The summer of 2001 was the sunniest in the last fifteen years. Travelers who came for Carnival were blessed with nothing but perfect sunny days and starry nights, from February 24 through February 27 (Fat Tuesday).
Banda de Ipanema opened pre-Carnival street festivities on February 10, coinciding with the last decent rain shower in the whole month! On the following weekend in Ipanema, Banda Simpatia é Quase Amor marched on Saturday (February 17). Simpatia gets bigger every year, and it attracted an estimated 8,000. Banda da Carmen Miranda, probably the gayest street band in Rio, went out on Sunday (February 18).
Official Carnival festivities began on Friday, February 23. The most important event was the parade of children's samba schools. It happened at the Sambodrome, starting at 7 p.m.. Costumes for this parade are sponsored by the city, and tickets are free. The idea is to give young talents a chance to experience what if feels like to march on the samba runway. It is not a competition. Red and Black, the traditional Carnival ball held by soccer team Flamengo, happened at Scala in Leblon.
The parade of luxury costumes happened at Hotel Gloria at 7 p.m. Unfortunately the event is no longer televised. In the 70's and 80's the country used to stop and watch. Famous competitors like Clovis Bornay, Mauro Rosas and Wilza Carla had big fan clubs.
Copacabana Palace's Crystal Magic Ball is traditionally the only luxury costume ball really worth going to. This year the decor included 1,000 pounds of Swarovski crystals, imported from Austria. Tickets were priced US$200 and up, and included dinner and drinks. With the absence of a socialite who had promised to arrive riding a circus elephant, the center of attention was singer Eliana Pittman. Her costume in natural pearls and Brazilian gemstones was so valuable that it had been brought from São Paulo in an armored car!
The Sambodrome was stage to the parade of Access Group Samba Schools. Tickets for this competition are reasonably priced, and it featured many schools that have already marched with the Special Group. Vila Isabel, with a tradition of decades, was placed third. This means that unfortunately they will not march with the biggies in 2002.
Rio Folia, a stage at the Lapa Arches with live music shows and performances, started at 8 p.m. and went on until 5 a.m. For R$30 you could buy a ticket to X-Demente, one of the most popular off-Carnival parties. It happened at Fundição Progresso, also in Lapa. With 3 dance floors and 7 DJ's, it went on until the morning. This party is already part of the international clubber's agenda, and the percentage of US and local muscle boys (a.k.a. Barbies) was very high. There were also parties at many clubs in Copacabana, Ipanema and other areas.
Sunday - February 25
Sunday fun started early in Ipanema, with street band Simpatia é Quase Amor. They started gathering at Praça General Osorio at 4 p.m., attracting an estimated 10,000. This band chooses a theme song every year, and a lot of people wear the T-shirt that helps to pay the costs. The atmosphere was friendly and familiar.
The Samba Parade of Special Group Schools (the major leaguers) started at 9 p.m. at the Sambodrome, in the Downtown area. This year it was very difficult even for locals to purchase tickets at face value. Bleacher seats available at Banco Bandeirantes were offered very late, and sold out in less than a week. Bleachers at Sectors 9 and 11 had numbered seats, and were available through travel agents only.
Tradição chose as theme TV mogul Silvio Santos, a true Brazilian icon. Masks with his face were distributed, and you could see hundreds of clones of the self-made man among spectators. Salgueiro had an impressive performance, and was placed among the top five. Everybody waited to see Beija Flor, the last one to march. Those who know the history of this school always expect something special, and they were not disappointed. When they were voted second best by the jury a lot of people complained.
Brahma Brewery is one of the sponsors of the parade, and their huge mezzanine box provided material for weeks of gossip. The star attractions were fashion model Giselle Bündchen and the Austrian log Mr. Schwarzenegger, who came with his wife and brother on his second visit to Rio. The funny part was that people marching with Samba Schools would not believe when they looked up and saw the Terminator, and ended up causing a sambista jam. Many had to be gently encouraged to move on by runway supervisors (yes, there are people in charge of making each school flow smoothly on the runway, in case you didn't know).
Off-Sambodrome there were free shows at Lapa, a competition of street bands on Av. Rio Branco, and shows at the Terreirão do Samba for R$5. Clubs were hopping, but the best bet was probably B.I.T.C.H.. This rave party took place at Terra Encantada, a theme park in Barra da Tijuca. Tickets gave free access to the best rides, including the rollercoaster. Tickets were R$25 and round-trip transportation from Praça da Paz in Ipanema was R$5 each way.
Sunday - February 25The fun went on at the Sambodrome on Monday, starting at 9 p.m. Among the traditional schools, Mangueira is the one that has been presenting the most consistent series of memorable presentations in the last few years. D. Zica, their first lady, was carried in a man-sized jack-in-the-box. Every now and then the giant cube was placed it on the runway. It opened, and she came out to greet the public. They were placed third.
Imperatriz, the winner of the past two years, came up with a catchy tune, and for the first time made the crowds stand and dance. They won first place for the third year in a row. It was Grande Rio that made all the headlines, though. The school is now under the command of Carnival designer Joazinho Trinta, always an innovator. He imported US stunt man Eric Scott to pilot some NASA-engineered backpack that would take him on short flights over the Samba Runway. For some technicality the school was placed sixth, and unfortunately did not march with the winners on the following weekend.
Tuesday - February 26
On Tuesday afternoon Banda de Ipanema marched for the last time of the year, leaving everybody with a taste for more. In the evening, the center of attention was the Gala Gay Costume Ball at Scala, in Leblon. This party features what is probably the highest concentration of exotic characters in all Latin America.
Rogeria, one of Brazil's most famous transvestites, was hired by TV network Bandeirantes for interviews inside the ball. At the door an enthusiastic crowd greeted the people arriving in costumes. Otavio Mesquita, a presenter hired by Rede TV (a competing station) was at the door, making the most unbelievable questions. The ball was broadcast to all Brazilian states until 4 a.m.