My Manila Movie Memories

The logos of the leading movie theaters clustered in the Avenida Rizal - Azcarraga - Quezon Blvd. axis of Manila's old downtown. Which were your favorite hangouts? (Source: video48.blogspot.com)

The logos of the leading movie theaters clustered in the Avenida Rizal - Azcarraga - Quezon Blvd. axis of Manila's old downtown. Which were your favorite hangouts? (Source: video48.blogspot.com)

They say You Can't Go Home Again. No, it's not a popular movie title. It's actually the title of a Thomas Wolfe novel. Nonetheless, it's such an apt, sobering thought for those of us who grew up in the Manila of the '50s and '60s, and have fond memories of countless hours lounging in the luxurious embrace of Manila's premier film houses.

How many of the readers here didn’t spend many carefree hours with family, friends or a special someone in Manila's first-run theaters – and all that smokers' haze – watching Deborah Kerr make out with Burt Lancaster in the surf and seaweed? Or who didn’t enjoy seeing the forever chic and feminine Audrey Hepburn make babbling fools out of he-men like William Holden, Cary Grant or Gregory Peck? How many of you from the many downtown universities played hooky in the darkened comfort of the orchestra, balcony or loge sections, watching a mature Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) seduce a young, naïve Dustin Hoffman? I know I did, countless times.

I remember how I considered watching Hollywood and European movies as a window – an escape – to a much larger world, locked as we were in an insular society so distant from the more industrialized West we aped and looked to for role models. I remember going with friends, aunts and cousins, even cajoling them into accompanying me to the “artsiest” movies they weren't crazy about – just as one of my grandmothers dragged me to the "local" movies of her choice. I made endless lists of movies I had seen, their production stats, budget figures and logistics, etc., in the days before the Internet did that for you. In high school, we surreptitiously played movie trivia games behind the watchful gaze of our Jesuit teachers. Indeed, movie-going was a revered pastime in the tropical, cosmopolitan City of Manila. It was a time-honored tradition much like the paseo or passegiata in Mediterranean countries.

Much of Manila's movie-going culture was centered in the “downtown” theaters of Avenida Rizal (Avenue, Ideal, State, Rialto) and nearby (Lyric and Capitol on Escolta; Times, Main on Quezon Blvd.). Many of these leading film palaces, originally built in the 1930s, were showcases for western films. Come the Japanese Occupation, the Hollywood distribution pipeline dried up and most theaters were forced to show live performances and Axis propaganda films, or just shut down. During the Liberation, nearly all of them were demolished save for Ideal and Avenue. In the early postwar years, the "old guard" were joined by the even more luxurious likes of Ever (replacing the old Rialto), Universal, Dalisay, Galaxy, Odeon, Life. Then there were the second-run or double-feature movie houses like Esquire, Globe, Majestic (yes, there was one in Manila), Mayfair, Palace, Scala, Vista, etc. 

The Ideal Theater on Avenida Rizal in the 1990s (Source: wikipedia.org)

The Ideal Theater on Avenida Rizal in the 1990s (Source: wikipedia.org)


Movie-going was a revered pastime in the tropical, cosmopolitan City of Manila. It was a time-honored tradition much like the paseo or passegiata in Mediterranean countries.

Permit me to share other scattered, celluloid memories of my Manila movie-going youth:

The Avenue theater was home to Paramount and Warner Brothers pictures. You may have seen an Alfred Hitchcock, Elvis Presley or Natalie Wood movie there. “White Christmas” was one of the theater's biggest hits shown.

There was the sleek Ever, so-named because it was an acronym of the initials of Ernesto, Vicente, Ester and Rafael Rufino, the No. 1 theater-owning family in the country at the time. It was designed by Juan Nakpil with a very severe gray-and-black marble look to it, which even the world-famous architect Walter Gropius praised during his visit to Manila on the theater's inaugural screening in 1954 with “Prince Valiant.” The Ever boasted the new (in 1954) Cinemascope process. The most successful film shown at the Ever, which many of you probably saw, was “The Sound of Music” (1965), which played for a full 52 weeks, making it the longest playing feature film in Philippine history.

