Envision a building both hailed a “National Cultural Treasure” and “National Historical Landmark.”
To be sure, a structure strewn with garbage, defaced with graffiti and posters, and smelling strongly of urine would not be the image that comes to mind. Neither would it have homeless people making shelter of its steps and surroundings.
And yet, for almost two decades now, this has been the reality of The Manila Metropolitan Theater, a National Cultural Treasure and National Historical Landmark.
What once was a favored cultural hub of Manila’s upper class and even the country’s presidents has merely transformed into a backdrop for pedestrians heading to the nearby bus terminal, train station, or mall.
Being the 84-year-old theater fondly dubbed the “Grand Old Dame of Manila,” cultural conservationists have long and consistently called for the Manila Metropolitan Theater’s (The Met) renovation. For many years, hopes dwindled for any efforts but they were finally restored on July 11, when the Deed of Absolute Sale of The Met was signed between the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS), following a long dispute over the property’s ownership and liability between GSIS and the City of Manila.
However, as many attempts at bringing back The Met’s glory had been foiled before, there continue to be reservations on whether this latest development will finally be the one to come to fruition.
To give the public a rightful assurance that the P270-million fund released by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) for NCCA’s acquirement and restoration of The Met will be used properly and efficiently, The Sunday Times Magazine sat down for an interview with NCCA World Heritage Sites Coordinator Edison Molanida this week.
Molanida is working closely with the NCCA Secretariat on the purchase of The Metropolitan Theater, and is the keeper of all “pertinent documentations” on the matter.
Grand Dame’s fall
The NCCA has the National Cultural Heritage Act to thank for giving them the right of first refusal on the sale of national cultural treasures. That is why when Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada proposed to buy The Met from the GSIS for an estimated P260 million, the NCCA had the chance to match the offer at P270 million, and subsequently gain its ownership.
Interestingly, The Met has only been declared a National Cultural Treasure (NCT) in 2010 by the National Museum while it was declared a National Historical Landmark by the then National Historical Institute (now the National Historical Commission of the Philippines) as early as 1973.
Asked why the NCT declaration was late in coming, Molinda replied, “We had to conduct intensive studies—intensive, exhaustive studies on its history and the incumbent cultural values so that we can really solidify its cultural and historical significance.”
However, he further shared, “What I heard is that the National Museum waited for a time when the ownership of The Met was settled.”
On June 23, 2010, the NCT marker was unveiled at the theater, which is recorded as its most recent reopening. The ceremony was led by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, along with then NCCA Executive Director Cecille Guidote-Alvarez, and former Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim. The Met being a grand theater, a musical extravaganza was aptly mounted for the ocassion, and featured such bigwigs in the music scene as Pilita Corrales, Regine Velasquez, Jaya, Christian Bautista, and The Manila Symphony Orchestra, among others. The event was hosted by veteran entertainment personality German Moreno who had spearheaded a fund-raising project for the restoration of the Grand Dame.
As a change in administration ensued, however, the Metropolitan Theater reverted to an imposing shadow on the corner of Padre Burgos and Arroceros Streets once again.
Nevertheless, the following year, rock band Wolfgang packed The Met with a major concert on June 18, 2011. It was the last time the grand theater saw an audience, save for a few unofficial heritage and ghost-hunting tours, until the GSIS locked it up.
On the question of accountability on the fall of the Grand Dame, one could go all the way back to the 1945 Battle of Manila when The Met was bombed along with the rest of the capital in a month-long bloodbath between American and Japanese forces. Most of its façade was left standing, but The Met has not been the same since.
Efforts to save her
Restorations were made after World War II by virtue of the Philippine Rehabilitation Act of 1946, but luster was gone from the Art Deco gem. Worse, it was all the more misused when illegal settlers made living quarters out of its rooms.
The very first renovation effort on The Met came from former First Lady Imelda Marcos in 1978, and was overseen by the late socialite Conchita Sunico.
The Met benefited from the facelift and just as soon started sharing the spotlight with the more prominent Cultural Center of the Philippines. Ironically, though, it was also the former First Lady who led The Met into the long dispute of debt and ownership that left it abandoned for years.
Marcos used The Met as collateral for a loan from the GSIS, but as the funds were never paid, the building went under the GSIS’ possession, which led to the theater’s closure in 1996.
Before the 2010 reopening, President Arroyo had already expressed interest in reviving the historical landmark. Her efforts began in 2004 when the three contesting parties over The Met’s ownership—the City of Manila, GSIS, and the NCCA—signed a tripartite agreement. In that document, it was stipulated that while the ownership of The Met belonged to GSIS, the City of Manila was given the usufructuary right to rehabilitate and use the theater. For the NCCA, as the cultural agency of the government, it was tasked to oversee the rehabilitation process.
Thereafter, the government released P50 million from the National Endowment Fund for Culture and the Arts (NEFCA) so the NCCA could begin restoration.
It was, however, another foiled venture, which compelled The Sunday Times Magazine to inquire with Molanida where the P50 million went.
According to Molanida, the amount “went to the repair of the roof” as well as a detailed engineering study. Commissioning Schema Konsult, the NCCA ordered a complete and extensive accounting of the theater’s features, whether big or small.
