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."

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