Resuscitating the Met (1)

War babies like me have absolutely no memory of how imperiously elegant the Metropolitan Theater of Manila must have looked. As I was growing up, I remember how frightfully grotesque and forlorn it was, a painful reminder of the Battle for Manila that raged for a month, during which a 100,000 innocent, con-combatant civilians perished.

The construction of the Met began in 1924 when Manila was not only the “Pearl of the Orient,” but also the fabled “Milan of Asia.” As charming as Paris, Manila was a most extraordinary capital city for it was the only one that possessed four cultures — Asian, European, North American, and Latin American. There were many theaters in Manila, especially in its northern districts across the Pasig River. Italian opera singers came to town and so did French and Spanish theater ensembles; they all fought over bookings. Travelogues gushed about amazing, incredible Manila, the must-see destination of Asia.

A member of the first Philippine Assembly declared that Manila needed a new theater and that it should be built in the luxuriant Mehan Garden, formerly known as Jardin Botanico, the first in this region. Evidently, culture had a high premium in those days; no one lambasted the assemblyman for being an elitist with skewed priorities.

Indisputably, the Met was the masterpiece of the Arellano brothers, Juan and Arcadio, who were sent to the United States as “pensionados” (scholars) to study architecture. Directly they returned, the brothers were recruited by the architecture section of the Bureau of Public Works. Young and enthusiastic, they must have felt that they were, literally, building the nation through their modern architectural creations.

It was the dream of the Arellanos to design a magnificent theater in the Art Deco style, then the rage in Europe and the United States. Arcadio took charge of the interiors also in Art Deco but with a remarkably Filipino tropical twist. I think they asked Tampinco to design the celiling which looked like a gigantic pahiyas and pabitin, with charming bamboo-like trellises with mangoes and other native fruits, anahaw leaves, and banana fronds. The entrance lobby was insuperable what with graceful grille work, murals by Fernando Amorsolo, and odalisques sculpted by eminent Italian artist Francesco Monti.

In the 1930’s to help finance the construction of the Met, a Philippine International Corporation was set up to sell shares of stock costing 5 to 10 pesos; the objective was to raise an initial capital of a million pesos, a fortune in those pre-WW II days. The American, Chinese, Spanish and Filipino-Chinese chambers of commerce gave generously; the cultural bug must have bitten them as well. A local publication, the “Philippine Magazine,” conducted vigorous fund-raising activities, proof of the persuasive power of the press.

Fortunately, the Met remained open during the Japanese Occupation, thanks to intrepid Manileñas who kept the city’s cultural life alive, despite an onslaught of Japanese propaganda. They formed the Volunteer Social Aid Committee (VSAC) led by indomitable Bing Escoda Roxas. (Much later, in the 80’s, she was appointed chairperson of the Cultural Center of the Philippines.)

The Metropolitan Theater was partially destroyed by American “friendly fire” during the Battle for Manila in February, 1945. Miraculously, the tiara-like dome remained intact, and so did its minarets, asparagus turrets, and the female deities in exotic drapes. The whimsical friezes, artfully twisted rope and scowling chimeras, the tapestry of tiles in mix- match ethic patterns had survived artillery fire. The dazzling stained-glass façade was shattered but replaced by the same stained-glass artists when Mrs. Imelda Marcos restored the Met and brought back its glory days.