The Ideal was owned by the Roces family (of Manila Times fame), home to MGM and Disney films. I remember seeing Disney's “Sleeping Beauty” and the equally somnambulist “Ben-Hur.” But the Ideal's "social" climax, its historical highpoint, was the Manila premiere of “Dr. Zhivago” in December 1965. It was a big gala event with the new, still unsullied first lady, Imelda Marcos, in attendance. Being there that evening, I noticed a strange occurrence: Mrs. Marcos was too busy to stay for the entire screening. Fifteen minutes into the film, she quietly slipped away. So she never knew what happened to Yuri and Lara and the kid. Who'll tell her? I certainly won't.

Miscalculation

A behemoth of a theater named the Galaxy, beside the Mapua Institute of Technology, south of the Azacarraga (C.M. Recto) line, almost opened in 1955. I say "almost" because there was a big technical miscalculation that delayed the opening for over a year. The Galaxy had been built to feature 70mm/Todd-AO movies (wider than Cinemascope and VistaVision), which were in the Hollywood 1950s' pipeline. But when first finished, the theater was too shallow to show a 70mm image properly. The parallax calculation was all wrong; a deeper theater was needed. So the owner, Zosima Laperal Garcia (no relation to author), enticed Mapua Institute of Technology (where my father taught) to sell her some land in order to extend the theater. All the Mapuas could offer her from its already crowded campus was a plot nine meters deep. Mrs. Garcia took it, for a rumored P500,000, which was a big amount at the time. The back wall of the theater was hastily torn down and the back extended; thus, they finally got the right depth. The belated correction cost Mrs. Garcia an additional P2 million pesos, and the theater finally opened to proper technical specifications two years late. Galaxy became the home of roadshow films like “Around the World in 80 Days,” “South Pacific,” “El Cid,” “55 Days at Peking,” “My Fair Lady” and “The Ten Commandments” (which was the first film to charge the highest admission prices of P2.00, P3.00 and P5.00 and played for some seven months).  

A computer graphic image of how it looked pristinely in its heyday. (Source: CG Pinoy, image by RQUI)

A computer graphic image of how it looked pristinely in its heyday. (Source: CG Pinoy, image by RQUI)

Forlorn and gone to seed in the 1990s, before its eventual demolition in 2009. (Source: seniorenrique.blogspot.com)

Forlorn and gone to seed in the 1990s, before its eventual demolition in 2009. (Source: seniorenrique.blogspot.com)

There was also that special hybrid of "live talent" mixed with movies – a holdover from the days of bodabil (vaudeville), which flourished in theaters like the Clover, the Savoy in Plaza Sta. Cruz, and an even stranger setting, the so-called Manila Grand Opera House. The MGOH had perhaps the most storied and illustrious history of all the Manila/Rizal Avenue movie palaces. Built in 1902, the first Philippine Assembly during the American period convened there, among other historic gatherings. Somewhere in between, it played host to operas, concerts, zarzuelas, plays, even films. What I remember most seeing there were visiting foreign magicians (thus, sadly, whetting my appetite for early Vegas-type fare). But I wasn't jazzed enough to see Gloria Romero suffer in the flesh, in an air-conditioned setting, as the Virgin Mary in the sinakulos or passion plays staged there during Holy Week.

The movie-going culture of Manila through the postwar years was reflective of the class stratification that plagues Philippine society. You had the vanguard of the most luxurious and prestigious theaters owned by the Rufinos, the Roceses, etc. which showed the latest films from Hollywood and Europe. Then you had a handful of the downtown theaters where local films debuted. Manila's tout monde went to the Hollywood movies, while the household help and hicks from the provinces went to Life, Dalisay and Center if they could even afford the first-run ticket prices. (My maternal grandmother dragged me to a number of enjoyable Sampaguita Pictures films at Life in the early '60s.)

And one couldn't really blame upperclass Manilans for choosing foreign films over the domestic products. They got more literate fare, better production values. Filipino movies were, for the most part, rather pedestrian, formulaic, unimaginative and low in production values yet charged the same price for first-run admission. (Apologies to those connected with the Filipino film industry, but the facts bear out the truth.) While the de Leons (owners of LVN), Vera-Perezes (of Sampaguita), the Santiagos (of Premiere Productions) hobnobbed with Manila society, unfortunately that camaraderie did not spill over into patronage of the local productions. Perhaps the greatest indignity heaped upon the local film industry was when Dalisay theater, the flagship of LVN, was remade as the Regency in September 1971 and became just another outlet for foreign films.  

