From dream palace to ruins: The life and death of Manila's grand movie houses 2
Post-WWII ruins of State Theater seen in the distance. Photograph by John Tewell

From dream palace to ruins: The life and death of Manila's grand movie houses

They were seven of the country's foremost movie destinations and they were also architectural wonders. We look back at the life these 'popcorn palaces' lived and the dreams they inspired. 
Isidra Reyes | Feb 03 2020

Three Hundred Years in A Convent, Fifty Years in Hollywood. That was how the late Carmen Guerrero Nakpil brilliantly encapsulated the colonial history of the Filipino people. After more than 300 years of indoctrination by Catholic priests in the churches, convents, and schools that they built throughout the archipelago, the Filipinos, while remaining largely Catholic in faith, readily embraced the mystery, allure, and spectacle of Hollywood cinema—which their new American colonial masters used as a tool of benevolent assimilation together with the public school system and the introduction of the English language. 

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The introduction of cinema in the Philippines was made possible by the building of the very first electrical power plant  in Manila in 1895. As recounted by film historians, the new energy source prompted astute entrepreneurs to import film projection equipment. In 1896, La Estrella Del Norte ordered from France a 60 mm. Gaumont chronomatographe with sound amplifiers for a certain Señor Francisco Pertierra. On January the following year, Señor Pertierra presented a program billed as Espectaculo Scientifico de Pertierra, a collection of short films, mostly French, held at Salon Pertierra at No. 12 Escolta. 

Not long after, the first Lumiere cinematograph and several Lumière films were brought in by Spanish businessman, Señor Antonio Ramos, which were first screened by Swiss entrepreneurs, Leibman and Peritz, at a makeshift movie hall at the jewelry shop of Félix y Emmanuel Ullmann at 31 Escolta September, also of 1897.  Two months after, Leibman and Peritz moved the screenings to Plaza de Goiti. 

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Some of the Rufino family’s cinema palaces at Rizal Ave., Santa Cruz, Manila: Grand Theater, State Theater, and Avenue Theater. Source: Art Deco in the Philippines

During the Filipino-American War, no announcements of film screenings appeared in local publications. It was only in 1902 when cinemas resumed regular screenings at the time America was stabilizing its stronghold over its new colony. 

In the early days, European films lorded it over American films. As recounted by Nick Deocampo in Film: American Influences on Philippine Cinema, “European producers chose Manila as their venue to premier their prized film spectaculars while the best that America could send to its new colony were ‘junk’ films.” 

But all that would change with the coming of WWI, when production of European films were stalled. Thereafter, with increased Americanization of Filipinos, Hollywood films won over European films in the hearts of Filipino moviegoers, a love affair which continues today in the age of mall cineplexes, Netflix, and downstreaming.

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Views of Central Tower of Capitol Theater, circa 2010s.

To screen these film spectaculars, the so-called “Popcorn Palaces” were built. Evolving from viewing halls such as the Salon de Pertierra and the Cine Walgrah to converted, ill-ventilated warehouses, basements, or bodegas like the Cine Orpheum and Cine Cervantes, to theaters for the performing arts such as the Circulo Teatro Zorilla and the Manila Grand Opera House,  these evolved into film palaces beautifully designed by foremost architects of the period highlighted by murals, sculpture, and grillwork created by equally renowned artists of the time. Indeed, watching movies in the Golden Age of Cinema was a total experience where one could enter a “palace” and lose oneself in make-believe worlds for the price of a movie ticket and a bag of popcorn. 

These palaces started out as structures likened by the architect and heritage conservationist, architectural and art historian Gerard Lico to “a box with a decorated facade...with dark and sparsely ornamented main viewing hall.” Lico will be opening an exhibit this week at Archivo 1984 Gallery which spotlights the structure of these theaters that premiered films the likes of Gerardo de Leon’s Liwayway ng Kalayaan (1944, Ideal Theater), Warner Brothers’ 20 Million Sweethearts (1934, Capitol Theatre), and many more. 

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The neon lights of Rizal Avenue growing dimmer.

For the show, Lico constructs detailed scale models of the facades of seven theaters: Ideal, Capitol, Lyric, Bellevue, Radio, State, and Life. The exhibit is in line with the launch of the second edition of Lico’s book, “Pa[ng]labas,” an extensive read on local cinema spaces and its significance in rousing the public consumption of film. 



