Why Fred Elizalde and Lisa Macuja remain so passionately in love with each other

CYBER PROUST - Jojo G. Silvestre () - October 3, 2010 - 12:00am

My recent foray into the world of the rich and famous brought me to the Elizalde home in Pasay where Fred, the business magnate, and his wife Lisa Macuja, dubbed by the media as the People’s Ballerina, bask in the joy of living among art works and other family treasures, including paintings done by the master of the house himself.

Fred is the silent guy who drops a witty remark now and then, leaving his wife of 16 years to take the spotlight, even in the privacy of their family home. Lisa is the artistic director of Ballet Manila and the directress of her own school, The Ballet Manila School. When I visited them, she was rehearsing for their next production, Le Corsaire, which takes center stage on Oct. 3,9 and 10 at the Aliw Theater, which Fred built specially for Lisa and her company. Lisa takes on the lead role of Medora. 

Painted white on the outside, Fred and Lisa’s residence stands on the Pasay City site of the original home built in the 1920s by the Caldwallladers, the American family from whom descended Fred’s mother, Mary. Fred’s father was the industrialist Don Manolo Elizalde who, at the zenith of his career owned steel, hemp, paint and wine factories, along with a media empire of radio, television and newspapers, and a hacienda and sugar central in Negros Occidental.

Today, Fred is semi-retired, with his team of managers ensuring the continuing success of the Manila Broadcasting Company which operates DZRH and Love Radio, and Star City which is on the itinerary for every elementary school’s field trip and on the Christmas schedule of every family with kids because of its fun rides, carnival attractions and, of course, its ballet performances.

Lisa admits at the outset that she is not the typical housewife. “If you ask me what the contents of the freezer and the refrigerator are, I will not be able to tell you,” she says. “I won’t know where to get the good plates in the cupboard.” Her knowledge of things around the house is not expert, but it suffices for her to be able to tour a wide-eyed guest like me, impressed with the ceiling full of paintings, among other art works either done by Fred or a few other artists including National Artist Fernando Amorsolo.

“That is the only Amorsolo in this house,” says Fred, without mentioning to me that there are at least 300 paintings and sculptures in the house as of the last count, as I later learned from Lisa.  

It is a storied home. Lisa shares that the original house was razed to the ground during the liberation of Manila. “Fred was hiding under that swimming pool,” she says, pointing to a pool that had been transformed into an infinity pool after Fred and she married.

“It’s the pool where Fred practised for his swimming competitions,” she relates, proudly adding that Fred was a varsity swimmer in Harvard where he finished his degree in social science with magna cum laude honors.         

The People’s Ballerina: Lisa Macuja-Elizalde basks in the joy of living among art works and other family treasures, including paintings done by her husband Fred Elizalde. Photos by JUN MENDOZA

The structure that exists today is a reproduction of the old home that has gone through minimal renovations, including the enclosure of the open porch, which is now air-conditioned. Lisa describes her home as “cluttered.” I would say it is pleasantly cluttered, with mementos, paintings, trophies, plaques and well-crafted touristy souvenir items, making for an interesting showcase. To be sure, the various pieces are not scattered in a couldn’t-care-less kind of way, but instead, are artistically laid out all over walls, tables and shelves. As a result, anyone beholding these treasures is able to focus on an aspect of the life of the master and mistress of the home, and that of their children, and of its previous occupants as well.

In a tall vase beside the staircase is the collection of canes of the late Don Manolo. A life-sized sculpture of the young Fred welcomes any intruder who intends to go up to the second floor.

The ceiling of the living room is a delight with its row of paintings all done by Fred. A series of frames shows the Elizalde boy, Mac, then a toddler, being carried and kissed by Pope John Paul II in the Vatican Square. An interesting juxtaposition in the sala is that of the antique shiny wooden floor and the two colorful area modern carpets, done by the resident French artist, Henry Ivet, who occupies a unit in the apartment building built by Fred in the adjacent lot.

