Romeo Vasquez: Lover, prankster & star
Text & photos - Bibsy M. Carballo (The Philippine Star) - September 11, 2011 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - We had never met Romeo Vasquez but like everyone else, young and old, we knew him to be the past generation’s dreamboat, at whose sight women would near faint. It was therefore with curiosity that we had hoped to meet this person face to face when told he was in town. What was he like at pushing 70? Did he have a pot belly that was easily the senior’s bane? Was his hair thinning or was he completely bald? Would we be disappointed if he were all these or worse, if he had become a product of skillful technology?

The chance came when the group of Baliksamahan was invited by Susan Roces for a despedida get-together for Pempe Rodrigo at Liberty Ilagan’s Barrio Fiesta in Makati. This loose alliance of Sampaguita stars with those from LVN and others had Pempe as its unofficial organizer. She told us Romeo — Bobby to friends — dropped by her home some weeks back, bringing stuff from California. Susan happened to be with Pempe and both invited Bobby to the get-together. Bahala na, he told them and was gone in a jiffy.

At the party, Pempe whispers to us she was hoping Bobby would come. But one never knew, she shares. He is like that — unpredictable. We ask, why not call him? She replies that she didn’t have his cellphone nor his address. Our curiosity was even more aroused. So he was the “don’t-call-me, I’ll-call-you type”! How interesting! He had many close friends but no one knew everything about him. Friends in the business still don’t know why he migrated to the US when he did.

...and with (from left) Susan Roces, Delia Razon and Pempe Rodrigo.

Two hours into the party with close to 50 people chatting away, mixing food and drinks with harmless gossip, a hush falls on the crowd when Pempe announces a surprise visitor has arrived, and in strides Romeo much like the conquering hero of old. Clearly, to this day, he was a star. He knew the value of the “grand entrance.” He was not bald, had no pot belly, and was aging beautifully. We were not disappointed.

To colleagues complimenting him on his still youthful appearance, Bobby demurs, “Malapit na ako magpa-Belo,” and quickly disappears into the crowd. He mixes with them, chitchats and joins in the fun and games. He has had his attention-grabbing moment. Now he is simply Bobby the friend, the comrade, the pal.

Like all matinee idols here and abroad, Romeo’s personal life has been fodder for gossip. He was known as a man about town, had many girls, married some. Amalia Fuentes was the best known although the marriage didn’t last. There is also information that he was already married, which is why his reported wedding in Hong Kong to Amalia didn’t really happen. Vilma Santos was another known girlfriend with whom he shot nine pictures. Another one was Alona Alegre with whom he lived in Beverly Hills, California. However, he is best remembered not only for his ways with women but for being a nice person, a good friend, a prankster, a generous individual. And a super affectionate, malambing human being.

Barbara Perez adds that they were close, like siblings. She did Dugo sa Aking Kamay with him. She remembers he was like a “niño bonito,” malambing in a funny way, pilyo na hindi bastos.

A lively and mischievous rascal, Bobby was like the naughty student perennially called to the principal’s office. He would always be at Sampaguita boss Doc Jose Perez’s office for a dressing down, Doc’s daughter Marichu “Manay Ichu” Vera Perez Maceda recalls today.

From left: Pilita Corrales, Boots Anson-Roa and Liberty Ilagan

There are many stories about him, most of them true, she shares. “Bobby was always playful, always late. He made a game of picking the pockets of his bosses. Once he even asked for money to bury his mom, until it was discovered she was still healthy and alive. Clearly, he could get away with murder, as they say,” Manay Ichu affirms. He was also so funny without trying hard to be so, she continues with her recollections. Bobby was expecting to win the Best Actor award in an Asian Film Festival and spent time memorizing his speech. When he was called onstage, he got so nervous, went to the microphone, said “Good Evening Friends, Good Night,” went down the stage and found an audience in stitches.

“He has a good heart. Even now that Mommy Vera is sick and cannot remember faces, he comes to visit. Despite all the stories about him, he is the one who best imbibed from Sampaguita the training Doc Perez gave. He was always neat, well-dressed and good-looking. No one ever caught him sloppily dressed. Doc Perez had always told his actors that the fans idolize them so they must always look like a star. To this day, Romeo Vasquez looks like a star.”