First established in 1908 at Nos. 29-31 Plaza de Goiti, Santa Cruz, Manila, Ideal Theater was earlier known as Cinematografo Ideal, or Cine Ideal in short, the flagship theater of the Roces family’s Ideal Moving Picture Company. The company initially screened European and American movies just like its three other theaters, Patria, Metropolitan, and Magallanes. Then considered as “elegante y favorecido cinematografo,” according to Nick Deocampo’s aforementioned book, Cine Ideal‘s debut presentation was Amor sublime,  followed by a selection of European movies such as  Un monsieur qui ne peut pas s’asseoir (The Man Who Could Not Sit Down, 1909),  Max Linder’s  Max est distrait (1910),  and La Savelli (1911), starring Madeleine Roche of the Comédie Française.  

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Ideal Theater, circa 1939. Showing was Let Freedom Ring (1939). Source: The Architectural Legacy of Pablo S. Antonio

In 1912,  Cine Ideal transferred to a wooden building at Avenida Rizal which was later renovated to suit the acoustic requirements of talking pictures, after Cine Ideal acquired exclusive rights to screen movies produced by Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) in 1927.  In 1933, Roces Hermanos, Inc. was incorporated by the Roces brothers— Alejandro, Marcos, and Rafael—for the purpose of continuing the family’s  theater business.  In the same year, Roces Hermanos, Inc. commissioned Architect Pablo S. Antonio (whose wife , Marina del Rosario Reyes, was first cousin of the Roces brothers and a niece of their mother, Inocencia Reyes), to design the new Ideal Theater. It was the first movie theater ever designed by Antonio.  

Built on the site of the former Cine Ideal along Rizal Avenue adjacent to the Roces Building, the new Ideal Theater effectively catapulted Antonio’s career as an architect. Designed in the then au courant Streamlined Moderne Style, a variant of Art Deco, Antonio’s reinforced concrete film palace was described byLico in his essay, “Antonio’s Architecture of Spectatorship,” in the monograph, The Architectural Legacy of Pablo S. Antonio, as “modern, virile, mechanistic, and uncorrupted by unnecessary ornaments.” Lico adds: “The Ideal Theater had a very tenacious geometric presence of Art Deco. The overall external volumetry evokes the stepped qualities of a Sumerian ziggurat that have been transcoded in the language of Art Deco. Two massive pillars define and flank the entrance, indenting a central plane articulated with vertical bands in graduated heights and pinnacled with triangulated zigzag ornaments. All floor levels were defined by horizontal concrete balcony projections that were punctured with rectangular holes in a series suggestive of a film strip. The result was a daring iconic edifice of entertainment never before seen at (the) time.”  A plan of its Orchestra Floor shows a seating capacity of 1,009.  

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Ideal Theater lobby, circa 1950s. Source: Alex Del Rosario Castro

During the Japanese Occupation, Ideal Theater screened first-run Japanese films, mostly war propaganda. It was here where the Japanese war propaganda film, Yutaka Abe’s and Gerardo de Leon’s Dawn of Freedom/Liwayway ng Kalayaan (1944), was screened. 

Unknown to the Japanese, until a Filipino double agent named Franco Vera Reyes infiltrated the group, clandestine meetings of the guerilla movement were held in a dark room at the Ideal Theater led by Roces scion, Rafael “Liling” Roces, Jr.  Liling was later arrested on March 2, 1944 and executed by the Japanese Imperial Army along with fellow members of the guerilla movement, among whom were Juan Miguel Elizalde, Enrico Pirovano, and Jose Mañosa, in the infamous massacre at the Manila North Cemetery in August 1944.  Among the personal effects found in the massacre site was Liling’s key to his office at the Ideal Theater. 

With the dearth of new films to screen regularly, the management was forced to switch to vaudeville shows and engaged the services of Lou Salvador, Sr. and his troupe of entertainers until May 1945 when it started showing pictures from the United States Army Film Exchange, as recounted in Vicente Salumbides’ seminal history of Philippine Cinema entitled Motion Pictures in the Philippines.

The Ideal’s interiors were torched by the Japanese during the Battle of Manila but the sturdy reinforced concrete structure remained standing. Post-War rehabilitation of the Ideal Theater came immediately after the Liberation along with other theaters in Manila, no small thanks to audiences long-starved of Hollywood pictures during the war years.  