Lisa explains that their former neighbors had wanted to build a high-rise, and to keep his family’s privacy, Fred bought the property and ended up with a rental apartment whose height does not destroy the calm and the old-world setting that the Elizaldes have cultivated. She shares that Fred is the “renaissance man who has been designing, renovating or building beautiful structures all his life including the Elizalde Tagaytay house, the Boracay house and mall which he constructed after we were married, the MBC building, the Star Theater, Aliw Theater, the three ballet studios right in our compound, and our guest house, which used to be a gym, and which we now call Buddha house because of the Buddha that guards it.” She adds that the statue is part of Fred’s original collection from way back when.

No doubt, it is the perfect place for a painter and dancer couple, and children who are encouraged to vent their creative leanings.

“Missy and Mac are into the visual arts,” says Lisa of her and Fred’s children, “and they both draw and doodle. They also do animation on their computers. They did not take formal lessons, but they grew up with Fred painting all the time. They have access to the canvas anytime.” Missy takes ballet lessons, along with other students of Ballet Manila, with her mother as the teacher.

“Teaching one’s daughter takes getting used to, but yes, she is a hard-working and extremely serious student,” she says. Their eldest daughter, Sasha, who was still a little girl when Lisa and Fred married, has done sketches as a child, and these are displayed in a wall in the computer-cum-family museum room.

As a family that appreciates beauty, their favorite part of the house is “the enclosed porch, because we see the artistic hand of God in nature as we look at the green grass and tall trees in our lawn, and then, when we turn our heads toward our walls and the inner part of our home, we see man’s own artistic creation, says Lisa. “There is a sound system when we want to listen to music. We have access to video when we want to watch movies. Then, there is the laptop right on our table, with the Internet exposing us to global art and literature,” says Lisa. “This porch is the hangout for the whole family.”

A typical day for Lisa begins at six in the morning “when I wake up early because I make it a point to bring my children to school before 7:25 from Mondays to Fridays. After that, I come home, and I have breakfast. Usually I turn on my computer to connect to the Internet and do my e-mails, update my blog, do some writing and do the paper work needed by the company and the school. I have breakfast or brunch with my husband. By 1:30 I am in the studio which is conveniently located across the lawn. I dance from 1:30 to 3 p.m., and then I rehearse from 3 till around 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening. And then I go back home which, again, is a few steps away, and I spend the rest of the evening with my family.”

The bookworm: Fred loves to read. He takes his pick from his rich varied collection of books in several shelves found in various parts of the house including the dining room.

Lisa and Fred sit down to dinner with the children who share stories about their day, with Lisa occasionally helping them with their assignments only if they need her, as a tutor comes in the afternoon to assist them.

Fred and Lisa love to read at night before bedtime, taking their pick from their rich varied collection of books in several shelves found in various parts of the house including the dining room. “I read a lot of novels, and nonfiction materials including those that deal with philosophy. Fred and I read a huge amount of books. The kids, too, love to read”  

It is seldom that they go out to dinner, “because Fred is a bit of a recluse and when I married him, I sort of adapted to his being a bit of a hermit,” says Lisa. “But when we go out to dinner, it’s normal for me to order five kinds of appetizers because I love them.”

For her brunch around 10 in the morning, Lisa usually takes oatmeal and bananas or any other fruit. She sometimes eats eggs, preferably cooked as an omelette. She admits to eating a lot, usually during dinner after hours of dancing, “which makes me very hungry. I am not on a special diet so I eat as much as I want of anything that I relish. Our regular meal is salad and main course of fish or meat. Since I have no restrictions, I prefer fattening foods and rich sauces. I put mayonnaise and all sorts of condiments on my food.” Fred prefers Western and Chinese cuisine and they share a liking for Japanese food.

She recalls that Fred proposed to her “in an airplane on our way back to the Philippines from Hong Kong where we had a date. We watched Cirque de Soleil perform Allegria. That was Dec. 19, 1996. He said, ‘I could get used to this. You know what I want, and what I want, I normally get. So, is it a deal?”

Lisa, by then, had fallen for Fred with whom she had been going out since October of that year. They had known each other for quite some time because her father, Cesar Macuja, worked for Fred as president of the Star Parks Corporation. Fred and Cesar put up Star City together.