Lynn Pareja, secretary of Doc Perez, was also witness to the scolding emanating from Doc’s room whenever Bobby was called. She also was not spared from his pranks. She remembers three of her umbrellas disappearing, and receiving on her birthday three brand-new umbrellas with the note “I Love You.” Apparently this was typical of Bobby. He just wanted to have fun by playing tricks on his friends.

Director Maning Borlaza shot several pictures with Bobby Vasquez including Angelo with Amalia in 1970; Bakit Kailangan Kita with Vilma for LEA Productions in 1978; and Gusto Kita, Mahal Ko Siya with Vilma and Boyet de Leon in 1980 for TIIP, shot in San Francisco since Bobby had already then migrated to the US.

It was during this shoot in SanFo that Bobby gifted him with his personal bag direk Maning openly admired. He was like that, Maning recalls, generous and comfortable with friends. When still living in Manila, he would drop by unannounced at Maning’s digs at Dr. Lazcano near Morato and ask to be fed.

Marichu ‘Manay Ichu’ Maceda and Barbara Perez

The discovery of Romeo is much like those of stars picked out by directors with a keen perception for stardom. Just as Lino Brocka discovered Bembol Roco at a Dare institution and Boyet at a gas station, or as director Armanda Garces saw in Roberto Sumilang, who was playing basketball in San Juan, the makings of a star and brought him to Sampaguita Pictures. Renamed Romeo Vasquez, Bobby did several bit roles before his big break. An interesting trivia reported in Movie World magazine tells of how excited Bobby was with the prospect of stardom when asked to report with two suits and six polo shirts only to find out he would be pushed into the swimming pool by Lolita Rodriguez.

It was during this period that Liberty Ilagan first met Bobby while walking with classmates in Intramuros. “He drove past us, then stopped and offered us a ride. I told him I don’t talk to strangers and continued walking. The next time I saw him was at Sampaguita when I had a screen test and he was my partner. I was so ashamed I nearly flunked my screen test. We made one movie together, Kilabot sa Makiling.”

Bobby’s break finally came in 1956 in Lydia where he played younger brother to Amalia. The following year, he was introduced together with Susan Roces in Miss Tilapia starring Gloria Romero. And some time after, Bobby played love interest to Susan in Sino ang Maysala, his first big break as a juvenile delinquent with an all-star cast made up of Rogelio de la Rosa, Paraluman, Gloria and Lolita. Again, director was Armando.

But if there was to be a most unforgettable film for Susan with Bobby, it would have to be the Mars Ravelo immortal love story Maruja transcending centuries, adapted into film in 1967 by LEA productions. “To this day,” recalls Susan, “we still call each other Gabriel and Maruja.” And the most important link to their friendship is that it was Bobby who introduced Susan to FPJ.

“Whenever I think of Bobby, it is always with a smile. He always made me laugh; he doesn’t dwell on negative matters. Perhaps that is the secret to his youthful appearance,” she muses.

After that, Romeo was on a roll. He was given a solo starrer in Pretty Boy, then did Ako ang Maysala in 1958 and won the Golden Harvest Award for Best Actor.

The life of a matinee idol, however, was not without its problems, however careful one might be. In 1967 at age 25 and at the peak of his career, Romeo was stabbed by a bit player while speaking on the telephone to his wife Amalia. Doctors gave him a 50/50 chance for survival. A decade later, he did a blockbuster movie Nagaapoy na Damdamin in 1976 when he was 34 and Vilma, 23, which was followed by the betamax sex video scandal with Manay Ichu offering P1M to anyone who could produce the video. Of course, no one could.

A few other movies followed for which Bobby came back to the country to do. Dalawang Pugad, Isang Ibon with Vilma, directed by Ishmael Bernal in 1977 was one. Another was the 1994 Vizconde Massacre Parts 1 and 2 where he played the role of Lauro Vizconde. After which he stayed put in the US.

We requested for an interview through Pempe. She again says she would wait for his call and ask him. The answer came after two weeks. “Huwag na muna daw. There isn’t anything new to talk about. Not yet anyway” was the message. We hear from others that there have been offers for Romeo to make a comeback. We are certain it would involve partnering with his most famous screen partners Amalia and Vilma. Perhaps a teleserye romantic drama with flashbacks galore, plus sons and daughters embroiled in a game of treachery and revenge. In the meantime, we can only sit and wait.

(E-mail me at bibsy_2011@yahoo.com.)

ALWAYS AMALIA BOBBY ONE PEMPE ROMEO SUSAN ROCES
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