Of Fruit Hats And 'Happy Tropics,' A Renaissance For Carmen Miranda | KUOW News and Information

Of Fruit Hats And 'Happy Tropics,' A Renaissance For Carmen Miranda

Apr 22, 2015
Originally published on May 8, 2015 3:12 pm

Known for her outrageous costumes and beautiful voice, Brazilian performer Carmen Miranda was the highest-earning woman in Hollywood in the 1940s.

In the signature number in the 1943 extravaganza The Gang's All Here, Miranda — a massive turban festooned with fake fruit atop her head — sings "The Lady In The Tutti Frutti Hat" as a huge cast of scantily clad women waves around giant bananas.

It's completely over the top, and makes you feel like you've been immersed in a massive, warbling fruit salad.

But her success in the U.S. didn't translate back home, where she was rejected for being a sellout.

Now, her supporters hope that she will be given much greater recognition in Brazil, starting with a permanent exhibition at a lavish new museum in her home city of Rio de Janeiro, which is set to open later this year.

Success In U.S. Eclipsed Success At Home

There was a lot more to "The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat" than papier-mâché produce.

"The Brazilians don't know Carmen Miranda as they should," says Heloísa Seixas, who with her daughter, Julia Romeu, wrote a children's biography of Miranda.

Named Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha when she was born in Portugal, she immigrated to Brazil with her family when she was a child.

Before she became a star on Broadway and Hollywood, Miranda was big in Brazil. Her rise coincided with the beginning of the country's music industry.

"She was the most successful Brazilian singer in Brazil for 10 years before she ever went to America ... and so she was very important to Brazilian music, to Brazilian radio," says Romeu. In fact, during that period, Miranda cut more records than anyone else.

She was singing at the casino in the neighborhood of Urca when an American producer saw her and whisked her to Broadway and then Hollywood.

In Brazil, instead of celebrating her success, the exact opposite happened: People jeered at her, and said she was a sellout.

"When she came back (to Brazil) the next year, she had a very bad experience at the Casino da Urca. She really was very upset and she cried. She stopped the show," recounts Seixas.

Putting Brazil On The Map

After that experience, Miranda didn't come back to Brazil for 14 years. But she got the last word: She recorded a song about the incident, "They Say I Came Back Americanized."

The lyrics are both arch and sweet: "How could I have come back Americanized?" she asks. "I always say 'te amo' and never 'I love you.'"

It was a huge hit at the time.

Miranda always argued that she was Brazilian at heart. In an interview in London in 1948 she talked about the cultural roots of all that fruit.

"In Brazil in Bahia, the girls carry the basket with the fruits on her head, and they have big bracelets and big necklaces and they sell fruits in the streets and I take it from the girls," Miranda explained.

And she used that image to make herself into a big business, constantly touring and putting on shows in casinos and clubs.

For the American audience of the day, she put Brazil on the map.

"It was through her music and her person that Americans discovered what Rio de Janeiro was, what Brazil was, how Brazilians behaved," says César Balbi, the director of the now-closed Carmen Miranda Museum in Rio.

Celebrated In A New Museum Exhibit

Balbi is speaking in the building that housed Miranda's collection after her death in 1955. It's a small, ugly concrete bunker next to an expressway. It's not easily visible — the antithesis of the woman herself.

Balbi takes me into the back room where her things are kept in storage.

And lined up on a shelf are the famous turbans, some with cherries, some with pineapples, some with small umbrellas. Miranda actually made some of them herself: She had learned millinery working in a hatmakers' shop in her youth.

Now her belongings are in the process of being packed up and shipped to their new location – the Museum of Image and Sound smack dab on the main drag in Copacabana.

"This museum was the wrong place for her," Balbi says. "Now we are going to a bigger space."

It will be at the heart of a large museum that will highlight Brazil's various musical traditions. The emphasis will be on Miranda's music, housed in a part of the museum that focuses on a genre called "Happy Tropics."

Seixas, the author, predicts that the new permanent exhibition will be a huge success.

