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Carmen Miranda’s exotic style still inspires

Posted on November 04 2016

Image: c/o Alchetron

By CARLETON VARNEY

 

Special to the Daily News

As I noted here a few weeks ago, my recent visit to Rio de Janiero reminded me of the considerable charms of Carmen Miranda, a woman definitely worth a few more words.

For those not old enough to remember the Brazilian movie star, I can tell you that “the lady in the tutti-fruitti hat” had the very highest movie box-office earnings for 1943. In 1946, at the peak of her 20th Century Fox movie career, she paid the highest income tax of any woman in the United States. So to those silver-screen ladies of today — Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman, here’s a little advice: Keep making those box-office hits, and one day, you too might catch up to Carmen!

While barely 5 feet tall, she gained lots of height as she tottered on 6-inch platform shoes. I must say that I — in my early youth — saw Miranda in a number of films, including the Busby Berkely-directed The Gang’s All Here, in which she memorably performed one of her best-known songs, The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat.

For those who’d like a bit of biographical history, she was discovered by American impresario Lee Schubert. When he saw her perform at the Urca Casino in Rio — she sang and danced with the Banda Da Lua — Schubert invited her and the band to appear in New York on Broadway in a musical revue called The Streets of Paris. Miranda’s performance opened the gates of the great Hollywood studios, where she starred in 14 movies. She was the most famous Brazilian star in the world, with a film persona carefully crafted as a caricature of the exotic, the comic and the musical.

In her brilliantly colorful turbans decked with tropical fruit — bananas included — and with her arms and neck “ladded” with glittery bracelets and necklaces, plus big hoops in her ears, she simply wowed everyone. Her song Tico Tico is one that I especially remember and, believe it or not, can sing to this day.

While a huge star internationally, she found that in Brazil she was considered far too Americanized — and regarded strictly as a caricature. The Carioca society of Brazil did not like being presented in the tico-tico manner — and when she returned there to perform, she received a very chilly reception — so cool that at one appearance, she left the stage in tears.

Convinced that her talents were no longer admired there, she did not return to Brazil for 14 years. In the mid-1950s, after a disastrous marriage to David Sebastian and with her career on the decline, the Brazilian bombshell suffered a nervous breakdown. Encouraged by her sister, Aurora Miranda, she finally returned to Brazil for what her sister believed was the “best therapy” for her. The doctors in Rio found Carmen Miranda profoundly depressed and in a serious debilitated state of health — and for more than 30 days, she never left her hotel room.

The star thought she would never be accepted in Rio again. But thanks to the care of her family — particularly her mother, who prepared porridge for her every day — she did recover and returned to the United States in April 1955.

In August of that year, she died of a heart attack in Los Angeles. She was buried in Rio, and huge crowds of Brazilians gathered in the streets and attended the funeral, demonstrating how much she was loved — a love she had doubted during her troubled life.

In as much as this is a decorating-advice column, may I suggest a Carmen Miranda-inspired decorative scheme for your Palm Beach sitting room, terrace room, living room, dining room or powder room? I recently designed a fabric pattern called Summer Fruits, which features classic Carmen Miranda colors on a white background. Depicting tropical fruits, the lively fabric would work well for window treatments, complemented in a carpet of a color chosen from the pattern.

One last note, courtesy of Laura Montalban, daughter of the late star Ricardo Montalban and associate designer in my decorating firm. She tells me that as a young girl, she and her sister used to prance around in Carmen Miranda shoes — gifts from the Brazilian star herself! Now, that’s a tutti-frutti memory worth keeping!

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