Orson Welles hurled furniture out the windows. The King of Romania's dogs chewed on the curtains. And a fully clothed Prince of Wales plunged into the pool.
Home to kings, coffee barons, Hollywood actresses and financiers on the run, Rio's legendary Copacabana Palace for decades symbolized easygoing, tropical Rio -- an elegant casino set against waving palm trees and a blue surf lapping on warm, white sands.
Americans who couldn't afford the night flight to Rio came to know the cream-colored Copa through films -- "Flying Down to Rio," and "The Man from Rio."
Built 58 years ago to spark development on a then-deserted beach, the seven-story Copa Palace is today one of the last chinks in a narly solid wall of highrises. Last month, the owners announced the Copa will be eaten by the neighborhood it nurtured. Next year, the Riviera-style hotel is to be razed and in its place will rise latin America's first Omni -- a 37-story tower of smoked glass.
The hotel that has evolved into Brazil's Monte Carlo was born with a silver spoon in its mouth. In 1922, the Mayor of Rio legalized gambling expressly to coax Brazilian hotel owner Otavio Guinle into building a hotel on the empty beach.
Sparing no cost, Guinle created a near-exact copy of the Negresco in Nice. He imported German cement and Italian marble, hardwoods from the Brazilian Amazon, 20-foot high French windows for the reading room, golden bath fixtures for the 12-room presidental suite and eight massive cut-glass chadeliers to hang over the baccarat tables and roulette wheels. When the doors swung open on Aug. 23, 1923, a staff of 900 was on hand to serve 225 rooms. For the next 45 years, Guinle, impeccably attired in striped silk shirts from Paris, would walk down the five flights of the central marble staricase, trailing a white glove to check for dust.
King Albert I of Belgium was the first guest and the hotel soon became known as the "unofficial palace of the Brazilian government." The Copa's gold-stamped leather guest royalty book holds the signatures of royalty and heads of state who slept between the linen sheets of the presidential suite: Crown Prince Hirohito, George IV, Queen Elizabeth, Charles de Gaulle, Valery Giscard d'Estaing and President Eisenhower.Laden with furs, Eva Peron swept through on her way to Europe with her husband's foreign minister.
Most guests handled themselves with decorum, but there were exceptions.
On a state visit in April 1931, the Prince of Wales, later Edward Duke of Windsor, amused himself during late-night festivities by scooping goldfish out of Guinle's aquarium with his own hands. By dawn, the drunken prince ended up being fished out of the drink himself by concerned hotel employes.
Exiled King Carol of Romania left as a legacy the hotel's iron-bound rule against pets.
For two months, the king and his mistress -- Magda Lupescu -- and her eight Pekinese dogs held court in the presidential suite. "When they were checking out, the housekeeper went up to check the apartment," remembers Oscar Ornstein, the hotel's public relations director for 23 years. "They had chewed on the curtains, clawed the armchairs, soiled everything -- the Persian carpets, everything. She [Lupescu] of course said, 'Not my dogs, they never could be mine.'
"Old man Guinle was so mad that he didn't even argue, but he forbade all animals from the house," continued Ornstien. To set an example, Guinle sent his two dogs up to his summer home in the mountain resort of Teresopolis. s
The rule held. When Joan Crawford steamed into Rio on a Moore McCormack cruise ship, she spent her nights on board because Guinle refused to let her two dogs into the hotel. When Zsa Zsa Gabor flew in, she was forced to leave her two white poodles with Guinle's nephew, Jorge. By his death in 1968, the hotel owner had broken with tradition only once: During a 1965 state visit with her husband, the shah of Iran, Empress Farah Diba was allowed to bring her boxer "Dollar."
The shah's visit showed the Copa Palace's quality of service at its zenith. To thank the Brazilians for their hospitality, Reza Pahlavi gave a buffet reception for 1,500, complete with gold and silver service, Cuban cigars, imported liqueurs, French wines, thick, sweet Brazilian coffee, and tables covered with hundreds of orchids and pyramids of caviar.
"You can't imagine how much caviar was on those tables," remembered Ornstein. "When Fery gave the signal you can imagine the rush," he added.