Fred got her to say yes despite the fears “of my friends and relatives that marrying him meant the end of my dancing career, which they voiced out when we started seeing each other regularly,” narrates Lisa, “because he promised that, contrary to their expectations, he was giving me his unconditional approval to continue my dancing career. I also made it clear to him that I wanted to continue dancing.”

They had their wedding at the United Methodist Church in Taft Avenue. “He converted to be able to give me my church wedding,” shares Lisa. Their 24-year age gap didn’t matter as “he was a very active 54-year-old when we started dating,” emphasizes Lisa.

“In fact he was the one who got me into scuba diving and roller skating. He also taught me how to swim. Our tastes, right from the start, were very similar. We would spend hours just reading, as we weren’t exactly the socializing couple. We were creatures of the home even then.” Lisa did not need to adjust “because that was my life before my marriage. It revolved around our home, the ballet studio, the theater and back to the home again. The only difference was I had transferred to a different home.”

Still, living with Fred in his old home was “a source of shock for me. I grew up in a typical Filipino home and all of a sudden, I was experiencing a completely different lifestyle. I lived in a dormitory with 16 other girls sharing one bathroom, in communist Russia then.” She loves to tell the story of their honeymoon in London where they stayed in a grand hotel. “Fred was surprised to see that I had washed my intimate apparel in our lavatory and had hung them in the shower. ‘What is a hotel laundry for?’ he asked me.”   

When they returned to Manila after their honeymoon, Fred offered for them to move to another place. “He asked if I wanted to transfer because if I said yes, he would buy a new house for me. ‘You can decorate it yourself and it would be your house,’ he said. No, I am fine here, I said,” narrates Liza, whose interest in the arts does not include interior design.  

Her first pregnancy wasn’t easy for Lisa, giving Fred cause to worry. “I didn’t know I was pregnant,” Lisa narrates. “I was feeling extreme pain because my body was excreting hormones in order to loosen up my abdominal muscles. Because of years of dancing, my abdominal muscles were so compact. When I became pregnant, my body started to excrete a lot of hormones. It was really painful and so I had myself tested and the finding was I was positive for pregnancy. But when they did the ultrasound, they could not find the amniotic sac, so they suspected I had an ectopic pregnancy.

“They thought that my pregnancy was being developed in one of my fallopian tubes so they had to operate to terminate the pregnancy and remove the baby. Fortunately, they found out that I had a normal pregnancy. When I finally gave birth, I went through a 14-hour labor, and I almost had to undergo a caesarean operation.” She gained 37 pounds during her pregnancy with Missy, and 35 pounds with Manuel. She ate a lot of cheeses and other dairy products, cream and sauces.

The children ran around the garden, and Fred taught them how to swim in the very pool where he too had learned how to swim. Lisa points out that it is quite difficult not to give in to the children’s desires to have the toys they took a fancy to, “and now that they are grown-ups and have passed the toy stage, they ask for modern gadgets and we give these to them since they are of this modern world and era. They watch television and they see all these inventions,” explains Lisa. “I guess you can say they are very Americanized because of the television programs and movies they watch. They grew up on Disney. They grew up speaking English. In this kind of lifestyle, they are very well traveled. They are very bright and artistic kids. They have very creative minds.”

On the other hand, she proudly points out, “The children are partly Filipino. They speak Tagalog. Especially Missy since she’s dancing in the company. One of their favorite dishes is nilagang baka, and they even know how it is called.”

Lisa describes Fred as a “very laissez-faire father. He lets his children decide what they want provided they keep the right values and they behave appropriately. I am the disciplinarian between the two of us, although Fred can be stern.” 

She describes her relationship with Sasha as “very close. Of course, she is an adult now, so she is very independent. For a while, she was dancing but then she stopped. She still lives here but she goes to the United States now and then because she has a special someone there.”

The elder Elizalde children from Fred’s first marriage have families of their own. “Through them, I have five female grandchildren, and they come to visit now and then, making us one big happy family,” shares Lisa.