"Carmen Miranda will be the anchor of the new museum," Seixas says. "She will finally have the important space that she always deserved in Rio and in Brazil."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We're listening to the voice of Carmen Miranda. In the 1940s, she was the highest-paid actress in Hollywood. She was famous in the United States for her outrageous costumes and beautiful voice, but she was rejected in Brazil, where she grew up, for being a sellout. As NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports, Carmen Miranda is finally about to get her due. A permanent exhibition at a lavish new museum will open in her home city of Rio de Janeiro later this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LADY IN THE TUTTI FRUTTI HAT")

CARMEN MIRANDA: (Singing) I wonder why does everybody look at me and then begin to talk about the Christmas tree?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: In this 1943 Busby Berkeley extravaganza, Carmen Miranda is adorned with a massive turban festooned with fake fruit. Around her, a huge cast of scantily clad women are waving around giant bananas. It's completely over the top; it kind of makes you feel like you've been immersed in a massive, warbling fruit salad.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LADY IN THE TUTTI FRUTTI HAT")

MIRANDA: (Singing) The lady in the tutti frutti hat.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But there was a lot more to Carmen Miranda than papier-mache produce.

HELOISA SEIXAS: Actually, the Brazilians don't know Carmen Miranda as they should.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Heloisa Seixas, who wrote with her daughter, Julia Romeu, a children's biography of Miranda. Miranda was born in Portugal but immigrated to Rio de Janeiro with her family when she was a child. And before she became a star on Broadway and then Hollywood, Miranda was big in Brazil, says Julia Romeu. Her rise coincided with the beginning of the nascent music industry here.

JULIA ROMEU: She was the most successful Brazilian singer in Brazil for 10 years before she ever went to America, before she ever went to Broadway, before she ever made any movies. And so she was very important to Brazilian music and to Brazilian radio.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, speaking of this life in Brazil, right now we are in Urca, which is a neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro. And we're standing outside of what once was the very well-known and celebrated casino in Urca. And this is where Carmen Miranda sang and she was also discovered by the Hollywood producer that took her to the United States. Tell me a little bit about that period.

SEIXAS: Well, the first thing that happen when she came back the next year, she had a very bad experience here - the Casino de Urca. There was a show...

ROMEU: She was booed.

SEIXAS: She was booed.

ROMEU: They were jeering her. And she really was very upset and she cried; she stopped the show.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: After that, she didn't come back to Brazil for 14 years, but she got the last word on the matter. This is a song she recorded about the incident called "They Say I Came Back Americanized."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEY SAY I CAME BACK AMERICANIZED"

MIRANDA: (Singing in Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The lyrics are both arch and sweet. How could I have come back Americanized, she asks, I always say te amo and I never say I love you. It was a huge hit at the time. Carmen Miranda always argued that she was Brazilian at heart. Here she is interviewed in London in 1948 where she explained what all that fruit was about.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIRANDA: In Brazil, in Bahia, the girls carry a basket with the fruits on their heads, you see? And they have big necklace and big bracelets and they sell fruits in the streets. And I take it from the girls.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And she used that image to make herself into a big business, constantly touring and putting on shows in casinos and clubs. In many ways, for the insular American audience of the day, she put Brazil on the map.

CESAR BALBI: (Through interpreter, speaking Portuguese) It was through her music and her person that Americans discovered what Rio de Janeiro was, what Brazil was, how Brazilians behaved.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Cesar Balbi is the director of the now shut Carmen Miranda Museum in Rio. We are speaking in the museum which housed her collection after her death in 1955. It's a small, ugly concrete bunker in the middle of an expressway, not easily visible - the exact opposite of the woman herself.

BALBI: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Balbi takes me into the back room where her things are kept in storage.

Oh, look at the headgear. It's my favorite part of Carmen Miranda, of course. The famous hats that she would wear in her shows - and there are a series of them in front of me, some with cherries, some with pineapples, others with small umbrellas. They're absolutely fantastic.

BALBI: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Her belongings and - fun fact, she made a lot of the turbans herself - are in the process of being packed up and shipped to their new location, the Museum of Image and Sound, smack dab on the main drag in Copacabana.

BALBI: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Balbi says this museum was the wrong place for her. Now, we are going to a bigger space he says. It will be at the heart of a large museum that will show all the various musical traditions in Brazil. The emphasis will be on her music. She'll be in a part of the building that focuses on a genre called Happy Tropics. Back in Urca, Heloisa Seixas says the new permanent exhibition will be a huge success.

SEIXAS: Carmen Miranda will be the anchor of the new museum. She will finally have the important space that she always deserved in Rio and in Brazil.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.