With on­go­ing restora­tion, the Metropoli­tan The­ater will no longer be a ghost of the past

Re­vis­it­ing the for­got­ten Grand Old Dame of Manila



In 1978, a for­tune-teller pre­dicted Nora Aunor’s loss against her ri­val Vilma San­tos in that year’s Metro Manila Film Fes­ti­val. On In­day Ba­di­day’s TV show Would You Be­lieve?, the for­tune teller de­clared Aunor’s role in At­say as her “last card” in the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try. On the awards night at the Manila Metropoli­tan The­ater, how­ever, the su­per­star broke the pre­dic­tion and rose as the best per­former. “Ma­may, mali ang hula nila,” Aunor sobbed when she ac­cepted her tro­phy.

Be­fore the Nora-Vilma hul­la­baloo, the Met also wit­nessed the au­dac­ity of na­tional artist for film Lino Brocka. When Celso Ad Castillo’s Burlesk Queen bagged most of the ma­jor awards in the 1977 MMFF, Brocka walked out from the cer­e­mony as protest against the jury’s de­ci­sion.

I wish I re­mem­bered the Met for those mem­o­ries, or any par­tic­u­lar show I’ve seen as a lad. How­ever, I only re­mem­ber the Met as a cu­ri­ous-look­ing aban­doned pink build­ing I’d pass by on my train route. Al­though its vicin­ity is sup­pos­edly part of Manila’s cul­tural zone, the area is stereo­typed as a strong­hold of snatch­ers and pick­pock­ets.

The day of the shoot was my first close en­counter with the Met. Now un­der­go­ing restora­tion, the build­ing is fenced with gal­va­nized sheets. The façade bears a huge tar­pau­lin that tells its his­tory. Its iconic pink paint has faded, while its win­dows are heav­ily dusted and bro­ken. Wild plants have also grown in var­i­ous nooks. “We ac­tu­ally [found] a tree in­side. We had to kill it as it was al­ready de­stroy­ing the foun­da­tion,” says ar­chi­tect Tim­o­thy Ong of the Na­tional Com­mis­sion for Cul­ture and the Arts. And if there are any re­main­ing per­form­ers at the Met, it would be the birds danc­ing to the back­drop of the city rush and the end­less call of a trans­port ter­mi­nal’s barker.

A Foun­tain­head

“The Met was a sym­bol of cre­at­ing a na­tional iden­tity in a colo­nial so­cial mi­lieu,” con­sult­ing ar­chi­tect Ger­ard Lico says of the struc­ture that was in­au­gu­rated in 1931. De­signed by ar­chi­tect Juan Arel­lano, with or­na­ments sculpted by Ital­ian sculp­tor Francesco Ric­cardo Monti, the struc­ture com­bines el­e­ments from both Art Noveau and Art Deco. How­ever, the Art Deco qual­i­ties were ap­pro­pri­ated to suit the cul­ture at the time. “It was non-clas­si­cal and it was Filipino Deco,” Lico says.

Monti and Arel­lano still used the usual el­e­ments of both art move­ments, in­clud­ing the golden ra­tio and nau­tilus shell. The or­na­ments found at the Met are said to be in­spired by Hein­rich Heine’s poem “On Wings of Song,” which, at its core, is a call to re­turn to na­ture. And that’s where the wealthy Philip­pine im­agery comes in.

Al­though its de­tails are an amal­gam of the orig­i­nal 1930s struc­ture and of the re­opened one in 1978, the cer­e­mony spear­headed by then First Lady Imelda Mar­cos, the rich Art Deco de­tails are still in­tact. In the main lobby of the the­ater, Monti’s sculp­ture of Adam and Eve are still in place. The mar­ble floor­ing is also from the ’30s. The stained glass win­dow ex­hibits holes and cracks, but its de­sign is still vis­i­ble. In­side the the­ater, pop­u­lar Philip­pine pro­duce like man­goes and ba­nanas cu­ri­ously adorn the ceil­ing. Var­i­ous wall sculp­tures por­tray birds of par­adise, a fa­mous plant back in the day. On the top­most floor, poles sig­nify bam­boo shoots that re­sem­ble ori­en­tal el­e­ments.

Air-con­di­tion­ing may have been dif­fi­cult at that time, but the am­bi­tious ed­i­fice was kept cold—al­most freez­ing cold. No­tice­able on the floor of the the­ater are holes where ducts used to emit cool air from the nearby In­su­lar Ice Plant.

The struc­ture is clearly de­cay­ing. Sit­u­ated near the Pasig River, the orches­tra pit has a crater filled with water. Some of the wooden doors have been eaten by ter­mites. But de­spite its hor­ri­ble state, it still emits the sanc­tity of a tem­ple and the come­li­ness of a god­dess.

Col­lec­tive Mem­ory

“As an ar­chi­tec­tural work, it’s a tes­ta­ment to the abil­ity of a struc­ture to trans­mit cul­tural mem­o­ries. It’s a doc­u­ment of 20th-cen­tury pop­u­lar his­tory,” Lico says. Be­fore Filipinos be­came ac­quainted with movie and tele­vi­sion stars, our affin­ity was for the­ater, and the Met served as the stage for shows star­ring na­tional artist for mu­sic Jovita Fuentes, who also played Cio­cio-san in Gi­a­como Puc­cini’s Madame But­ter­fly in

Europe, and zarzuela queen Atang de la Rama. “Through the Met, we were able to host in­ter­na­tional stars of opera, of clas­si­cal mu­sic. Manila be­came one of the des­ti­na­tions of in­ter­na­tional artists in the ’30s and ’40s,” Lico ex­plains.

