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Brazil Nuts

Get ready for Lent with a good, old-fashioned Carnaval

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Miriam Gilberti knows how to throw a party. The Brazilian Portuguese teacher grew up regularly attending the mother of all parties -- Carnaval, the world-renowned, pre-Lenten bacchanalian fete that makes Mardi Gras in New Orleans look like a preschool puppet show.

"It was a big thing in my house when I was growing up," recalls Gilberti. "My father would design my costume, and my mother would sew it."

Decked out in their flamboyant getups, Gilberti and her family would attend extravagant masquerade balls and flashy parades with thousands of fellow Brazilians, dancing in the streets for an entire week. "I met my husband at one of those carnival balls," she fondly reminisces. "I was 14, and he was 17."

Now, 26 years and three kids later, Gilberti finds herself living with her husband in Cleveland Heights -- 5,000 miles from her festive homeland. Frustrated that their children would no longer experience the rich tradition of Carnaval, Gilberti decided to create her own celebration. Her passion for partying has led to the Brazilian Carnaval Ball, an annual benefit for the International Child Health Program of the University Hospitals Health System.

But this benefit isn't your typical pretentious gala, where the elite stand around in black-tie attire, sipping Dom Perignon from crystal flutes. Gilberti's Carnaval Ball is a rip-roaring, costumed carousal, featuring live Brazilian music, plenty of authentic food, and potent potions sure to transform any stiff into a rumba-dancing fool. "It's a long party, so after a few hours, people are going wild," laughs the mild-mannered party-planner, who moved here 13 years ago for her husband's work.

No, party-goers likely won't be streaking through the lobby before the night's over, but some have pushed the boundaries. In years past, revelers have shown up wearing itty-bitty bikinis or strategically placed sequins. "But no topless," she asserts. "I try to keep it more conservative. I've been told my Carnaval is very old-fashioned -- that's why people like it. The emphasis is not on nudity, but putting on a costume and becoming someone else for a while."

This year's ball will feature live music by Rio Connection and some fancy footwork by the Native Dance Company. A panel of Carnaval judges will be sizing up the costumes and awarding prizes to the most luxurious and most original. In the past, costumes have ranged from genies sporting big gold turbans to feathery chanteuses with elaborate headdresses. "Any costume is good," assures Gilberti. But if the pirate outfit is as at the cleaners, the tux will do -- just say you're Pierce Brosnan.

Sheraton chefs will serve authentic Brazilian cuisine, including pastel, a common finger food made from thin dough and filled with ground beef, seasonings, and olives. There will also be a cash bar serving traditional Carnaval drinks, such as Caipirnha and Caipivodka -- deceptively powerful hard-liquor concoctions made with fruit juice. "You may make the mistake you're drinking limeade," cautions Gilberti. "But it's strong." (Note to Catholics: You have over two weeks to recover before Lent begins.)

The lively benefit is in its eighth year and has rapidly grown in popularity. In 1992, only 75 people attended the little-known affair. But last year, 930 hipsters turned out for the event, which raised $10,000 for University Hospitals. The International Child Health Program provides a foreign adoption service and medical care to children living in poor conditions. "I chose that [program] because it helps children all over the world, no matter what their backgrounds are, and that's the idea behind Carnaval," says Gilberti, noting that party-goers range from her daughter's college friends to the well-to-do around town. "If you're not wealthy, it doesn't matter -- as long as you have a costume on."

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