“The findings were good,” he reported. “It said that the structure is really very sound, except for some minimal, addressable problems. But overall, The Met was in good health in 2005,”
The World Heritage Sites Coordinator further revealed that theater equipment were bought by the NCCA for use in The Met, which today remain stored at the agency’s headquarters in Intramuros, Manila. He added that the commission’s personnel bring out the equipment for testing from time to time to ensure they are still in good condition.
Asked what went wrong when it seemed restoration had already gained momentum, Molanida only reiterated that the NCCA fulfilled its part in the agreement.
“Every sitting president has a big role in [restoring]The Met. The equipment is still there. When we had the first series of negotiations with the City Government of Manila, we offered them the use of the equipment. Kaya lang napunta sa NCCA, for safekeeping.”
While the NCCA envisions The Met to become a theater for the masses and for use of students after its restoration, it is worth recalling the glory days of the theater, which were filled with prominence and the glamour of high society.
“This was where the upper class of Manila often met. It was favored by presidents as a venue for political gatherings,” Molanida said.
“The theater also served as a launching pad for several artists who have made great careers in the country and abroad. They started with the Met,” he furthered.
The Met in its earliest days was a place for zarzuelas and vaudeville performances. Among the prominent performers who graced the Grand Dame’s stage was the first Filipina film actress and National Artist for Theater and Music, Atang de la Rama.
In later years, The Met also played a part in the flourishing career of premiere Filipino actress Vilma Santos as the venue for her top rating musical variety show Vilma! in the 1990s.
“King of Talk” Boy Abunda also has fond memories of the theater as he started his career as a stage actor, and later became publicist of The Met.
International performers who have graced the theater with their artistry included Spanish operatic singer Montserrat Caballé, American dancer Ted Shawn, legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz, Italian coloratura soprano Amelita Galli-Curci, and Austrian violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler.
The imposing structure of The Met itself was executed by the great national and international artists. Prominent architect Juan Arellano and his brother Arcadio laid out the Art Deco architecture of the Met based on renowned American architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham’s 1905 plan for Manila.
Art Deco was all the rage in Europe at the time but the Arellano brothers made The Met unique with Asian and native Filipino influences, which are evident in the Angkor Wat-inspired minarets on the top of the building, and Philippine flora adorning the intricate exterior design and grill works.
Murals from National Artist Fernando Amorsolo used to welcome guests at the lobby, which are now said to be stored among GSIS’ extensive art collection.
Italian artist Francesco Riccardo Monti created the bronze sculptures, which are fortunately still standing on the top of the structure and inside the lobby, while the woodcarvings on the walls and interiors were made by Isabelo Tampinco.
“It’s a mix of a new concept [Art Deco] embedded with Filipino culture. It’s Art Deco in character but it’s very Filipino in manifestation,” Molanida said.
The NCCA vows to give this generation of performers their own moments and memories of The Met by restoring the Grand Dame to her former glory.
“How it was used before, is how it will be [made for use]after restoration,” Molanida promised.
And despite its present dilapidated state, the Met is not condemned. The cultural heritage coordinator stressed, “Definitely walang gigibain [nothing will be demolished], We are considering adaptive reuse. We might use some parts of The Met for another purpose.”
He further cited Section 2 of Presidential Decree No. 374 or the “Cultural Properties Preservation and Protection Act” which states: “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the state to preserve and protect the important cultural properties and National Cultural Treasures of the nation and to safeguard their intrinsic value.”
Although no concrete plans have been made in terms of restoration details, the NCCA is already in talks with the National Museum for the project and have jointly created a draft for their vision.
“The output of our first dialogue is this: there will be holding rooms, auditoriums, performance halls, theater operations, galleries, and a café shop,” Molanida enumerated.
“We really envision the café shop to be a melting pot of cultural and artistic ideas where artists can gather, exchange ideas, and create great art after,” he further enthused.
With the false hopes raised by past administrations on the restoration of a National Treasure, the NCCA assures the public that The Met is “finally coming around this time.” The commission has an “unofficial public commitment” to reopen the grand old theater by 2017.
“You’re already talking to the right people, the rightful owners. With all humility, there can be no higher cultural agency than the NCCA,” Molanida declared.
“The hands of NCCA and the National Museum are there. Hindi na biro ‘yan [It’s no joke]. It’s a showcase to the country and the whole world, in fact, that this is what the NCCA and the National Museum can do in terms of conservation. The pressure is really tremendous,”
The official further added that the support of the sitting president is crucial to the realization of NCCA’s goals.
“With the support of any sitting president, money will always be available. If the question is whether we have enough resources to do what we said we will be doing, I would say yes. All the ingredients are there, the stars are aligned, and we can make it happen. Definitely,” Molanida guaranteed.
He further echoed GSIS General Manager Robert Vergara’s words at the signing of the sale, where he said, “‘By selling The Met to the NCCA, we are actually returning The Met to its rightful owner, the Filipino people.”
“The NCCA serves the Filipino nation so the Filipino nation must benefit from The Met,” Molanida concluded.