Evita, Gardel Still Big in Buenos Aires

A fresh, red carnation adorns the stone lapel of Carlos Gardel's life-size statue in the Chacaritas cemetery, and a real cigarette dangles from his marble fingers.

Hand in pocket, his knee jauntily bent, wide grin upon his face, the man who helped make the tango famous looks almost alive, and certainly as debonair as he was in life.

Elsewhere in Buenos Aires stands a monument to Evita Peron, a radio actress who became the most important woman in Argentine political history — so famous that her name is synonymous with cultlike political power.

Gardel died in a plane crash in 1935; Peron died from cancer in 1952. Yet decades later, their memories still permeate this vibrant, hectic city of 3 million. Gardel and Evita have their own monuments, museums and eponymous streets. And now the two personalities are helping to fuel a tourism boom in a city that became a bargain for visitors following the country's 2001 economic collapse.

The Argentine peso lost two-thirds of its value in 2002. Though bad for Argentines, that drop has been good for tourists, who can now find delectable $3 steaks and bargain hotel rooms in what was once the most expensive city in South America.

The Quintessential Argentine Male

Tourists looking for Gardel and Peron won't be disappointed. Gardel's Humphrey Bogart-like face peers out from café windows, music shops and even drugstores. A baritone, he performed his tango songs and portrayed a fun-loving sophisticate in a dozen movies. Though most of the movies were made for Paramount Pictures, all but one were filmed in Spanish.

Gardel could not read music; assistants wrote the scores to the songs he composed. Yet he was considered a genius, and many of his songs remain classics 70 years later. His mythic status grew from his talent, charisma and tragic death at the peak of his career, said Ignacio Varchausky, creative director of the government-funded Tango Orchestra School.

The tango originated in working-class dance halls in the late 1800s, a fusion of Spanish music and Indian and African rhythms, with a scandalous dancers' embrace. But it became the rage of ballrooms in Paris and elsewhere in the early 1900s. Gardel, who was born in France but had darkly handsome Latin looks, was the Argentine man "incarnate," said Varchausky.

Gardel "was strong, romantic. ... He had the perfect voice, the perfect smile," he added. "He composed some of the most beautiful tangos ever."

The downtown Buenos Aires neighborhood of Abasto is virtually one large shrine to Gardel, who grew up there. A monument to him stands on Carlos Gardel Street. At Carlos Gardel Corner, the site of one of his favorite hangouts, a restaurant now offers nightly dinner tango shows. Guests are packed so tightly into the dining room that trips to the bathroom become daunting; black-and-white footage from Gardel's movies plays on a large screen as tourists dine on thick steaks, downed with house wine.

After dinner, a seven-piece band takes the stage. A Gardel lookalike belts out classics like "El Dia Que Me Quieras," and tango dancers flash around the stage in a blur of swirling coattails and bright sequins.

Eugenio Cruz, visiting from Santiago, Chile, with his wife, Maria, raved about the performance.

"Everything was very good: the dancers, the choreography, the music," Cruz said. "It was excellent."

Two blocks away, dusty, rundown Zelaya Street is also notable for its display of Gardelian adoration. Scores for Gardel hits like "Volver" and "Golondrinas" are painted on the homes' vibrant pink, yellow, green and blue facades, along with oversized portraits of the singer.

Gardel devotees can also visit the Carlos Gardel Museum, which houses a small but important collection.

Exhibits include the blue smoking jacket Gardel wore in Tango on Broadway, a Spanish-language film distributed by Paramount; his Argentine passport and personal effects gathered from the site of his fatal plane crash in Medellin, Colombia.

Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina …

The year Gardel died, Evita made her acting debut in a local vaudeville production. Last year, the Evita Museum opened in a 1923 Spanish-style house that Evita's foundation once used as a temporary shelter for women.

Those looking for a balanced view of Evita won't find it at the museum, which bases its perspective on her autobiography, My Life's Cause. The museum displays memorabilia from the 1947 woman's suffrage movement, which Evita spearheaded. There are also yellowing copies of her speeches and political tracts, along with her national identification card — the first to be issued to a woman.

Maria Victoria Faraone, a museum spokeswoman, said the museum highlights Evita's fight to include women in civic life and to improve the lives of downtrodden workers.

"Evita still represents the struggle for human rights and dignity [for the poor]," Faraone said. "We emphasize how she used political activity and her social work to help others."

The museum's first floor showcases Evita's life before she married Argentine strongman Juan Peron. Among the outfits and accessories on display is a black velvet-and-sequin dress from her acting days, along with the many magazine covers that featured her as her fame grew.

Elsewhere in Buenos Aires, the Plaza de Mayo is home to the balcony of the Casa Rosada where the fiery first lady famously harangued the adoring crowds below. There is also a monument to her in Plaza Ruben Dario, where a towering, Giacometti-like Evita can be seen in mid-stride, so focused on what lies ahead that she appears ready to walk right off the edge of her 6-foot-high platform.

Evita's tomb, like Gardel's, has also become a shrine.

Though more modest than Gardel's, it is located in Recoleta cemetery, the posh resting place for Buenos Aires' rich and powerful. A visitor could easily get lost among the grandiose mausoleums, which jut out of labyrinthine paths populated by stray cats.

Evita's tomb is decorated with plaques conveying loving messages, many from labor unions. Personal notes are jammed into the door alongside bouquets of roses and carnations.

Back at the museum, a silver copy of Evita's death mask is on display. The familiar braids, coiled at the nape of her neck, are there, but the expression is quite different from the radiant smile projected in old news photos from her life: She looks somber and pinched, almost schoolmarmish.

Evita, who lived her life so passionately, looks as though she found death distasteful.

If You Go …

SAFETY: Buenos Aires has experienced increased muggings and thefts in the past two years. Visitors should only take taxis marked "Radio Taxi." Be extra cautious when traveling in Abasto.

LANGUAGE: English is not widely spoken. Basic Spanish, like the ability to ask for directions, is very useful. The Evita Museum has signs in English and Spanish but other museums do not.

SEASONS: Expect hot and muggy weather and higher prices December through March, which is Argentina's summer. The best times to visit, both in terms of weather and cost, are spring (September to November) and fall (April to June).

GARDEL SITES:

CHACARITAS CEMETERY: Guzman 730. Open daily 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Ask a staff member for directions to Gardel's tomb.

EL MUSEO DE CARLOS GARDEL: Located in the Casa del Teatro, Avenida Santa Fe 1243, phone 4813-5906 or 4813-3941. Tuesday and Thursday, 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Free.

EL MUSEO CASA CARLOS GARDEL: The house Gardel shared with his mother from 1927 to 1933. Jean Juares 735, phone 4964-2015 or 4964-2071, www.museos.buenosaires.gov.ar Open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday and Wednesday through Friday. Admission $1.

CARLOS GARDEL CORNER: Carlos Gardel 3200, phone 4867-6363. www.esquinacarlosgardel.com.ar Dinner at 9 p.m., shows nightly at 10:30 p.m. Reservations requires; about $47 per person includes house wine, appetizer, entree, dessert and show.

ZELAYA STREET: Between Jean Juares and Achorena

EVITA SITES:

MUSEO EVITA: Lafinur 2988, phone 4807-0306 or 4809-3168. asociacionmuseoevitaarnet.com.ar. Tuesday to Sunday, 2 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

RECOLETA CEMETERY: Junin 1760, phone 4803-1594. Open every day 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Cemetery maps available at Junin 1790. Look for the Duarte family tomb.

EVITA MONUMENT: Plaza Ruben Dario, Austria and Libertador.