Thursday, December 20, 2007

Argentina Answers To the Crazy Call Of Dr. Tangalanga

Argentina Answers To the Crazy Call Of Dr. Tangalanga
Phone Prankster Spouting Nonsense Delights Crowds; The Perplexed Handyman

December 15, 2007; Page A1

BUENOS AIRES -- Last month, 700 people turned out at a nightclub to celebrate Julio de Rizio's 91st birthday. Mr. de Rizio himself provided the entertainment, using a telephone hooked up to the audio system.

He dialed a convenience store and, in a tone that was civility itself, inquired about closing time. "I'm asking because I'm going to rob you at 3 a.m.," he told the startled clerk.

Mr. de Rizio then made harassing calls to a middle-aged comic-book collector and to a fellow who was offering his services as pop vocalist. He got him to belt out a few bars -- badly off-key. Finally, he called a handyman who had advertised that he would take care of "everything your husband doesn't have time to fix." Mr. de Rizio went off on a bawdy riff about not having time to satisfy his wife. He asked the flustered handyman whether he could fix that.

Mr. de Rizio, known by his stage name, Dr. Tangalanga, has won fame and fans throughout Latin America for making prank phone calls. His devotees call him "the telephone avenger" for the verbal pummeling he inflicts on inept or unscrupulous service providers -- quack healers, tarot card charlatans, butchers with heavy thumbs and builders who misfire their caulk-guns.

But no Argentine telephone owner is safe, not even the medical student who had obtained some skeletal remains from a cemetery. Tangalanga called her and told her that the bones were those of his cousin. "Couldn't you put him back together so I could bring him some flowers?" he asked.

Mr. de Rizio, who labored anonymously for decades as an account executive at Colgate-Palmolive Co. in Argentina, made his first comic calls in the early 1960s to cheer up a friend who was dying. He started working the phones in earnest some years later when he himself was bedridden with hepatitis. Homemade tapes of the calls began circulating informally around Buenos Aires, creating a sizable fan base. Eventually, he was signed by a publisher and record companies, which collected his oeuvre in three books and 41 cassettes or CDs. He has performed in Mexico, Chile and Uruguay in recent years and still works private parties in Argentina.

Mr. de Rizio's deadpan delivery and gravitas prompt victims to take him seriously, never mind the nonsense he spouts. Posing as a reporter for the mythical Peruvian magazine Angustia, or Anguish, he once called a collector of tango records looking for a bogus recording titled, "How Deep Can the Ravine Be if the Frog Climbs It at a Trot?" Neither the collector nor his wife, who also came to the phone, could place the song. They promised to take it up with other tango buffs, though. "Yes," Mr. de Rizio said, "all of them will have to come together and asphyxiate themselves." "Of course, of course," replied the collector's wife.


Mr. de Rizio's best pranks border on the surreal. He once asked a wig-repair specialist to make a house call because his wife's hairpiece had burst into flames while she was wearing it.

A prominent Argentine philosopher, Alejandro Rozitchner, wrote that Tangalanga is "an artist" and likened him to "the boy who satisfies himself participating in the world of grown-ups, acting out the role of one of them." An Argentine rock star sampled Tangalanga on an album, and a cabinet minister had him tape a message for his answering machine.

When not performing, Mr. de Rizio isn't anything like the profane and politically incorrect Tangalanga. For many years, he spent two or three days a week as a volunteer visiting people in hospitals. Mr. de Rizio has been married for 66 years to the girl who grew up next door to him in Buenos Aires. He credits the telephone tricks with keeping him healthy and lucid after all these years.

Throughout the world, prank calls have an extensive comic pedigree. From Steve Allen on the original "Tonight Show" in the 1950s, to Bart Simpson today, the telephone hoax has been a durable source of laughs.

Mr. de Rizio enlivens his jokes with an earthy Buenos Aires argot called Lunfardo, which was born in the immigrant underworld in the late 19th century and became the language of tango. Even when he has taken his act abroad, Mr. de Rizio has often found himself dialing back to Buenos Aires to find comic foils. Argentines have no peers in their irascibility and the language they use to express it, he says.

When Tangalanga made a nuisance call to a Buenos Aires woman who sold statues used in the Santeria religion, she spent nine minutes cursing him. She insulted his mother and his sister -- and then she insulted his mother's sister. When he called back, she cussed him out for another 13 minutes. Later he and the woman became friends, and she appeared as a guest at one of his shows.

But some people never get over their anger at being the butt of Tangalanga's jokes. A couple of years ago, Mr. de Rizio had a pair of off-duty police officers accompany him to a performance because he had been threatened by a man whose yoga-instructor wife had fallen for a Tangalanga prank. Concerns about reprisals are the reason Mr. de Rizio assumed the Tangalanga alias and performs with his face concealed behind a baseball cap and a fake beard.

In defense of what he does, Mr. de Rizio notes that his calls provide comic relief to thousands of fans. Ex-president Carlos Menem said Tangalanga tapes were one of the things that helped him cope with his grief after his son died in a helicopter crash in 1995.

Mr. de Rizio has taken aim at some prominent targets, including another ex-president, Fernando de la Rua. He called Mr. de la Rua pretending to offer legal services and gave him a spurious return phone number with 10-digits rather than the customary eight. Why so many numbers? asked the ex-president. "Divided by two," Dr. Tangalanga replied. "Ah," Mr. de la Rua said.

Among his other distinctions, Mr. de Rizio has probably left some of the most baffling phone messages ever to find their way onto Post-it Notes. He told one message taker to look for him on "1614 Cochabamba St., second floor, fourth corridor, row 17, on the shady side."

Besides working wedding or anniversary parties, Mr. de Rizio now usually confines himself to one big live show a year for his birthday. Last month, Carlos Marcarian, a 38-year-old dental assistant, rode the early morning ferry from his home in Uruguay to see his idol in action. "It is amazing that a man his age can think so fast," he says. Most audience members were in their twenties or thirties and many sported tattoos and piercings. During the birthday show, Mr. de Rizio was assisted by his friend and manager, Roberto Fasano, who provided numbers of prospective victims culled from the classifieds or suggested by fans.

It's a risky brand of comedy, though. Some would-be targets -- a singer who claimed to be a dead ringer for Joe Cocker and a wart-removal specialist -- weren't home when he rang up. And when Mr. de Rizio phoned a restaurant, the manager started laughing uncontrollably and replied "Si, Tangalanga." One downside of Tangalanga's fame is that about one in three people he calls now recognizes him.

Still, there are more hits than misses. The biggest laughs came during Mr. de Rizio's conversation with a magician calling himself Alex White, an Anglicized version of his real name, Alejandro Blanco. Tangalanga said he wanted to hire him to saw Mrs. Tangalanga in half -- only he didn't want any magic tricks. "You've got to kill her well," Tangalanga said. There was a pause and then a palpable quiver of concern in the magician's voice. "You seem like you need another type of service," he said.

Write to Matt Moffett at

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