Wake Up, Philippines!

A people’s theater

Posted in Art and Culture, Conservation, Cultural Heritage, Landmarks by Erineus on February 3, 2009

IT all began in 1924 when a member of the Philippine Legislature proposed that a theatre be constructed at that Mehan Garden, the former Jardin Botanico, Asia’s first botanical garden. Manila then was truly a most extraordinary capital city as it embraced four cultures, the Asian, European, North American and through Spain and Mexico, it had charming Latin American features. Travel books named Manila the “Paris of the Orient,” the “Milan of Asia;” it was a must see destination, the unrivalled “Pearl of the Orient.”

In those glory days, hardly anyone thought it excessive to build a grandiose Metropolitan Theatre as government priorities were correctly set. Insular taxes were spent on constructing public schools all over the country side; we still refer to those venerable educational centers as Gabaldon schoolhouses, after the assembly man who earmarked the first million pesos in 1907. The infrastructure-building frenzy included roads, bridges, ports, hospitals, town and city halls, plazas, monuments and gazebos.

It took another six years to lay the first stone of the Met (as it was popularly called) on that more than eight thousand square meter Mehan Garden. Finally, on December 10, 1931, it was formally inaugurated.

The Arellano brothers, Juan and Arcadio, were among the first batch of Filipinos sent to the USA to study architecture. Young and creative, they worked for the Bureau of Public Works and designed most of the town and city halls and other public edifices that have survived political vicissitudes and the onslaught of time.

The Met was Architect Juan Arellano’s dream project of a theatre done in art nouveau style, then rage in the US.

Post-World War II Filipinos are bewildered by the Met. For decades, it remained a forlorn reminder of Manila’s destruction yet has refused to crumble into dust and disappear. I had always thought the Met frightfully grotesque with that tiara-like dome of stylized minarets, a facade embellished with tiles of elaborate geometric designs and a rectangular stained glass panel on top of the canopied main entrance. The sensuous female figures in exotic robes seemed excessive, the mask-like faces of chimera downright ugly and the friezes, ropes and curly cues overloaded with clashing ethnic patterns.

That was because I did not understand art nouveau and had not yet learned to appreciate Arch. Arellano’s exquisite, exhuberant and almost whimsical rendition of it. I had to spend 18 years in Mexico to discern its intriguing charm of art nouveau.

During the Japanese occupation, many theaters in Manila closed but the Met continued to be the center of cultural entertainment what with zarzuelas, plays, operas and stage shows. However, it was damaged during the battle for Manila in February 1945 and was never restored until then First Lady, Imelda R. Marcos, began to patronize the arts. By December 1978, she had restored it to its former glory. Once, while vacationing in Manila, I went to the newly-restored Met for Cecile Licad’s piano concert. The Met was no longer that grotesque ruin I had deplored, suddenly it was spectacularly beautiful.

Francesco Monti’s sculptured deities at the Met lobby were graceful, the Amorsolo murals that celebrated dance and music (where could these be now?) breathtaking like the stained glass facade by Kraut. The stage proscenium by House of Precast was elegant and the Tomas Pinpin ceiling was a delightful trellis of lush tropical botanica, succulent mangoes and enormous bamboo stalks, anahaw and banana leaves.

Under Mrs. Marcos’ watch, the Met had a ballroom with a chandelier and furniture from Europe, there were offices, dressing rooms, verandas and the interior gardens were landscaped and well-kept. The Met housed the Manila Symphony, a gallery of Philippine costumes and two rare grand pianos, the names of which I could never pronounce. Mrs. Marcos had appointed Ms. Conchita Sunico, venerable socialite, as the director of the Met.

When the Marcos government was overthrown in 1986, the new dispensation declared culture as the least of its priorities. I think Ms. Sunico was constrained to resign; GSIS claimed ownership of the Met due to unpaid loans; Mrs. N. Manzano (Edu’s mothers) took over, valiently, as the Met without official support began to die, slowly and painfully. It was leased to several entertainment companies that produced vaudeville type shows. Then for some reasons unknown to me, the City of Manila and the GSIS were both claiming the Met and the ensuing litigation closed the theatre for good. Mrs. Manzano (may she rest in peace) could not even hold regular hours in a place where electricity and water had been cut off. In the meantime, thanks to then Mayor Lito Atienza an ugly Park n’ Ride building was constructed beside the Met, surrounded with illegal bus terminals and food stalls, ruining its landscape.

However, the Met refuses to die. In late 2006, the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA) received R50 million from President Gloria M. Arroyo for the restoration of the Metropolitan Theatre. In July 2007, Senator Alfredo S. Lim became mayor of Manila once again, revived Manila Historical and Heritage Commission (MHHC) and assigned it the restoration of the Met. NCCA hired a private firm to prepare a feasibility study which is now being implemented by the City of Manila Engineering Office.

Happily, the main roof has been repaired followed by the two minor ones; the orchestra pit is no longer submerged in water. House of Precast is restoring the proscenium it made in the 1930’s and Kraut is working on the stained glass facade. Representative Monica P. Teodoro has donated R1 million and the Special Allotment Release has been received by the City of Manila. Likewise, Representative Mary Anne Susano has pledged R5 million but has yet to send the SAR.

Mayor Alfredo S. Lim plans a soft opening during the week-long celebration of “Araw ng Maynila” so the NCCA (Executive Director’s Office) and the MHHC are already planning the cultural presentation which will highlight the history of the Met. Mayor Lim has declared that the Met will be a people’s theatre that will promote Filipino art forms like the zarzuelas, the kundiman, traditional dances and theatrical presentations that will make us all proud of being Filipinos. (gemma601@yahoo.com)