Fery Wunsch, maitre d'hotel for 40 years, was well trained for lavish entertaining. When Guinle hired him in 1930, Fery worked as banquet manager for King Fuad El Awal, Farouk's father, at the Abdine Palace in Cairo.
"The Copa was the place in Rio where everything happened," remembered Fery. "Everyone was at the Copa," he said. And the heavy parchment pages of the guest book bear him out.
One page holds the signatures of Walt Disney, John Hay Whitney, Ed Sullivan and the archduke of Austria.On another, the scribbled signatures of "The Supremes" are followed by the precise hand of General Hugo Banzer, deposed dictator of Bolivia, who wrote: "Tradition, efficiency, cordiality -- these are traditions of the beautiful Copacabana Palace."
During the '30s, '40s, and '50s, American and European movie stars flew down to Rio in droves: Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, David Niven, Jayne Mansfield, Ginger Rogers, Kirk Douglas, Gina Lollobrigida, Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve.
Many came attracted by the glamorous gambling or the riotous five-day Carnival celebrations which convulse Rio every February.
While the international elite almost exclusively patronized the Copa, Rio's high society also adopted the hotel as their own.
Cabinet ministers, senators, generals, ambassadors and financiers filled the restaurant, Bife de Ouro forcing less illustrious guests to wait up to two hours for a table. The restaurant was so baptized because a steak was said to cost its weight in gold. The high-priced tradition continues today. N the menu, all in French, the cold hors d'oeurve, "Parfait de foie gras truffe de Strasbourg," sells for $40 -- two weeks wages for the average construction worker in Rio.
Fery recalls knowing many of the hotel guests by name. Returning year after year, wealthy families from Sao Paulo or Buenos Aires would come to spend a month at the Copa, often arriving by rail or steamship. The guests frequently requested specific rooms because they knew the chambermaids or bellboys on that floor. If, during the course of an evening, a longtime guest might run short, Fery would quietly pick up the bill, to be repaid later.
Reaching back a half a century, Fery, recalls with a sweep of his arm and a sigh how contestants filed down a runway for the dawn climax of the 1930 Miss Universe Pageant.
"You used to get a crick in your neck watching all the beautiful girls go by here," he said. As he reminisced on a recent sunny afternoon, the only woman by the pool was a round Argentinian matron bulging out of a skimpy electric-blue bikini.
Today, the Copa is a shell of what it used to be. Footsteps echo through the empty casino.On a recent Friday afternoon, the scent of cooking onions had leaked into the reception area. Except for two bored receptionists, the main entrance was deserted.
In contrast, on the same afternoon at the Rio Othon Palace -- a 10-minute walk down Avenida Atlantica -- bellboys were carrying bags, tour buses were pulling up, tourists were bargaining with taxi drivers and harried receptionists were trying to keep up with ringing telephones and a line of people waiting to check in.
"The Copa's dead -- nothing happens there anymore," confirmed Jorge Guinle, one of the owners.
The first ax blow came in 1946, when a reformist president banned gambling. Then, in 1960, the nation's capital moved to Brasilia, slowly draining the Copa Palace of its lifeblood -- ministers, congressman and the diplomatic corps. And then, the city changed.
Copacabana is no longer "the little princess of the sea," immortalized in a lyrical Brazilian song. Pinched between the mountains and the surf, the neighborhood grew straight up. With 240,000 inhabitants squeezed into two square miles, Copacabana has the highest population density of all of Brazil.
Parked cars cover the oramental sidewalks, and, according to the state environmental foundation, Copacabana residents breathe the worst air in Rio. Roaring trucks and city buses cough tons of sulphur dioxide and suspended particulate matter into the air each year. In the rest of the city, worried neighborhood organizations rail against the "copacabanization" of their areas.
Brazil has also changed. It is no longer a creaking coffee republic dominated by a tiny oligarchy, but a rapidly industrializing nation with an increasingly powerful middle class -- approaching 30 percent of the population. i
"The middle class never dared to go to the Copa," recalled Ornstein. In fact, a street-level gambling hall was reserved for bettors of lesser means. The high rollers under the chandeliers of the upstairs casino dubbed it the "necroterio" -- the morgue.