Ideal Theater was again renovated and expanded from 1954-1955 by Architect Pablo S. Antonio with a seating capacity of 700 in the Ground Floor, 60 in Loge, and 255 in the Balcony. The theater was fully air-conditioned with an inviting fragrance which lured moviegoers to its beautiful lobby which had a marine aquarium that featured a lion fish as side attraction. 

Veteran entertainment writer and columnist, Ronaldo K. Constantino, fondly remembers the Post-War Ideal Theater in his article, “Missing Ideal Theater,” published in The Philippine Star in March 2016:  “It was clean, cool, comfortable, showing MGM movies, plus [it had] handsome ushers in military-like uniforms, complete with white gloves…(I remember) watching the retrospective of Greta Garbo movies, among other MGM classics...those fabulous MGM musicals, one of which was (“MGM’s Top Technicolor Musical,” Vincente Minelli’s) The Band Wagon (1953) on ‘panoramic wide screen.’”

Movie premieres in those days were grand affairs. A fashion show featuring top models, socialites, beauty queens, and actresses wearing creations by Ramon Valera, New Yorker, Karlos Burgos, Madonna, Nena Lapuz, and Carolina’s was staged at the Ideal Theater at the premiere of the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton starrer, The VIPs (1963). Writer, Myles A. Garcia, in his article, “My Manila Movie Memories,” published in the online magazine, Positively Filipino, recalls a moment in the theater’s history: “Ideal’s social climax, its historical highpoint, (was) the Manila premiere of (Carlo Ponti’s production of David Lean’s) Dr. Zhivago in December 1965.  It was a big gala event with the new, still unsullied First Lady, Imelda Marcos, in attendance.”

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Ticket to a reshowing of William Wyler’s Ben Hur on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of Ideal Theater. Source: Big Boy

In her article, “Mad About the Movies,” published in The Philippine Daily Inquirer, 20 January 2013, columnist Chit Roces reminisces: One of the best things about growing up Roces was having our own cinema, the Ideal, exclusive Philippine exhibitors of MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) movies,” recalls Chit Roces in a 2013 article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. “Among the thrills it gave me and my cousins, aside from the obvious one of getting to watch movies for free, was meeting the likes of Charlton Heston, the epic star of The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben Hur (1959) and the debonair Ricardo Montalban.

“The Ideal offered entertainment for the taking and, for me, a privileged escape into make-believe. I could become Ann Blyth or June Allyson or whoever was playing at the moment. Sometimes, I’d take along a classmate or two and, in the dark and the prized comfort of loge seats, we’d thrill together...My children’s generation, who went to a refurbished and remodeled Ideal, enjoyed yet another privilege, watching advance screenings in the new Preview Room. Alas, in the last years of Martial Law, a blaze burned the Ideal down, never to rise again.”



Originally built in 1935 and designed by National Artist for Architecture Juan F. Nakpil in the then fashionable Art Deco Style, the Capitol Theater, for many years, was one of the architectural and entertainment landmarks of Escolta.  Situated near the corner of Yuchengco St. (formerly Nueva Street) and Escolta, the Capitol Theater was built at the site of the former Barretto Building (later known as Tuason Building after it was acquired by Don Demetrio Tuason), a three-storey architectural landmark built in the Neoclassical Revival Style circa 1870 by pioneering Filipino architect Félix Roxas y Arroyo. Among its anchor tenants was the office and showroom of the Singer Maquinas de Coser, later known as the Singer Sewing Machine Co. According to the same source, the building burned down in the Escolta fire of December 31, 1917. It is uncertain if the building was rebuilt after the fire. 

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Grand Staircase of Post-War Capitol Theater as renovated by Architect Juan F. Nakpil and contractor, A.M. Oreta & Co., with a Mid-Century vibe. Source: A.M. Oreta & Co. Website posted by Lou Gopal in Manila Nostalgia

In 1934, the Eastern Theatrical Enterprises Co., Inc., a corporation owned by the heirs of Demetrio Tuason, along with Jesus N. Lim, Felicisimo R. Feria, and Jose G. Barretto, commissioned Architect Juan F. Nakpil to build Capitol Theater, “Manila’s Most Modern Theater” and “The Showplace of the Nation.” Inaugurated on 9 January 1935 with the showing of the Hollywood musical film, 20 Million Sweethearts (1934), produced by Warner Bros., Capitol Theater showed exclusively first-run Columbia Pictures and Warner Bros. pictures in its earlier years. Just before the war, the Rufino family acquired the controlling interest of Eastern Theatrical Enterprises Co., Inc. from the heirs of Demetrio Tuason.

