Brazil's Parana state.

"One of my concerns about the exhibit was to allow children and young people to be aware of her life and career. If you ask a child, they don't know who Carmen Miranda is," Monte Alto says.

"We cannot forget one of the best celebrities we had of all time."

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