"The high society doesn't exist anymore," mutters Fery. "Now all their children want to do is throw a Johnny Walker under their arm and head for the beach with a girl."
Even Guinle, the polished playboy of the society columns, has told the local press he is considering donating his share of the Copacabana Palace to the long-banned Brazilian Communist Party.
The final hammer blow to the Copa and its aristocratic life style are its sagging vital statistics.
"The Copa has 225 rooms on 12,000 square meters. The meridian has twice as many rooms -- 550 -- on only 1,500 square meters," said Luis Eduardo Guinle, 37, Otavio Guinle's son, and a driving force behind the new Omni. Although the staff has been cut by 1,000 since a 1945 peak of 1,600, the hotel is still uneconomical, he asserted.
In a country of go-go growth, the old landmark has few friends.
"I don't believe in all this junk about historic patrimony," said Cauby Peixoto, allegedly the first Brazilian singer to break into the Golden Room in 1956. "I don't know the new project, but I think it's great," he told a Brazilian reporter.
Other critics fault the Copa for "incurable defects" -- no garage and no 24-hour coffee shop. They say the spacious effect of the hotel's high-ceilinged corridors and immense salons could be achieved with more mirrors and less space.
The hotel has "no architectural or historical value," declared an ariticle in the national newsweekly Veja. In a concession to the past, the writer proposed placing the furniture from the presidential suite in a museum.
In a lone voice, the powerless Federal Council of Culture unanimously voted to back preservation efforts. "It's not a question of thinking how the site will be without moneymaking towers, it's a question of thinking about what would be lost without the flourishing majesty of the hotel in whose shadow the neighborhood grew," protested one member.
But, in rejecting the plea, Aloisio Magalhaes, director of the Federal Secretariat of National and Historic Patrimony, told reporters, "In developing countries, there is a shock between the necessity of preservation and the fitting development of society."
In December the Copa lost the battle and the mayor tentatively approved the new plan.
While the old Copa drew its inspiration from the South of France, the new Omni blueprint draws heavily on the South of United States. Architect Paulo Case spent two weeks last June visiting existing Omnis in Atlanta and Miami.
"The Atlanta Omni is very similar to my project -- hotel, offices, shopping, convention center," said Case. "The moment I was there it was the definite confirmation that this was what I wanted for Copacabana. What I liked above all about the Miami Omni was this 'clima de festa' -- an atmosphere of celebration which, you know, is a very Rio thing."
The Copacabana Omni, which Case believes will be Latin America's first, makes an unabashed bid for the new middle-class clientele. For the elite, there will be a helipad and six presidential suites, each with its own outdoor pool. But there will also be a convention center for 2,000 people, seven restaurants, 414 hotel rooms, a 24-hour drugstore-coffee shop, a movie theater, a 500-seat live theater, a mini-amusement park, and, targeted to Rio's latest craze -- a roller skating rink. Shooting guests up and down the 37 stories, 10 "panoramic" elevators will provide views of an interior atrium and the curving beach outside.
The price tag is $100 million -- a sum most street-corner observers believe the Guinle family can swallow.In the past, the family bequeathed to Rio what is now the Governor's Palace and the City Park. From 1888 until the concession ran out last month, the family owned Santos docks -- port of entry for Sao Paulo, Latin America's largest industrial complex -- something equivalent to owning the New York Port Authority.
The Copacabana Palace Hotel is to remain open for business into next year. The presidential suite costs $556 a night, but normal rooms range from $72 to $96 a night. Americans can make reservations through Loews Reservations Inc. Closed for several years, the Golden Room recently reopened and Wednesdays through Sundays nostalgic Rio residents are lining up to pay $15 cover to listen and dance to swing bands and "crooners."
One hopes its replacement will inspire such reflections as this note left several years ago by French actor Jean Claude Brialy when he signed the hotel guest book:
"Copacabana Palace is the name of a dream, the title of a film, a bit of paradise; it's light and hospitality, it's sun and kindness. Merci et a bientot."