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Soap opera

A revolution in TV soap operas

With the digitization of TV Tupi archives, it is now possible to reassess the importance of Beto Rockfeller

Luis Gustavo played the leading role in the soap opera, which, in addition to other innovations, showed the first merchandising on Brazilian TV

UH Collection / FolhapressLuis Gustavo played the leading role in the soap opera, which, in addition to other innovations, showed the first merchandising on Brazilian TVUH Collection / Folhapress

The TV soap opera Beto Rockfeller was considered revolutionary even when it was broadcast between 1968 and 1969 on the now-defunct TV Tupi. At a time when television dramas were based on anachronistic melodramas and recorded almost entirely in studios, the narrative written by Bráulio Pedroso and directed by Lima Duarte brought to viewers a contemporary and urban feeling, a villainous anti-hero and social climber, outdoor images, improvisation by the actors, rebellious behaviors and a tone of irony. Nearly everything was new, including the first case – also improvised and casual – of merchandising. Everyone knows the story of actor Luis Gustavo, who starred in the leading role, and the Engov brand of the medicine used to treat indigestion and hangovers. According to him, obtaining permission to include explicit scenes with the brand was a way of compensating for the wages at TV Tupi that were seldom paid on time. Even though TV Tupi was on top in the viewer ratings, it was chronically mismanaged.

For Esther Hamburger, professor at the School of Communications and Arts of the University of São Paulo (ECA-USP), the merchandising for the medicine can be considered an indication of the presence in the soap opera of a greater sensitivity to a lifestyle and a stage of modernity that were characteristic of the era in which the soap opera was produced. This element, according to Hamburger, was not so clear while Beto Rockfeller was on the air, but it was observed while its seven surviving episodes were being recovered and digitized. “This type of merchandising, just like the display of fashion items, cigarettes, whiskey, telephones or motorcycles, is a way for viewers to access the universe of the characters,” Hamburger says. “It is as if by adopting the accessories that the characters suggested, the viewers shared the standing of those characters in the world.”

Hamburger was at the forefront of the work that began in 2009, starting with the publication by FAPESP of a request for bids to digitize, preserve and organize the archives. The VHS tapes of the Tupi TV drama were at the headquarters of the Brazilian Film Library (Cinemateca Brasileira) in São Paulo, after having transited through many public entities until the technical conditions necessary for preserving them became available. The project concluded with the digitization of the 100 hours of programming in the project, but there are about 3,000 more that are in line for processing in the archives of the Film Library. And so, what was left of Beto Rockfeller has already been saved.

Plínio Marcos, partner of Luis Gustavo’s character, from underground theater to the screens of TV Tupi

UH Collection / FolhapressPlínio Marcos, partner of Luis Gustavo’s character, from underground theater to the screens of TV TupiUH Collection / Folhapress

“The work was much slower than we anticipated,” Hamburger notes. Recovering the archives depended on acquiring equipment for editing Quadruplex, the first TV video format, created in 1956. Before that, TV Tupi news programs were recorded on film and had already been digitized as part of another project, a partnership between the Film Library and the Ministry of Justice. The TV soap opera archives as well as the journalism archives are online in the Cultural Content Database (Banco de Conteúdos Culturais) at the Brazilian Film Library website (

All of this work took place in a new context in which TV archives are beginning to be more appreciated. Due to legal copyright issues and a long-standing disdain by academia for TV productions as a cultural product, many of the archives from the early decades of Brazilian television have been lost. The broadcasters themselves reused videotapes and they failed to maintain them properly. “There was no culture of preserving TV in Brazil, as opposed to countries in Europe, where collections were usually available in national libraries with guaranteed copyrights,” Hamburger says.

The researcher mentioned the remaining episodes of Beto Rockfeller, which, because they reveal many innovative aspects of theme and form, show the numerous possibilities for dealing with television archives. In her study of Beto Rockfeller, Hamburger looked for a counterpoint in more recent research on “early cinema” which reveals the art of the big screen as a component of modernity that was emerging then, with the frequent presence of automobiles, speed and urban movement, while traditional theory identified the modern presence only in films made starting in the 1960s. “Cinema is modern par excellence and is a part of the modern era,” she says. In Brazil, there never really has been a movie industry per se, but there was a TV industry. TV is part of the modernization process and not just a snapshot of a given moment in history.”

