Resuscitating the Met (2)

The Metropolitan Theater, damaged by American “friendly fire” in February, 1945, was saved from total extinction by the US Rehabilitation Act of 1946.  However, by the 1960’s, it had fallen into disrepair. In 1978, the National Historical Commission received frantic petitions to protect the Met so it affixed its official marker on the façade, declaring it a National Landmark.

When Mrs. Imelda Marcos, then First Lady and head of the Metro Manila Commission, waved her magic wand, hard-nosed businessmen were turned into impassioned art lovers who showered funds for the restoration of the Met. No less than  architect Otillo Arellano, nephew of Arcadio and Juan, was appointed head of the prestigious project.

While the First Lady was prodigious  fairy godmother, the Met blossomed; it had an elegant ballroom with a blazing crystal chandelier from Europe. There were well-appointed offices, ample  dressing rooms, a library, verandas, and manicured interior gardens.  The Met was home to the Manila Symphony, formed in 1926 and reputed to be the oldest in Asia.  A number of song and dance companies enjoyed privileged areas and bookings. There was an awesome gallery of Philippine costumes; musical instruments were world-class, there were two rare grand pianos.  Mrs. Marcos appointed her friend, Ms. Conchita Sunico, of Manila’s alta sociedad, as director of the Met.

When the Marcos government was overthrown by People Power (EDSA I) in 1986, it had devastating effects on the Met.   The new president, Mrs. Corazon Aquino, declared that culture was the least of her priorities, a veritable death knell for all of Mrs. Marcos’ cultural projects, including the Metropolitan Theater.  Ms. Sunico resigned, after which the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) and the City of Manila battled for ownership of the Met. Under litigation, it died a slow and painful death, drowned in water filtrations and utter neglect. At one point, Mrs. Nenita Manzano was appointed director but without the magic wand of martial law, hers was an impossible task.

Portions of the Met’s wings were leased by government agencies and a number of entertainment outfits like the Bulwagang Gantimpala, Teatro Pilipino, and the Action Communitiy Theater Group. However, with no one to pay the electricity and water bills of the main theater, even Mrs. Manzano could no longer hold regular office hours there. Creepy crawlies feasted on everything, the costume collection, the European furniture, the library.  A grand piano vanished in thin air and so did one of the Amorsolo murals in the lobby.

At the start of Mayor Alfredo Lim’s second incumbency, (2007), he showed deep concern for the Metropolitan Theatre. He felt that Manila’s common folk were much too intimidated to enter the elitist Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), so they needed a place of their own and that to him was the Metropolitan Theater.

Unravelingthe legal web that had enmeshed the Met for decades was a sinuous process. After intense deliberations, a tripartite agreement was drawn up in 2010. It stated: “.. decades of non-use and neglect have exposed the Met to the ravages of time and natural elements, leading to the massive deterioration of its facilities….” And cognizant of the Met’s importance as a national landmark, the GSIS “…grants and conveys the right of usufruct over the Met to the City of Manila in consideration of its commitment to enhance and improve not only the Met’s physical structures but also its cultural and historical significance…” The agreement was supposed to be signed by the GSIS, the City of Manila, and the National Commission of Culture and the Arts (NCCA), which is mandated to protect heritage edifices like the Met.

Fortunately, Pres. Benigno Aquino III had taken a personal interest in the Met so he directed the NCCA to allocate R50 million to jump start  its restoration. For its part, the Manila Council proposed to pass an ordinance creating the Met Administrative and Theater Operations Office which aimed to draw up a conservation management and business plan to operate, maintain, and monitor the use of the property in usufruct.  The tripartite agreement obliged the City of Manila “to present a balanced theater program highlighting Filipino talent with occasional collaboration of foreign cultural workers and artists, including overseas Filipino artists.  Linkages with the UNESCO International Theatre Institute and regional and global organizations like ASEAN, ASEM, and Union Latina will be established and nurtured…” The NCCA hired a private firm, Schema Konsult, Inc., to prepare a detailed engineering study that included a rehabilitation plan.

(More next week)