Be­yond the mag­nif­i­cent bits and pieces of Philip­pine pop­u­lar cul­ture, the Met has also been shaped by po­lit­i­cal his­tory. On the roof deck of the build­ing, al­though some parts have faded, the orig­i­nal hand-painted tiles still adorn the walls of the deck; “70 Jim” is sculpted on one of the tiles, an un­so­licited mem­ory of de­cay. Ong points out an­other tile, this one bear­ing bul­let scars from the Sec­ond World War. Then he makes a har­row­ing rev­e­la­tion: We had very nearly lost the Met. A bomb from the lib­er­a­tion of Manila bat­tle was found at the orches­tra sec­tion of the the­ater. For­tu­nately, it did not ex­plode, or else the Met would have been just a dis­tant mem­ory.

Close En­coun­ters

“I had my first en­counter with the Met when I was in fourth grade,” Lico re­calls. “It was a Fri­day, and we went here to watch Vilma San­tos’ Vilma in Per­son.” He even re­mem­bers watch­ing a play star­ring Bev­erly Salviejo as a bold star when he was in first year high school. Ac­cord­ing to Ong, the last the­ater show at the Met was Je­sus Christ Su­per­star.

There have been re­cent at­tempts to use the Met again. In 2011, the band Wolf­gang held a con­cert here, then in 2016, the Met ex­hib­ited “Lon­don Bi­en­nale Manila Pol­li­na­tion.” Be­yond that, the youth did not have any av­enue for a per­sonal en­counter with the struc­ture other than a project that had started in De­cem­ber 2015. Aptly called METam­por­pho­sis, NCCA gath­ered stu­dents to in­ter­act with the the­ater through a se­ries of cleanup drives. “Dur­ing the process, we saw the in­ter­est of the pub­lic [in her­itage],” Lico re­calls. “Up un­til now, we still re­ceive vol­un­teer re­quests. How­ever, we have to refuse be­cause we are al­ready in the process of con­struc­tion.”

“As we go through the process of sur­vey­ing the build­ing, we re­vealed lay­ers of his­tory. You al­ways have to change the ap­proach. You al­ways have to bal­ance the idea of mod­ern­iz­ing the struc­ture while main­tain­ing its iden­tity,” Ong says.

The restora­tion team takes cues from pop­u­lar cul­ture. For in­stance, the orig­i­nal color of the struc­ture has yet to be un­cov­ered. A bro­ken piece of the wall re­veals that the cur­rent pink­ish paint is ap­par­ently not the orig­i­nal color. Peel­ing off lay­ers of paint shows that parts of the ex­te­rior used to be clad in off-white and even gold. “[The old­est ref­er­ence we got was from an] old post­card from the ’50s,” Ong says.

For the the­ater seats, the team re­ferred to the iconic 1985 film Bi­tu­ing Walang Ningn­ing. The fi­nal show­down be­tween Sharon Cuneta’s Do­rina Pineda and Cherie Gil’s Lavinia Ar­guelles was held at the Met, and from that scene, the team found out that the seats were all red.

In two to three years, the Met is ex­pected to of­fi­cially re-open its doors to the pub­lic. How­ever, it will never be the same again. “It has to [thrive] in the 21st cen­tury, but the­ater-go­ing is no longer a mode of en­ter­tain­ment now,” Lico ac­knowl­edges. In re­sponse to these changes, the new Met will have a black box the­ater for small pro­duc­tions and a cin­e­math­eque. It will also re­serve spa­ces for ex­hi­bi­tions. “It won’t be com­mer­cial­ized, but it will be more of a cul­tural hub and [a space where any­one can] ap­pre­ci­ate the arts,” Lico de­scribes.

Cul­tural Re­newal

We are peo­ple who eas­ily for­get. And when we for­get, we for­get the im­por­tant things. It took around 85 years be­fore the Met got its well-de­served restora­tion. It saw the golden ages of Philip­pine cin­ema, the glory days of the­ater, the rise of box­ing, the lives of home­less fam­i­lies, the de­cay of her­itage and cul­ture, and now, the re­newal of Manila’s splen­dor. “[The restora­tion] will spark a cul­tural re­nais­sance within this area,” Lico says with hope.

To bring back the Met to its for­mer hey­day is al­most im­pos­si­ble. When it opens again, the shows it will ex­hibit won’t re­sem­ble its orig­i­nal acts. We no longer have zarzue­las nor ac­tresses like dela Rama; op­eras are rare. It’s dif­fi­cult to pre­dict what could pos­si­bly take place at the Met. For now, at least, there is cer­tainty that it will not re­main just a fad­ing mem­ory or a de­te­ri­o­rat­ing struc­ture. Soon, like in the fi­nal line of Heine’s “On Wings of Song,” we would “dream our bliss­ful dream” right here.

I feel you al­ways have to change the ap­proach. You al­ways have to bal­ance the idea of mod­ern­iz­ing the struc­ture while main­tain­ing its iden­tity.”

Al­though the Met is painted in pink, its orig­i­nal color has yet to be de­ter­mined. How­ever, records show that the struc­ture was once painted in off-white and gold.

The Metropoli­tan The­ater in the ’30s. De­signed by ar­chi­tect Juan Arel­lano (be­low), it was en­vi­sioned to be­come a na­tional the­ater.

Cover photo by Miguel Na­cian­ceno

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