Lisa confides that she is a spoiled wife, “but at the same time, Fred is pretty demanding. So I am a bit of a geisha wife. I really take care of him. I bring his slippers to him when he needs it. I am closely beside him when I am not dancing. I’m almost like on a 24/7 schedule with him. As a wife, first and foremost, I do what I have to do. But at the same time, he understands when I have to leave and go.”  

For his part, Fred has sincerely kept his promise to support her artistic endeavors. “My career as a dancer was really able to thrive because of Fred’s patronage of my company, Ballet Manila. He constructed our rehearsal studios here and the two theaters where we are able to perform. Definitely without his support, both financial and moral, where would we be? He watches all my performances. It doesn’t matter if he has seen me perform so many times. Even my provincial performances, he goes to watch. He supports my company all the way,” Lisa says with her signature smile.

Fred and Lisa have collaborated in various projects, like the coffee-table book Marriage of the Arts, which features Fred’s artworks and photos of Lisa’s performances. Fred, too, went all out in supporting the Ballet and Ballad concert series in which popular singers and Ballet Manila dancers performed together. Another pet project of Fred’s is the Circus de Ballet, which combines circus performers and ballet dancers.

Of course, working with Fred means adjusting to his style. “You could not give him any deadline,” says Lisa, “but at the same time, Fred really likes working at a fast pace. He wants instant results. And he is used to giving an order.”

Lisa remembers “there was a time when Fred was very prolific and he would paint all afternoon and most of the evening. For health reasons, he has slowed down but he still paints. Sometimes he asks me to pose for him. And then of course a lot of times he asks for my opinion and I give my opinion. Sometimes he takes it well, sometimes he doesn’t take it well. He does not exhibit anymore. His last exhibit was in 2002 and he ended up buying back all the works that he sold. He does not sell his artworks. He had formal lessons in Cambridge where he took courses in architecture and design.”

Lisa’s imprint on the house has been very minimal. Her travels with Fred have resulted in some acquisitions that they chose together.

She points to a pair of terracotta warriors that they acquired when they recently went to China, and which had arrived only three weeks earlier than the time of the interview. The Sony television sets came in when they were married and, of course, many paintings that Fred did in the last 10 years were inspired by Lisa, with a significant number showing her as a subject. Added to the Elizalde trophies and plaques are Lisa’s own, including the Order of Friendship given to her by President Vladimir Putin of Russia. The renovations, of course, such as of the whole guest house, the extension of the pool, and the structures that have sprouted since 1996 have all come about as Fred’s commitment to supporting Lisa’s art. The new master bedroom on the floor has been constructed to accommodate the health and physical requirements of Fred. This way, he has faster access to the porch where she and Lisa sometimes love to just look at each other.

While they love to keep to themselves in the privacy of their home, Fred and Lisa, interestingly, do not mind being seen from the outside through the glass walls of the porch. Ballet dancers and their parents and chaperones, lolling about the lawn, can observe how the couple has settled into their charmed life, each serving the other, each showering the other with love and attention. Theirs, no doubt, is a love fulfilled, even as it keeps unfolding from day to day.

I have seen very few couples who are madly in love with each other, and Fred and Lisa count as one. When I ventured into knowing more about this famous couple, I only meant to see for myself how the other side of the fence lives. But as I interviewed them and they shared their stories and showed me the treasures they have kept and cherished through the years, I saw more than the lifestyle that I had hoped to capture with words. I realized that in the midst of wealth and success, great fortune and world-class talent, love can exist in its fullness like no painter can draw and no dancer can gracefully portray. This is one time I don’t mind being romantic. After meeting Fred and Lisa, I am certain that love in this cynical world is possible, and it inspires greater possibilities including the creation of masterpieces whether these are paintings or ballet suites.     

I asked Lisa what the best part about being Mrs. Fred Elizalde is. She didn’t even have to think of an answer. She simply said, “The best part about being Mrs. Elizalde is the fact that I have three beautiful children who I love unconditionally and who love me unconditionally. I am referring to Sasha, Missy and Manuel. The second best part is, at 46, I am still dancing.” No doubt, love inspires creation, and sincere, passionate love creates only the best.

* * *

Should you agree or disagree, praise or damn, please e-mail me at cyber.proust@yahoo.com.

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