A treasure in St. Paul
PENMAN - Butch Dalisay () - July 16, 2007 - 12:00am

Almost 50 years ago, on December 12, 1957, a new theater was inaugurated by St. Paul College of Manila along Herran St. (now Pedro Gil) in tree-lined Malate. It was the Fleur-de-Lis Auditorium, and in due time it would become home to the musical theater tradition that the SPCM would gain fame for, producing such theater, dance, and entertainment luminaries as Cecille Guidote, Charo Santos, Celeste Legaspi, June Keithley, Baby and Maniya Barredo, Tina Santos, Pinky Marquez, Joy Soler, Noemi Manikan, and the Revilla sisters. Under the tutelage of such teachers as Fr. James Reuter and Daisy Avellana, these talents would turn the Fleur-de-Lis into “the Broadway of Herran.”

That legacy is surely treasure enough. But another, equally remarkable treasure stood outside the theater itself, in the foyer, a gift of the architect who designed and built the Fleur-de-Lis and similar structures on St. Paul’s other campuses. Seeing the Fleur-de-Lis in Manila as his crowning achievement, Architect Jose L. Reynoso asked his Angono townmate — a brilliant painter by the name of Carlos “Botong” Francisco, much later to be named a National Artist — to do a large mural that would be the centerpiece of the theater lobby, looming high above the theater-goers and making them part, as it were, of the tradition that was its subject.

“The Evolution of Philippine Culture,” as the 3.5-by-4.5-meter mural in oil came to be known upon its completion, was unveiled along with the theater itself, and so has been part and parcel of St. Paul’s and Manila’s theater and cultural history. No better proof exists of how closely wedded the mural is to the theater than the fact that its two uppermost corners are trimmed to conform to the shape of the wall where the pilaster meets the cornice.

True to its title, the mural depicts the theme of East meeting West in Philippine culture. A muscular Filipino man beats a drum in the center, but behind him hovers a fair-haired muse, and elsewhere in the mural, native dances contrast with flamenco, an anito with a galleon. For a painting of its time and the theater it was meant to complement, the mural is spot-on, capturing in a grand sweep the strongest strains of our culture.

But decades of exposure to the elements (the only thing that stood then between the mural and the street was a grilled door and fence), the curious touches of a thousand fingers, the occasional vandal, and the molecular ravages of time took their toll on the mural. A few years ago, thinking to restore it in time for the centennial of the college (now a university) in 2012, the Paulinian sisters took the mural down, and — doing what most of us would have done — rolled it up for safekeeping, unwittingly adding to the damage in the long vertical lines that now scour its surface. When they unrolled the linen canvas, it was covered all over with a fine white powder — the “ground” underneath the paint that had come loose when the paint creased and broke up.

The SPCM/SPUM alumnae began raising funds for its restoration, but the project proved far bigger and more technically challenging than originally thought, so SPUM president Wynna Marie Medina and her administration moved more aggressively to push the project forward. Some assistance was secured from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), more alumni support was tapped, and — with much prayer and determination — St. Paul decided to press ahead with the restoration of Botong Francisco’s inimitable masterpiece.

Brought in to handle the delicate and taxing work of restoring the huge mural was the multidisciplinary team of the Art Conservation and Restorations Specialists Inc. (ACES), a company that had previously done work on Juan Luna’s “Spoliarium” and many other paintings by Filipino and foreign masters. Headed by painter June Poticar-Dalisay (uhrm, someone I know very well), ACES has been championing scientific restoration in this country, providing detailed studies and reports of every step in the long process. For its part, SPUM designated its vice president, Sister Flordeliza Deza, to serve as project manager, and Sister Flor has been painstakingly documenting the work of ACES and the university, toward a possible book that can be produced on the restoration project itself. Sister Flor also explained why the Paulinians were determined to do the job: “We’re concerned with the total formation of the person, especially of the spirit. We see art as a means of elevating man’s search for the truth.”

The mural has been cleaned, patched, strip-lined (its borders extended), and remounted on a new, sturdy frame made — appropriately enough — from old hardwood left over from the college’s demolished structures. The long and arduous task of retouching the painting itself is just beginning. “Some people and even some clients think that restoration simply means making an artwork look like new, by repainting and varnishing the work,” says June. “But it takes a lot of study and preparation, and careful cleaning to reveal the work’s original colors. In ACES, we also make sure that everything we do is reversible. A historical masterpiece like the ‘Spoliarium’ or this Botong mural presents special challenges, but we approach every painting with the same concern for thoroughness.”

