Carnival Starts Only When 12-Foot John Travolta Arrives

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It was near the start of one of Brazil’s most famous Carnival celebrations, in the northern seaside city of Olinda, and the town plaza was jammed with thousands of revelers. They were all awaiting their idol.

Just before 9 p.m., the doors to a dance hall swung open, a brass band pushed into the crowd and the star everyone had been waiting for stepped out: a 12-foot puppet of John Travolta.

Confetti sprayed, the band began playing a catchy tune and the crowd sang along: “John Travolta is really cool. Throwing a great party. And in Olinda, the best carnival.” (It rhymes in Portuguese.)

The giant John Travolta, perched on the head of a puppeteer, then led a parade through the cobblestone streets.

The “boneco,” as such giant puppets are known in Brazil, wore a bedazzled disco-era turtleneck and suit, with a black pompadour, a la John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever.” Celebrating its 45th birthday this year, the boneco is about as old as that film.

But its resemblance to the real Mr. Travolta?

“It looks nothing like him,” said the man who made the puppet more than four decades ago, Silvio Botelho, 65, in his workshop in the shade of a mango tree. The clay and papier-mâché face has morphed over time, setting the eyes a bit off-kilter. “The humidity took over,” he said. “Everything is warped.”

Mr. Botelho has begged to remake it, but the family who owns the boneco says they — and thousands of their neighbors — love it exactly the way it is.

“The people are in love with this boneco,” said Eraldo José Gomes, 56, a grandfather who was among the group of disco-crazed boys who had the idea to create a John Travolta puppet in 1979. “We’re afraid to mess with it.”

The John Travolta boneco (pronounced BO-neh-koh) is one of hundreds of giant puppets that parade through Olinda for four days every February, becoming the calling card of this city’s renowned Carnival — which winds down with Fat Tuesday celebrations this week — and a show of how the pre-Lent festivities in Brazil are far more than just Rio de Janeiro’s extravagant Samba parade.

For locals here in Olinda, a city of roughly 350,000, the bonecos also serve a deeper purpose. They are totems of sorts, playing an important cultural and community role, and often bringing revelers to tears. Olinda’s oldest boneco, The Midnight Man, is even considered a sacred religious object by followers of Afro-Brazilian religions, with specific religious instructions for his handling.

“I grew up with John Travolta. He is my brother. He is the uncle of my children,” Valeria dos Santos, 41, said of the John Travolta boneco. The domestic worker began to cry when explaining how her mother loved that boneco, ironed its clothes for years and died in 2007, on the day it paraded the streets.

The bonecos first arrived in the region in 1919 in a town seven hours away, when a Portuguese priest told of similar puppets in Europe used for religious celebrations, said Jorge Veloso, an Olinda historian who studies Brazil’s bonecos.

In 1932, Carnival revelers in Olinda created The Midnight Man, which for decades has paraded every Saturday night at midnight, a moment carried live on television.

In 1967, Carnival groups created a second boneco, The Daytime Woman, to be The Midnight Man’s wife — there was a Carnival marriage ceremony — and then, in 1974, came their son, The Afternoon Kid.

Later, a group of seven boys, enthralled with “Saturday Night Fever,” persuaded Mr. Botelho to create a John Travolta boneco. Mr. Botelho, who was just starting out and knew the boys from the neighborhood, agreed to do it for free.

From there, bonecos exploded across Olinda. There are folkloric figures, fictional characters and puppets based on well-known revelers. Local politicians order them for their campaigns, businesses make them for promotions and people order them as gifts.

Most are the creation of Mr. Botelho, a self-taught puppet maker who estimates he and his team have created more than 1,300 bonecos. He used to work with papier-mâché and Styrofoam, but now mostly molds fiberglass and epoxy over a clay sculpture, paints it and adds hair and clothes. “I created a culture,” he said.

About 15 years ago, competition arrived. A businessman, Leandro Castro, began creating bonecos in the metropolis next door, Recife, Brazil’s eighth-largest city. His idea — to create a boneco museum — became a big success, in large part because he had a good gimmick: All his bonecos would depict famous figures.

His one-room museum is stacked with Brazilian and international celebrities, including Elvis, Pelé and Pope Francis.

Mr. Castro attracts lots of coverage in the Brazilian media, in part for his stunts with politics. He has bonecos of President Biden; Xi Jinping, the leader of China; and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. He has staged a meeting between the bonecos of former President Donald J. Trump and Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader. And he proudly showed off a message from Brazil’s former president, Jair Bolsonaro, thanking him for his own boneco.

While Mr. Castro is the face of the business, the secret to his lifelike bonecos is a little-known sculptor, Antônio Bernardo, who on Friday was in his dingy studio a few blocks from the museum, molding a giant clay head alongside his sleeping dog, Honey.

Mr. Bernardo has sculpted nearly all of Mr. Castro’s 750 bonecos and was now racing to finish a new politician for Mr. Castro’s annual Carnival puppet parade: President Javier Milei of Argentina.

Mr. Bernardo said making his own art fulfills him, while the bonecos are a job. “This gives me no pleasure,” he said, motioning to Mr. Milei’s head. “I am dominated by it.”

The dueling puppet moguls, Mr. Botelho and Mr. Castro, have become rivals of sorts. Mr. Botelho called Mr. Castro a “pirate.” Mr. Castro criticized the craftsmanship of Mr. Botelho’s bonecos, naming John Travolta in particular. Mr. Castro said he planned to make a better John Travolta for next year.

The John Travolta boneco does have an unconventional look — and an undeniable charm.

“It’s horrible, but beautiful,” said Maria Helena Alcântara, 30, one reveler awaiting the boneco’s arrival Saturday night. “He touches our hearts.”

While the crowd grew in the square, more than 100 people partied inside the dance hall at a private John Travolta party. They wore John Travolta shirts, danced to the catchy John Travolta tune and posed with the John Travolta boneco perched in the corner.

“There isn’t much of a link with the actor today. Now he’s John Travolta of Olinda,” said Diego Gomes, 25, a relative of the founders of the John Travolta boneco. He had watched “Saturday Night Fever” for the first time that week. “It was interesting,” he said.

Across the city, several children carried smaller John Travolta bonecos on their heads as their Carnival costumes. And at one point in Mr. Botelho’s workshop, 5-year-old Victor Calebe ran in, took a look at the assorted bonecos and asked, “Where’s John Travolta?”

The boneco founders said they had tried to reach the real Mr. Travolta for years but never heard back.

“He’s going to be like: What insanity is this?” Mr. Botelho predicted. “Are they drunk?”

However, when reached for comment, the real Mr. Travolta felt differently.

“Your music, your dance and your passion fills me with a feeling of completeness!” the actor responded in an email when asked if he had a message for the Olinda revelers. “I am proud and honored to be the icon of your carnival! It makes me so happy! Love always, John Travolta.”

Laura Linhares Mollica contributed reporting.

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