From left to center: actors Bete Mendes, Rodrigo Santiago, Luiz Gustavo and Debora Duarte

Reproduced from Intervalo magazine - Orias Elias collectionFrom left to center: actors Bete Mendes, Rodrigo Santiago, Luiz Gustavo and Debora DuarteReproduced from Intervalo magazine - Orias Elias collection

In the case of Beto Rockfeller, there is, according to Hamburger, a “utopia of modernity.” Beto Rockfeller, the character (whose name alludes to American millionaire Nelson Rockefeller, with a spelling error that may have been intentional), worked at a shoe repair shop on rua Teodoro Sampaio, a symbol of middle-class shopping in São Paulo at the time. He pretended he was rich so that he could fit in with high society, whose members shopped mostly on the then-fashionable rua Augusta. He was a “hanger-on,” a term used at the time to describe social climbers who acted like interlopers in a world that was not theirs. “Beto is the individual who is capable of transcending the limits of his immediate surroundings and learning how to deal with the ways of the rich,” Hamburger says.

Social climbing
One episode in particular, found in the digitized tapes and singled out by the researcher, is an illegal motorcycle race between Beto and his wealthy rival, both competing for a girl’s heart. The motorcycles are very significant in the plot: At the same time, they are a status symbol, a consumer’s dream and an icon of rebellion, as in the Marlon Brando poster from the film The Wild One, which adorns Beto’s bedroom. They are also a symbol of the effort involved in social climbing (and the ability to conquer a rich girl who is somewhat sexually liberated), since Beto had to learn to drive the motorcycle with the help of his best friend, a poor mechanic portrayed by playwright Plínio Marcos. Finally, they are a vehicle for showcasing a new avenue under construction: Sumaré, a symbol of cosmopolitanism in São Paulo and in Brazil.

Not only was the program created in 1968, a year in which the world was in turmoil, but it also aired for the first time on November 4, 1968, a bit more than one month before “AI-5” was decreed, the symbol of the military dictatorship’s crackdown in Brazil. The cast also included actress Bete Mendes, a social studies student who was eventually arrested and tortured by the regime. However, in the plot, there was no forewarning of what was on the horizon. “The soap opera leaned more toward imagination than what people wanted to have thanks to the ‘economic miracle’ that would come to pass later,” Hamburger says. “Everything was very ambiguous. Despite the rebellious environment in the tone of the soap opera, through the star of the show, viewers were able to spy through a hole in the lock into the fascinating world of the rich. The sensitivity that was present was very depoliticized. It seems that this foreshadowed the omnipresent consumption that we see in people today.”

There was ambiguity in the production as well. Although on the one hand there were names associated with traditional TV soap operas, such as producer Cassiano Gabus Mendes and director Lima Duarte, on the other hand efforts were made to use features of today’s São Paulo theater scene, with “lady” Maria della Costa in her first TV role, and iconoclast Plínio Marcos (author of the play Razor in the Flesh), as well as playwright Bráulio Pedroso, specially invited to write the script. “The soap opera connected erudite universes and the culture industry around a set of liberalized mores associated with social climbing and consumption,” Hamburger says.

It was a huge melting pot in which traditions and signs of modernity mixed, something that TV Globo attempted to turn into standard practice subsequently as it began its impressive ascent in TV soap operas. Until 1969, Globo’s soap opera department was headed by Gloria Magadan, a Cuban exile in Brazil, who emblazoned in Globo’s episodes “her style of producing entangled stories that took place in far-flung lands and/or long ago,” in Hamburger’s words. The titles included The Sheik of Agadir (O sheik de Agadir) and Blood and Sand (Sangue e areia).  The national network was founded that year, and in the same year, Globo terminated Magadan and replaced her with Daniel Filho, who inaugurated a new style of drama with contemporary and Brazilian themes.

Even the very first soap opera entitled Bridal Veil (Véu de noiva), by Janete Clair, had a dashing Formula 1 racecar driver, at a time when driver Emerson Fittipaldi was a national hero. “The changes were based on the model introduced by Beto Rockfeller, but the production was organized in a way that was more akin to the industrial model,” Hamburger says. So much so that in 1971 the broadcasting company established a research department to monitor the quantitative and qualitative movements of the audience as part of a policy “to professionalize its relations with individual advertisers and advertising agencies.” “Before that, TV was not yet a very profitable venture,” Hamburger says. “It would be interesting to have economists begin to study this industry.” It holds much more promise than the preservation of television archives can stimulate.

Quadruplex collection of now-defunct TV Tupi (nº 2009/54923-7); Grant Mechanism Research Project – Infrastructure program; Principal Investigator Esther Império Hamburger (USP); Investment R$446,934.77 (FAPESP).