Wynna Medina hopes that the work can be completed in time for a formal launch of the restored mural this December, the theater’s and mural’s 50th anniversary. “God will provide. No matter what, we’ll get this done!” she says ebulliently, knowing how much more needs to be raised to complete the restoration and the requisite follow-ups, such as temperature-control and security mechanisms.

A special and limited preview for the press brought together the SPUM and ACES teams with the media last week (where I had to identify myself as the representative of The Philippine STAR, moonlighting as June’s husband) and after a thorough briefing by Wynna, Sister Flor, and June, we trooped to the work-in-progress itself, to be awed by its emerging majesty.

Clearly, many months of hard work lie ahead for ACES and the university, but even now you can see why this project had to be undertaken, if the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres are to live up to their commitment to the upliftment of the human spirit. There was some debate in the open forum about the correctness of the title, but I think it makes perfect sense — and, indeed, the SPUM and its cultural programs have themselves become part of that evolution. A market value of P50 million was mentioned in relation to the Botong work; but I’m sure that if you ask any Paulinian student or alumna, she will say their treasure on Herran is, finally, priceless.

* * *

We see and hear their work everywhere, but we don’t know them, and we’re really not supposed to. They’re the practitioners of public relations in this
country, and they help shape the way we think about things. We see their work when things go wrong for companies, agencies, and prominent persons; but they can also take the initiative in identifying these entities with the public good through such means as corporate social responsibility programs.

But who are these people, and what do they really think?

Comes now a book that answers these questions: How to Make It in PR: PR Veterans Tell Their Stories (San Juan: Context Communications International, 2007), a collection of the experiences and insights of nine of the Philippines’ foremost public relations pioneers and experts. Alphabetically, the authors include Charlie Agatep, Joy Buensalido (the youngest, and the only lady in the group), Max Edralin, Rene Nieva, Pete Padre, Virgilio Pantaleon, Frankie Roman, Oscar Villadolid, and the book’s editor and moving spirit, Romy Virtusio. Interviews with pioneers Pete Teodoro and Joe Carpio are also featured in the book, and a piece on R. R. de la Cruz. That’s about as formidable a phalanx of PR practitioners as you can put together in this country since public relations began to emerge from the looming shadow of advertising, to which PR was often attached as a bonus or an afterthought.

Let’s hear it from some of the PR masters:

“The first step in crisis prevention is to build an infrastructure of goodwill to protect the firm during bad times…. The reason why many companies are prone to crisis is that they do not devote any time worrying about their reputation. Their main focus in on sales and profits. They don’t think a good corporate image is necessary until they are faced with a crisis,” says Agatep.

Buensalido emphasizes the personal element so important in this society: “Your network of friends, co-workers and colleagues will be a constant source of new contacts so always do an excellent job for them to remember and recommend you.”

Responding to the charge that PR has been too often associated with payola, Max Edralin acknowledges the problem, but refuses to yield ethics to economics. “We have to teach practitioners that PR is a respectable profession that is in the business of persuading, not bribing, people to agree with our point of view.”

He won’t remember me, but Oscar Villadolid was the editor in chief of the Philippines Herald when I started reporting for that paper at age 18. He started out himself as a newspaperman, then turned to PR for San Miguel, before being put in charge of the Herald, another Soriano concern. Martial law shut the paper down and returned Villadolid to San Miguel for good. “It helped us in our PR careers that we had worked as newspapermen,” he says. “What is PR? It is the art of communicating…. That is why they make good PR men, these former newspapermen, sometimes too aggressively so, but they generally do well.”

Romy Virtusio rounds out the volume: “If there is one major development in PR practice that has warmed my heart all these years, it is the increasing move by PR practitioners towards a conscious, community-oriented bias for improving social conditions.”

Part-textbook and part-biography, this book should be invaluable to young people contemplating a career in public relations. In the very least, it should set them on the right path laid out by Max Edralin and, indeed, all his co-authors and peers. It doesn’t hurt that the book is also a good read — especially when it yields inside stories, such as Frankie Roman’s account of how and why Hans Menzi bought the Bulletin, and Edralin’s partly sad, partly funny story about how anti-Marcos jokes landed PLDT’s Toto Olivera in prison during martial law, and how his friends sprung him.

Those interested in ordering a copy can call 726-51-30/32; 727-52-51; 725-78-91; 724-41-88 (fax), or e-mail rpv@virtusio.com.

* * *

E-mail me at penmanila@yahoo.com and visit my blog at http://www.penmanila.net.

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