A thousand laughs in a lifetime
- Michelle Logarta () - September 1, 2002 - 12:00am
Thunder and lightning are the only things that frighten comedienne-singer Elizabeth Ramsey. Nothing else does and nothing else will; at least, that is what she firmly believes. "Walang proble-problema sa akin. I just have to concentrate on what I want, and I get it!" she declares.

With a career of more than 40 years in showbiz, there’s nothing faded about Ramsey, nothing diminished about her. Dark-skinned, frizzy haired, she’s got the figure of an 18-year-old. Dressed in three-inch heels and a body-hugging pantsuit with a leopard spotted top, she walks with the supreme confidence of a ramp model, totally oblivious to the stares of those around her. They all know who she is; after all, there can only be one Elizabeth Ramsey. And, yes, she is funny, keeping whoever’s with her at the moment in stitches.

Nowadays, people know her not just as a comedienne and TV celebrity but also as the mother of Jaya, local Queen of Soul and popular recording artist. But with or without Jaya, Ramsey has always held her own–and very well indeed.

"Wala pa si Jaya, Ramsey na ako!" she says. Today, Ramsey is often seen on TV in rib-tickling roles as someone’s balikbayan mother or relative, or the country bumpkin in the city. She’s well-known for her Visayan-accented dialogues, whether in English or Tagalog. She doesn’t even have to speak; her face, a changing palette of funny faces, can launch a crowd into gales of laughter; her body, elastic as ever as she shifts from one comic pose to another. As one fan raved, just looking at her can make you laugh. And that is a compliment to Ramsey’s innate talent for comedy.

She’s like a coiled wire, just waiting to spring. "I’m hyperactive," Ramsey explains. "The moment I’m in front of the camera, I have to release all this energy inside me."

There’s an intensity about Ramsey; it can be seen in her eyes, which she always makes up in dark shadow and heavy eyeliner. There’s a tautness to her body. With chin up, chest out, stomach in, ramrod straight back, she has a military bearing, something her father demanded from all his children. "Walang nagyuyuko ng balikat sa father ko. I was always the focus of his attention. Bitayin ako, itali ako sa langgam, ihulog sa bintana–just to discipline me but it didn’t work."

"I was an angry child," she reveals. "I was a troubled child but I didn’t know it then." Ramsey was born in San Carlos City, Negros Oriental, the natural child of Arturo C. Ramsey, a Jamaican merchant marine who jumped ship and made his home here in the Philippines, and Marcelina Rivera Indino. Her mother was one of six wives that Arturo had. It was a hard childhood, first spent with her father, a martinet and fierce disciplinarian, and a stepmother and then later in poverty with her mother.

"From the big house to the squatter," is how Ramsey describes the change in life she had to suffer when she and her brother went to live with her mother. "We loved her more and she was sick. So, we went to live with her." Plus the fact that she no longer wanted to go to school. "I hated books. I was born ignorant and I didn’t want to go to school, which was what my father wanted. And when I did go to school, I would not enter; I would stay under the acacia tree, keeping watch when the children would come out. Then, I would go on home. I would leave my book and pencil there under the tree, too. Nobody would dare steal it because they were afraid of me," Ramsey recalls. She says she was a bully and a meanie. "Malupit akong bata," she reminisces with a laugh.

But because she couldn’t stand to see her mother languishing and poor, Ramsey decided to go out and earn some money to buy food and medicine. "Noong makita ko ang mother ko, doon ako nadisiplina." At the age of 16, she started singing with a band, traveling from town to town in fiestas and barrio festivities throughout the island of Negros. She remembers sleeping on the floor of the truck that the band used for transportation. "Bata pa ako noon; pero I was singing already with a 26-piece band and the dancing would stop when I began to sing! But we earned only three pesos or sometimes four pesos a night."

With visions of fortune, perhaps not so much of fame, she ran away from her mother’s home, shipped out of Negros and landed in Manila. Here she found no work but that of a lowly maid for a year until her brother sent her money for fare to go back to Negros. She was soon married off by her father to a black man of Jamaican heritage. "My father thought I was a "tomboy" because I had no boyfriends. Papaano ako magkaroon ng boyfriend, tirador ang dala ko sa eskuwela. Sa buong San Carlos City, walang lumigaw sa akin."

Her marriage to the man of her father’s choice was something she describes as "accidental"; a thing she just somehow went along with. Upon marriage, she relocated to Cebu and this is why she is often thought to be a native Cebuana.

Ramsey decided to try her luck again in Manila after giving birth to her third child. " I told my mother to give me one year in Manila. Pag hindi ako bumalik sa isang taon, dalawang lugar lang nila ako hahanapinsa Bilibid o sa sementeryo." Her thirst for adventure and wanderlust are things she says she probably got from her father. That, and her love of song and sense of rhythm. "He is Jamaican; my father is from Kingston, Jamaica," she reasons.

So, she sailed again for Manila. "Baka sakali lang manalo sa amateur singing contest," she says. And this she did in 1958 in the popular tv show Student Canteen hosted by Leila Benitez, Eddie Ilarde and Bobby Ledesma. "I was discovered by Rey Pangan, Chiquito’s brother, singing in a restaurant. Tinakbo niya ako sa Student Canteen. I sang ‘Ragmop’ and won. Miracle talaga ang panalo ko sa Student Canteen! Hiningi ko yan kay Jesus of Nazareth."

