Manila Metropolitan Theater
…its history and story of neglect
By Apolinario Villalobos
A country without a cultural landmark is like a basket that can’t hold water. Nothing is left to stand for the past, be it significant or not. Events just happen and forgotten, and for this, the people’s culture suffers. Many countries, though how small they are, have won the respect of powerful ones because of their rich past, made tangible by whatever remains.
The Philippine’s rich past has made its people look for an outlet which took form in plays, songs, poems, paintings, sculpture and other artistic expressions. The admixture of the eastern and western influences, have surfaced in all these expressions. Foreign influences which left their respective sediments in the country nourished cultures which are distinctly different from each other. These are however, consolidated by the Filipinos in a compromising effort to have just one that could be identified with them.
That was the benevolent intent which was magnified during the administration of Ferdinand Marcos. The theater was then, beginning to gain momentum in its effort for revival, as plays and concerts were again held, but unfortunately cut short when the feisty president was deposed.
Despite its sorry state today, it is important that Filipinos know how such neglected important landmark came to be.
The Metropolitan Theater that sprung up on a area of 8,293.58 square meters at Liwasang Bonifacio (formerly, Lawton plaza), embodies the several periods that saw the metamorphosis of the country. The unpretentious environment in which the expressionistic framework of the theater took shape is just a stone’s throw from the Bonifacio monument that stands witness to rallies of disgruntled students and workers. It is also a few steps from Mehan Garden, once a popular recluse of Manilans on weekends. Today, Mehan Garden is part of the Universidad de Manila campus.
Its colorful and massive façade reflects its mute desire to stand firm and solid despite the challenges posed by turbulent years that rocked its structure more than five decades ago. The month of February in 1945 saw the crumbling of its roof as a result of bombings and shelling by the Allied Forces during the liberation of Manila. Its walls however, withstood the barrage of both the allies’ and enemy’s fires.
But the theater’s story before the dark years of WWII was something else. It was full of struggle and challenges that just strengthened its foundation. In 1924, with an appeal from Mayor Earnshaw, an area of 8,293.58 square meters was leased by the government of Manila to the Metropolitan Theater Company, represented by Horace Pond, Antonio Milian, Leopoldo Khan, Manuel Camus, Enrique Zobel and Rafael Palma. The land then was used as a flower market of Mehan Garden. It was an untrimmed and not so pleasantly landscaped area that gave way to the theater.
The concerted effort of various communities of Manila that comprised of Americans, Chinese, Spanish and Filipinos, bolstered the hope of the crusading artists. A magazine, Manila’s Philippine Magazine, carried encouraging write ups on the proposed theater in its effort to gain support from its readers. Stocks were sold by the Philippine International Corporation at Php100.00 and Php50.00 to raise the needed fund which was one million pesos.
The project inspired many artists. Almost everybody was concerned and did not hesitate to offer help. One of these early sympathizers was Juan M. Arellano, a leading architect of the era, and who was sent to study in the United States with Thomas W. Lamb, an expert in theater construction. His sojourn in the United States marked the birth of a unique theatrical design which stood for the Filipino’s artistic traits. A brother of Arellano, Arcadio, contributed his skill in decking the structure which took form shortly after the cornerstone was laid in 1930.
What took shape was what the Phlippine Magazine editor, A.V.H. Hartendorp called modern expressionism. Flagstone paths were cut across lawns greened by tropical creepers and shrubs. On each side of the rectangular theater were pavilions separated from the main hall by open courtyards.
The theater’s façade truly expressed the richness of the Malay culture imbibed in the ways of the Filipinos. Colorful were the glasses that made up the big “window” and the tiles on both side of the façade. Philippine plants in relief added exoticness to the theater’s face which was crowned with traditional Muslim minarets. Additional oriental accent was provided by shapely sculptured figures of two women who seemed to be preparing to take flight.
The theater’s interior equaled the exterior’s magnificence – wide marble staircase, mural paintings by Amorsolo and modern sculptures by Francisco R. Monti. The latter was an Italian sculptor, who practiced his trade in the country in the early 1930s. To give a feeling of spaciousness, boxes were eliminated. Relief figures cast shadows on the proscenium. Elongated lamps of translucent glass in the shape of bamboo stalks filled up the empty wall on both sides of the hall. The translucent stalks pointed to the ceiling that burst with a cornucopia of mango fruits and leaves.
The auditorium’s facilities were excellent, although the seating area could only accommodate 1,670, quite small for a fast-growing city like Manila. Its lighting, acoustics, air-cooling system and dressing rooms were all excellent and almost faultless. However, there was no understage and the orchestra pit was too narrow.
Dramatic Philippines was responsible for the showing of outstanding plays that made the theater famous. Very active members were Francisco Rodrigo, Emma Benitez and Narciso Pimentel. The theater’s stage was also grace by the zarzuela queen, Atang de la Rama.
Even when the country wallowed in the misery of subordination by a foreign power during the WWII, the theater continued to draw art lovers. It was used by members of the Volunteer Social Aid Committee (VSAC) as a front in raising funds for the underground movement against the Japanese. This group of artists likewise acted as secret mail carriers for Manilans who would like to get in touch with relatives detained at Capas and Cabanatuan. These Manila girls, some of whom were Conchita Sunico, Helen Benitez and Pilar Campos, went to the extent of spending for their own clothing materials which were then designed by Matilde Olmos, the best modiste of European clothes during that time.
The scarred Met which lost its roof during the liberation of Manila in February 1945 held on to what remained. Unfortunately, the transition period did not give much impetus to those who were previously active in theatricals. Of the several establishments housed by the Met, only the Magnolia Rendezvous, an ice cream kiosk held firm. Meanwhile the building underwent painful changes from a boxing arena into a cheap motel and gay bar, basketball court, garage and warehouse, until finally, into a home for half a hundred of displaced families.
It was in such a sorry state when a new breed of artists surfaced and made an appeal to the government to help salvage the Met. Their plea awakened the public from its long indifference and sheer neglect of a priceless heritage. Trouble between the artists and a group of enterprisers ensued when the latter proposed its demolition to give way to a modernistic commercial complex. A petition was submitted to the National Historical Institute to stop the sacrilegious hand and recognize the theater as an historical landmark.
The timely mediation of Mrs. Imelda Marcos gave assurance to the artists’ victory over their destructive opponents. The Met was finally restored to its pre-war grandeur and has been called the Manila Metropolitan Theater. Its seating capacity was increased from 1,670 to 1,709.
To augment its finances, galleries that fringed the outer structure were rented out to shops that sell handicrafts, restaurants, studious and a night club. Bigger rooms on the second floor were furnished for receptions and meetings. Even the auditorium was leased to a movie company which showed three-dimensional films whenever the theater was free. Once again, shows and concerts were held.
The recovery of the theater was, however, short-lived. The emergence of the modern Cultural Center of the Philippines, Folk Arts Theater, modern cinema theaters and other cultural and artistic venues signaled again its slow deterioration. Groups of concerned artists joined hands to prevent its continued relapse to no avail….until, finally, it is back to its former state of gross neglect that we woefully see today. To protect it from intruding street dwellers, the periphery of the structure is fenced with board on which are pasted scenes of its former glory.