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Balcony area of Capitol Theater rebuilt in 1947 by Architect Juan F. Nakpil and contractor, A.M. Oreta & Co., with a Mid-Century vibe. Source: A.M. Oreta & Co. Website posted by Lou Gopal in Manila Nostalgia

While few photos of its original Art Deco interiors have survived, the following detailed description written by Architect Lico in his book, Arkitekturang Filipino, gives us a glimpse of the original Capitol Theater’s lost glory:  “the zigurrat-topped Capitol Theater...was symmetrically balanced with a recessed central tower ornamented with geometric Art Deco grillwork. This grillwork, composed of squares overlapped with circles...framed by large square pillars in receding bands that bounded the square top. The vertical planes flanking the central grillwork were an exotic setting for..(bas relief sculptures by the renowned Filipino sculptor, Severino Fabie, featuring) stylized, Modernist figures of Filipinas clad in baro’t saya carrying the symbols of cinema (a theatrical mask, representing Drama) and sound (a lyre, representing Music), respectively, on both sides. 

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Central Tower and marquee of the Pre-War Capitol Theater with central grillwork and bas-relief sculptures by Architect Juan F. Nakpil, 1935. Source: Art Deco in the Philippines

“The facade was designed in a series of setbacks emphasizing the strong and severe geometric form...the central design motif of its interiors was the Philippine National Flower, the Sampaguita..a bunch of budding Sampaguita done in chromium occupied the central design of the grilles of wrought iron of the stairs, lobby, and foyer. At the center of the proscenium arch were Sampaguita flowers in bloom, in white seashell finish, and from then radiated four concentric circles of short bamboo nodes and internodes finished in concrete.” 

The highlight of the Pre-War Capitol Theater lobby was the mural entitled “The Rising New Philippines”(1935), commissioned by the Rufino family. A work by the Triumvirate, a group of artists composed of Galo B. Ocampo. Victorio Edades, and Carlos “Botong” V. Francisco, it was described in a newspaper clipping of the period thus: “The New Philippines is represented by a Filipino woman (holding a film reel) with stretched arm rising above and through the clouds after being born of the combined civilizations of the Orient, of Spain, and of America. 

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The Triumvirate, Carlos “Botong” Francisco, Galo B. Ocampo, and Victorio Edades with sculptor, Severino Fabie, and Architect Juan F. Nakpil before the Triumvirate’s mural, Rising Philippines, at the Capitol Theater Lobby, circa 1935. Source: Edades, National Artist

“On the right hand side of the mural are the Spanish galleon symbolic of the Philippine discovery by Spain; the University of Santo Tomas symbolizing all that Spain has taught the Filipino in the line of science, law, philosophy, and medicine culture; and the Cathedral which symbolizes the teaching of religion which Spain has brought us.  On the left hand side of the mural can be seen the Legislative Building which symbolizes the popular government which America has brought to us; laboring men which symbolizes the dignity of labor which America also taught us; and finally the pictures of Capitol Theatre, the steamer, and the airplane symbolize the material prosperity which was made possible by America’s presence in the Philippines.  The Filipino nipa shack below represents all the Oriental contributions in the making of the new Philippines: from the fusion of the two great Occidental nations combined with the Oriental culture emerged the New Philippines.”  

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The Post-WWII ruins of Capitol Theater housed various establishments, among them the Silver Slipper Bar.

Unfortunately, this mural, along with the Capitol Theater’s  beautiful Art Deco interiors, were destroyed during World War II. For a time during the Liberation, the ruins of the Capitol Theater were used to house the Silver Slipper Club, a nightspot which catered largely to American soldiers out for a night of fun.

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The Rufinos with Hollywood legend John Wayne.

