Carnaval Brasileiro celebrates 40 years of flesh, feathers, fantasy

11:00 p.m Friday, Feb. 17, 2017 Austin360
The scene at Carnaval Brasileiro in 1980, a few years after Mike Quinn began hosting the party. Contributed by Carnival Brasileiro

Austin’s Carnaval Brasileiro might be known for its flashes of flesh, ornate costumes and no-inhibitions vibe, but in reality it all began with the music.

“I started taking some classes and was exposed to Brazilian music, and it completely took me over,” said Mike Quinn, founder of Carnaval Brasileiro. “It hit me like a rock, like lightning out of the sky all of the sudden, this is it. It kind of took over my life.”

Carnival Brasileiro, the city’s long-running and sometimes hard-to-define nod to the Brazilian Mardi Gras celebration, will ring in its 40th year on Feb. 25 at the Palmer Events Center. We take a look back at the history of the event in Austin.

The early days

Austin’s Carnaval celebrations started as private parties hosted by homesick Brazilian UT students in the early 1970s that attracted a few hundred people. After attending a Carnaval event in 1977, Quinn heard the organizer wasn’t planning to host it the next year and, at the urging of his friend Jim Hughes, asked for permission to take it over.

“Jimmy said, ‘If you don’t do this party it’s going to die and it will disappear,’” Quinn said. “And it would have. There’s no question.”

Quinn secured a venue for the 1978 event and did some grassroots marketing. To his surprise, it was a success.

“We sold 1,000 tickets and turned away 200 people,” he said. “Tickets were $2, and $2 seemed high to me, though I probably could have gotten away with $3.”

Hughes was there, dressed as a giant lobster.

“I had these big padded claws and I couldn’t see and they were a nuisance,” Hughes said. “I did a couple of moderately elaborate costumes, but those are impossible to dance in and uncomfortably hot. I quit going that route and went with something I could dance in, maybe a suit with a mask.”

WHAT HAPPENED? How Austin in the 1970s shaped the city of today

After a brief stint at the Armadillo World Headquarters, the party transferred to the City Coliseum, where it stayed for 20 years. It moved to the Palmer Events Center in 2003.

“It went from having a feel of a small, intimate, kind of dank junior high school gymnasium environment — when it moved to the Palmer, the skies opened up and we had room to run,” said Claire Stone, an Austinite who attends Carnaval every year. “I miss some of those (early) days because everyone was dancing so hard that it created this huge, humid jungle.”

Dress to impress

Stone first learned about Carnaval in the mid-1990s, when she and a group of friends saw a poster for it at Kerbey Lane Cafe.

“It was spontaneous — we grabbed a bunch of tickets and we went,” she said. “It was a real eye-opener. We felt completely underdressed, we showed up in ragtag sorts of things. I thought, ‘I’m going to do a better job next year.’ It became an absolute obsession thereafter.”

It’s the unique blend of Brazilian tradition and a “Keep Austin Weird” spirit that pulls most people in, Quinn said.

“There are different layers. On the top level is the obvious one — you get five hours of nonstop, literally no breaks between the bands, traditional, authentic, real-deal Carnaval music from Brazil,” Quinn said, adding that this year’s entertainment will include music from Austin Samba and Brazilian artist Dandara Odara as well as acrobats and burlesque dancers. “I’ve tried to do this party in other cities, and at midnight they were all gone. In Austin, at 2 o’clock in the morning we still have 5,000 people in the room who don’t want to go home.”

Among the biggest draws are the costumes, which have included everything from a group of cows to a Whataburger cup to formal attire — there have been several weddings at the event over the years.

Stone, who typically spends about a month preparing what she wears to Carnaval and who as we spoke was affixing rhinestones to lace as part of this year’s costume, “a very sexy Godzilla,” said the outfits are one of the things that keep her coming back.

“It’s a rare treat to see all of these treasures out walking and dancing and celebrating life,” she said. “It’s a real spectacle for the eyes and senses.”

FROM 2014: A look at Austin’s growing Brazilian music scene

If it’s your first time to go, be aware that for some Carnaval attendees, less is more. Pasties, thongs and painted-on costumes are not uncommon.

“Austin has a very unique group mentality for letting go,” Quinn said. “When you combine that with music and the lack of inhibitions of people going in costume … you get a magical combination. … You feel it in the air when you go in.”

As for Quinn’s costume?

“I’m going as an aging boomer in a T-shirt and jeans probably,” he said, adding that costumes are not required and that face painters and body painters will be available at the event for a nominal fee. “I’m not very much of a costume person.”

The future of Carnaval

After running the show for 40 years, Quinn is an expert on what it takes to put it on.

“It is exhausting work over the last two months beforehand because there’s so many details that have to be paid attention to,” he said. “You have to babysit all these things, and there are a thousand details. As I get older, it gets harder to remember what those details are.”

Still, he plans to continue hosting what he calls Austin’s biggest party “until I’m on a respirator, I guess.”

“There’s a great deal of satisfaction to see those people still there just having the times of their lives,” Quinn said. “Someone reminded me 20 years ago when I was sitting in the bleachers of the old building watching the crowd, they said, ‘Mike, you should be proud of this. This is your work.’ It made me realize, hey, I actually did something good for some people.”