Meralco Theater turns 40
CITY SENSE - Paulo Alcazaren () - February 21, 2009 - 12:00am

February is National Arts Month and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) has planned activities that will no doubt be a refuge from the global economic storm as well as from the constant irritation of local politics.

These activities are being held in various cultural venues and my thoughts turn to the fact that although we have seen three building boom cycles in our lifetime, there has been no major construction of theaters in the last four decades. Culture has played second fiddle to commerce in the last 40 years.

This year, we celebrate the 40th anniversary of two of the city’s cultural landmarks. The Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) by National Artist for Architecture Leandro Locsin is the first that comes to mind for most people, but it was actually another edifice by another gifted Filipino architect, that opened first.

The Meralco Theater by Jose Maria Zaragosa was inaugurated on March 22, 1969. The theater forms part of the larger Meralco Building, which was completed a little earlier. The 14-story building, theater and adjoining buildings form a landmark in the Ortigas district. Its elegant silhouette remains uncompromised mainly due to the fact that the posh Corinthian Gardens’ low suburban spread surrounds it.

I literally grew up in and around the complex. My father moved us to Barrio Kapitolyo two years earlier for him to be nearer to work and us to our schools. Now a few years retired from the Meralco, he was one of the head doctors at the John F. Cotton Hospital right behind the building and under the shadow of the theater.

The Meralco Theater was and still is one of the most modern and fully equipped theaters in the country. It seats a thousand, half the capacity of the CCP, but arguably with better acoustics. My old professor and former dean of the UP College of Architecture, Aurelio Jugillon, was the acoustic designer and he used the theater as an example of good acoustics. He also did the acoustic design for the studios at the Lopez-owned ABS-CBN studios in Quezon City.

I got my first taste of musical theater, ballet, and opera at the Meralco. The building’s inauguration was marked by performances of the Bolshoi Ballet of Moscow with renowned dancers Raisa Struchkova, Alexander Lapuri, Boris Khoklov, and Vladimir Levashev. The four were ably supported by the corps de ballet of the Hariraya Dance Company of the Philippines, products of the rigorous training of Totoy de Oteyza and Inday Gaston Mañosa. The music was rendered by the Manila Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the Bolshoi’s Mikhail Bank. I caught one of the matinees; the lack of a tux prevented me from attending the gala.

Then First Lady Imelda Marcos attended the performance and was promptly mesmerized by the Bolshoi and the new theater. Her CCP still had a few months to go so she requested Don Eugenio Lopez for performances by the Bolshoi at the amphitheater in Rizal Park (also designed by Leandro Locsin).

In the next few months, also in celebration of the Meralco company’s 66th year of operation and the inauguration of the Ortigas complex, there was a slew of world-class offerings at the theater. The Hariraya Dance Company mounted a ballet concert with British ballet star Robin Haig. A few evenings of beautiful classical music were offered by the Manila Symphony Orchestra led by guest conductor Helen Quach (the theater has an orchestra pit that can accommodate a full 60-piece orchestra). The operas La Traviata and La Boheme were staged by the Philippine Theater of the Performing Arts. Finally, right before the CCP’s opening, the Meralco brought in Beverly Sills, the famous American coloratura soprano.

Between that year and my entering the university, the Meralco Theater was a regular venue for these performances as well as movie premieres. One evening in September 1972, I watched my first musical performance. It was Mass with Chinggoy Alonzo in the lead. I was overwhelmed by the experience and would probably have ventured into theater if not for the imposition of martial law the next day.

Musical theater’s loss was architecture’s gain. The theater and the building were and are still one of my favorite landmarks of modern Filipino architecture. Zaragoza created work in a hybrid international style that utilized elements of the movement like sunshades or brise soleil and large expanses of glazing, but he also imbued his compositions with vestiges of art deco and pre-war abstract decorative styles. The trim he used in the massing of the theater was pure art deco while the use of curves echoed the work of contemporaries like Eero Saarinen.

The original landscape design of Dolly Perez was also an inspiration as her large expanses of lawn and lush shade planting design complemented Zaragoza’s architecture. Subsequent over-planting by others has since obscured the architecture and cluttered the composition.

I loved the Meralco building during Christmas. They used to turn on all the lights. Zaragoza’s vertical sunshade fins (reportedly inspired by an automobile grill) were lit from behind, making the whole 14-story façade glow like a lantern. The lighting design won raves from the magazine International Lighting Review.

Philippine architecture was getting noticed in international circles. Locsin’s CCP came later in the year (I’ll feature that iconic structure in a later column). The building boom of the ‘70s saw more modern structures come up but after the Folk Arts Theater, all that followed were of other building types.

Since the late ‘60s, we have seen little come up in the way of cultural venues, theaters or auditoriums (except for some school ones). We have lost many others to the wrecking ball or changes in company policies. The San Miguel and Insular Life auditoriums, the Rizal Theater, the downtown movie houses, the old Metropolitan Theater, even the Folk Arts Theater are sorely missed.

New York’s Broadway district has over three dozen theaters with close to 20,000 seats and nonstop presentations. The CCP complex and the Ortigas district, each of which can swallow Broadway, have less than 4,000 seats between then, sporadic seasons and no venues specific to theater (musical or otherwise), opera or dance — all being multipurpose theaters, which leads to design compromises.

We laud the commitment of companies like the Meralco to keeping its venues available to a public starved for cultural nourishment. Imagine just how many theaters or cultural venues can be built from just one “bukol” of any of the recent corruption scandals. Maybe that’s our lot in life — we have to suffer the never-ending drama of our politics, the inane comedy antics of our government officials and, alas, the tragedy of living in a soulless city built only for commercial profit.

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