The Roman Super Cinerama theater was the most luxurious move house in Asia when it opened at the corner C.M. Recto and Quezon Blvd. in late 1963. Like most Manila film theaters today, it is nothing now but a shopping arcade and a mere shadow of its formerly glorious self. (Source: www.flickr.com/The Commons)

The Roman Super Cinerama theater was the most luxurious move house in Asia when it opened at the corner C.M. Recto and Quezon Blvd. in late 1963. Like most Manila film theaters today, it is nothing now but a shopping arcade and a mere shadow of its formerly glorious self. (Source: www.flickr.com/The Commons)

But the apotheosis of luxury of movie-going in the Manila of the 60's/70s was reached with the opening of the ultra-luxurious Roman Super Cinerama, owned by Pablo Roman and the Rojas family of Cavite in December 1963.  It was the BIG screen experience and it brought the latest cinema technology to Manila audiences previously available only in New York, London and Tokyo; and before the IMAX screens of today. The Roman Cinerama also saw a couple of other "firsts" in Philippine history: escalators in the country made its debut there.  It was the first with enforced seating before the main feature began; thus "No Standing Room" and every paying patron was assured a seat.  And because it was the first fully carpeted (the interior) movie theatre in the Philippines, it became the first to ban the dreaded habit of cigarette-smoking.

Ironically, the Roman Cinerama burnt down in the late 70s (hopefully, not due to lit cigarettes); and was then converted into the Isetann Shopping mall with a 5-screen cineplex in 1987.

In the meantime, in the '60s, the center of gravity of metropolitan movie-going life started shifting to Makati and Quezon City. There were little, laid-back neighborhood theaters like the Gaiety in Ermita and the Holiday in San Juan (which showed probably the most successful Spanish-language film in the Philippines, the perennial tear-jerker Marcelino Pan y Vino [1959]. It brought out a lot of the reclusive older Spanish folks like my paternal grandparents. But bigger and better movie palaces were popping up all over the place. Makati trumpeted its arrival as the new challenger to old Manila with the ultra-modern Rizal Theater in July 1960. A few years later, the first drive-in "theater" (if one could call it that) opened in Magallanes Village in 1966. Of course, with Manila’s climate being what it is, the venture didn't last past the first typhoon season. In 1967, the Amado Aranetas of Cubao boosted the entertainment draw of the Big Dome with a huge, new theater, the New Frontier, and an ice skating rink to boot. Even though more movie houses were opening up in the old downtown areas, the suburbs were coming into their own because they offered unencumbered parking as well. 

Gloria-Roxy.jpg
We know how you feel, Gloria. Don't cry for me, Avenida (Rizal)! (Hollywood actress Gloria Swanson at the ruins of the Roxy Theatre in New York City, October 14, 1960.) It sums up the feeling most of us had for the heyday of movie-going in Manila in more innocent days. (This photo inspired Stephen Sondheim's musical “Follies” -- about ghosts in a theater.)

After I left Manila in 1972, the whole landscape shifted radically. Martial law was declared, and it was the beginning of the ignominious end of movie theaters. Even though newer theaters opened (put up mostly by Chinese businessmen), it was bomba (or pornographic) films that flourished in those Manila theaters under martial law. Moreover, the arrival of the elevated light transit rail lines all but killed the easy, heady and sunlit times that Avenida Rizal and Quezon Boulevard offered in the past. Today, only a handful of the old theaters still stand, and they show barely “legitimate” movies. What the ravages of war did not accomplish, progress and the march of time surely did. All those hallowed movie palaces of our youth have gone into disrepair, or have been demolished and replaced with crass commercial arcades. As such, there is nothing to go home to. 


Myles Garcia is a retired, San Francisco Bay Area-based author and writer. His proudest work to date is "Secrets of the Olympic Ceremonies." In between writing (currently finishing a play), he is learning how to play the piano--late in life, to complement his cabaret singing skills. Better late than never.


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