After winning in Student Canteen, Ramsey was immediately offered a slot at the Manila Grand Opera House where, after a short stint, she was quickly grabbed by Don Jose Zarah, the Spanish Portuguese impresario who reigned at the rival theater, Clover. Ramsey spent a glorious seven years at the Clover, ruling as the Queen of Rock and Roll, a title given to her by the members of the press during the time. Performing with Ramsey at the Clover were the Reycard Duet, Eddie Mesa, the Elvis Presley of the Philippines, comedians like Aruray, Casmot and Balot. She would also appear on TV whenever Don Jose Zarah would send his talents to whatever station asked.

Stage shows at the Clover were held daily, at 1 pm, 5 pm and 9 pm. "Ang baon ko noon, kanin at tuyo. Kahit na may pera na ako, ganun pa rin. Hindi ako lumalabas para kumain habang lahat ng tao duon lumalabas. Ako, kumakain sa backstage. Lahat ng suweldo ko, except for pamasahe, pinapadala ko sa mama ko, sa pamilya ko."

Looking at my mother, once when I was young, I thought here’s this beautiful woman who should be like the queen of the home." She had Spanish blood, was fair and had straight hair, says Ramsey of her mother. "Inisip ko, dapat reyna siya at ang gagawin lang niya ay kunin yung pera ko. Ako ang magiging lalake at kikita ng pera." And that is what Ramsey did. "Namatay ang nanay ko maligaya."

"Naging Queen of Rock and Roll ako dahil sa National Press Club," she recalls. She returned the favor by furnishing entertainment for parties and programs the NPC held for a period of 18 years. "Tinutulungan ko sila pasayahin ang gabi. Pag kailangan ng jugglers or magicians, I would take care of getting them for the NPC, and for free!" This she also did for the US Veterans office, she says.

She did her share of performing for US soldiers in American bases here and even got to sing on the USS Enterprise for wounded American Vietnam Vets. As early as 1961, she began performing in Las Vegas and different parts of the the USA. "I met Sammy Davis and he called me his Baby! He said this lady is full of gold! I was the first Filipino to become a star in the Philippine Festival Las Vegas production of Steve Parker, asawa yan ni Shirley McClaine. This was at the Jones Hotel. Harry Belafonte, when he heard that I was Jamaican, held a special show just for me. Kasi parehong time yung shows namin noon, kaya hindi ko siya mapanood. He said he would have an extra show just for me and even had us fetched."

Ramsey is much in demand as performer in concerts for Filipino communities abroad. She is loudly cheered and gets standing ovations whenever she sings. She immigrated to the USA sometime in the 1980s with daughter Jaya who she says is the fruit of a relationship she had after she was widowed. It was a hard life, she says, spent mostly living in garages and transferring from place to place. Occasionally, she would get bookings to perform but still it was difficult.

In a concert in San Francisco with Pilita Corrales, Carmen Soriano, Bert "Tawa" Marcelo, Ramsey appeared with Jaya who astounded Pilita with her singing. "I didn’t want anyone but Jaya to be my emcee," Ramsey explains. "Ayoko na si Bert Tawa ang mag-introduce sa akin kasi lagi niya akong sinasambit sa pangit at unggoy. Ayoko ko nang nababastos. Kilala na kasi ako sa America and they love me so much."

The rest is history, as Ramsey says. Pilita brought Jaya to the Philippines where she has come into her own as a top recording star and pop diva.

No doubt, Jaya’s fame has done much for Ramsey’s career which of late has been a non-stop merry-go-round of tv guestings and appearances in live concerts and shows all over. Though she may not be a millionaire, she enjoys wealth of another kind.

"Maligayang maligaya ang buhay ko!" she declares. "I do not depend on my children. I was mother and father to them. I live in my own apartment. Lumang apartment nga lang, may squatters sa tabi. Sometimes this worries Jaya but I tell her I get along well with people. Nobody bothers me."

"Maayos ang buhay ko, maayos ang bahay ko. Kung magulo ang bahay, magulo din ang buhay," Ramsey says. "May isang kuwarto ako na para sa altar ko. You should see it." For more than 40 years, Ramsey has lovingly cared for a collection of more than 100 religious images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus and other saints as well as another 100 images of the Santo Niño. All in all, she has over 200 in her altar, each with its bouquet of flowers. "I’m not religious," she says. "I just love Jesus."

Ageless, feisty, spunky, courageous and outrageous are words that fit Ramsey to a tee. Four nights ago, she floored audiences at the Hard Rock Café in Malate with an impromptu performance. "Nakalimutan ko edad ko! Kumanta ako ng "Kansas City", tapos "You Mean Everything to Me" then a rock and roll medley–"Rock Around the Clock", "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and "Flip, Flop and Fly". Tapos, standing ovation! Naaalala ko, teka, naka-tatlo na akong kanta. Di naman ako binabayaran dito. So I said, Thanks, I gotta go!"

She got off the stage to thunderous applause and shouts of "More! More!" Above the din, she heard, to her pleasure, "Matanda na yan pero tingnan mo kung tumira!"

Indeed, this girl’s still got rhythm–and a whole lot of laughs.

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