Susan’s reunion with her bridge to stardom

Baby K. Jimenez - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines – It is a day when temperature peaks at a humid 39 degrees and suddenly rain interferes for a few seconds. I find myself with Susan Roces (again? Have we been inseparable?) being refreshed by an air-conditioned sala in Ayala Alabang. Thanks to the host Tessie Alava (the sister-in-law of Susan’s Uncle Kit Levy — brother of her Mom), the grand, fabulous 85-year-old lady who entertains us with details of events dating back 59 years ago (1956), not letting up on her animated chat. This display of infectious gaiety amuses me to no end. 

“Oh yes, I was the one! I brought Susan Roces to Sampaguita Pictures that fateful day when she was discovered by Dr. Perez!” she proudly announces. “Why me? I had connections, I was the favorite travel agent of the studio, I flew movie stars to their favorite destinations. And don’t you know, I was a celebrity, too. I was a movie star myself.” And she starts a litany of names she knows, “Bert Avellana? He knew me, he gave me my screen name — Tessie Villamor.”

Busy at Premiere Productions, she was friends with Tessie Quintana and Leila Morena. “Tessie Q was my close friend because both of us are from Laguna, she from Magdalena and I from Pila. Why I did not pursue my movie career? Why it’s short-lived? I have to be frank with you. I was not happy at all, was so disappointed. They always killed me in the movies,” she reminisces with laughter. “They loved to murder me. So one day I said, I give up. If you will again kill me in the next assignment, forget it. There is one major thing though that I have not gotten over in my brief film career — it is no less than Gloria Romero’s appearance as extra in a wedding scene where I played bride. The film was titled Ang Lumang Bahay sa Gulod made in 1949 and starred Rogelio de la Rosa, Leila Morena and Ramon D’Salva. Gloria used to be a bit player in Premiere — I think she did two films before she moved to Sampaguita and became a big, big star.”

At this point, Susan, who shares “front seats” with me watching this “live performance,” adds, “Tita Tessie though was better known for her singing.” A coloratura soprano, her Tita Tessie sang oftentimes in theaters.



But what made her Tita Tessie feel so really important was when she was chosen as a Camay girl. “That really was something.  It meant the world to me — like a real glamorous queen.  I was side by side with equally prominent society girls like Paquita Roces-Revilla (mom of Tina and Maritess, wife of Armando Goyena), Rosa Rosal, Nida Blanca, Virginia Montes, Norma Vales and even Miss Universe Armi Kuusela (who married Filipino businessman Virgilio Hilario). In those times, we were given gifts, not necessarily cash for the honor. What a privilege!”

Susan nudges my elbow and as if on cue, Susan fishes out from her purse a clipping cut-out of Tessie as the Camay Girl then. “Which reminds me, here, Tita Tessie, it was published recently (in The Philippine STAR, researched by Celso de Guzman Caparas) and I have kept this for you.” Tita Tessie beams with pride, looks at me: “See? I told you!” 

Indeed, everything now is history. By now, we are too familiar with the story that right after her high school graduation, Susan flew to Manila to pursue her college studies but something got in the way. One morning, Susan decided to go with yes, this same Tita Tessie, to attend the “open house” in Sampaguita Pictures where fans were welcome to meet with the stars. Sampaguita’s big boss Dr. Perez, upon seeing Susan — who was busy asking for the autograph of her favorite Gloria Romero — called the attention of his wife, Mrs. Azucena Vera-Perez, talking in Spanish, “Mira, mira (meaning come and look),” and whispering to her to look at Susan closely. They did not waste time and “we were asked to return the day after. I could not make it so I told Nestor, Susan’s uncle, to accompany her,” Tita Tessie reveals.

Tita Tessie was so worried about uncle and niece as they were new in the big city. 

“I had to repeat my instructions to Nestor on how to get to Sampaguita. We had no car so I said, wait for this particular bus — don’t miss this JD Transit which always passed at a certain time in my home area (in the Leon Guinto neighborhood). I reminded them, make sure you get on the right bus. And do you know, my place was too small and I did not have extra space or bed for Susan to stay? But Susan — hmm, I did not call her Susan then, her nickname was Baby Darling but I called her simply Baby — was so very nice (ah, but she has always been nice!) and simple. My bed was so tiny it was good only for one person and Susan said, it’s okay. She slept on the floor! She really did for a while until she moved out to rent a place near Gilmore.”

Susan with her Uncle Nestor then arrived 30 minutes ahead of schedule (7:30 a.m.). But what happened next seemed to be straight out of a teleserye. Hours later, Tessie received an urgent call from the office of Dr. Perez, “Where is your niece? She never showed up!” 

Tita Tessie panicked. “How could I check, we had no cell phones (then)! I know they left early enough. I was sweating. I was almost on the verge of tears thinking they got lost on the way! I started praying,” Tessie adds.

What happened actually was director Mar Torres, who was scheduled to give Susan the screen test, decided to take her to the location filming of the movie Rhodora which was somewhere in Antipolo. Later, after they left, Dr. Perez, who was not properly informed, went out looking for Susan.

“It was a clear case of miscommunication, thank God.”

Susan was called back for another screen test the next day in the garage of the Perezes’ house. She was made to look like a female boxer for a role that was actually meant for Alicia Vergel. That started the film Boksingera Daw, but its showing had to be delayed so Susan could be introduced first with Romeo Vasquez in a Gloria Romero film Miss Tilapia.  

Ah, they said it was so soon for them to make her bida, that’s why,” Tessie quips. “I knew then that Susan would be the queen. Me? I was just happy being in the background, and always being referred to as her short cut to stardom. All these years, Susan has never forgotten about me. Like today, she said she was going to see me and look — she did. She’s so humble, so thoughtful and so sweet.”

Our merienda session also turns out to be a reunion of some sort. Susan’s first cousins who are also Tita Tessie’s nieces are in town from New York. We spend time looking at old photographs neatly bound and collected for family (some of those we are using now).  

“We always try to make time and see one another — we are not getting any younger,” Susan says.

As we approach the door to say goodbye, Tita Tessie stops me after Susan gets in her car and waves at us.

“You know what,” Tita Tessie almost whispers, “I think Susan’s mission is not yet done. Yes, she has been very successful in her chosen career but there’s still something to highlight her story. I think it’s destiny. It’s about her daughter Grace. Something wonderful is going to happen.”

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