Along with  Lyric Theater, also in Escolta,  Capitol Theater was rebuilt in 1947 by contractor, A. M. Oreta & Co., with a Mid-Century Modern vibe. It continued to be a first-run movie theater run by the Rufino family, showing  both Hollywood movies and occasionally, Filipino blockbuster movies. Local productions even shot there, including a scene in the lost Elwood Perez classic, Divorce Pilipino Style (1976).  It survived the 1970s to the 1980s until viewership in stand-alone theaters suffered a sharp decline with the coming of videotapes, cable television, DVDs, video piracy, and mall cinemas.  The formerly posh Capitol Theater suffered a fate similar to other stand-alone cinemas when it began to show double programs and Chinese Kung-fu movies. It was converted to a resto-bar; and in recent years was acquired by a businessman who entered into a joint venture with  developer, Ascott Resources Development Corporation (ARDC), with an aim to redevelop the property into a high-rise building. The Capitol has since been almost totally demolished except for the central tower and facade which shall hopefully be integrated into the upcoming structure. Efforts by our government cultural agencies—the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the National Museum (NM)—to coordinate with the developer and contractor to ensure that the facade shall be preserved in its original state have proven to be challenging, to say the least. 



Like the Capitol Theater, the Lyric Theater, in its heyday, was owned and operated by the Rufino family’s Eastern Theatrical Co., Inc. Previously, however, Lyric Theater was first built on a lot along Escolta. Inaugurated on June 3, 1917, El Teatro Lirico, as it was then known, was considered one of the most modern in the entire Philippine archipelago, according to an article published in Cine Mundial, a Spanish language movie magazine.  According to the publication, the Beaux-Arts Style building with a pediment highlighted by a group sculpture of classical maidens in haute relief, was made almost entirely of reinforced concrete, save for its gallery which was made of Philippine hardwood, and cost P50,000 to build. Among the memorable movies which were screened here, though belatedly, was D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916).

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The neon lights of Escolta: Lyric, Capitol, Rebullida, Oceanic. Source: Manuel Ligon

In 1923, the Beaux Arts style gave way to a Neo-Mudejar Style Lyric Theater designed by Philippine-born Spanish architect Fernando de la Cantera. Lyric Theater was described by Architect Gerard Lico in his book, Arkitekturang Filipino, thus: “the facade featured a wide central bay bounded by smaller bays on both sides, segmented by protruding pilasters pinnacled by finials. The middle bay was defined by pointed Islamic arch windows, which were further delineated by bell-shaped emblems at the center.”  A color postcard from the era shows the facade painted pink, gray, and white highlighted with gold-painted architectural details. 

It was in this incarnation of the Lyric Theater where the first real talkies were screened. As recounted in Agustin Sotto’s and Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr.’s essay, “Philippine Film: 1897-1945,” in the CCP Encyclopedia of Art, Vol. 6, Film, “on 12 October 1929 (after the rather disappointing screening of Fred Waring’s Pennsylvania Syncopation at the Radio Theater), Leon Britton, a British Engineer, arrived in Manila with 35 cases of equipment and 35,000 feet of film. The next day, he presented a program of optically recorded sound films at the Lyric Theater:  The Rainbow Man (1929), Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) starring Buster Keaton, and The Marionettes of the Opera.  On January 1, 1933, the premiere of Manila Talkatone Studio’s Ang Aswang (dir. by George Musser, 1933), Philippine Cinema’s “first Filipino-Spanish all-talking picture,” was held at the Lyric Theater.

By 1937, the theater was up for a make-over. As recounted by Lico in his essay, “Antonio’s Architecture of Spectatorship,” published in The Architectural Legacy of Pablo S. Antonio, 1901-1975:  “Under the hands of Pablo Antonio, the exotic Mudejar-styled Lyric Theater in Escolta, Manila had to cast off its garish and eclectic Arabic historicism in favor of this new streamlined ideology of the Machine Age for a rigorous makeover in 1937.  The design of the building was way beyond its time and seemed to anticipate the tenets of High Modernism in the mid-century.  

The building seems to soar upwards with a series of rounded pillars alternated by glass windows and then deeply recedes at the topmost level to emphasize depth in an otherwise flat facade. The monotony of the planar facade was mitigated by carefully placed concrete undulating ornaments, egg crate brise soleil (sun baffles), projecting slab disc(s), and machine-like, neon-lighted marquee with projecting eaves--creating a futuristic-looking composition.”  

As recounted in the same source, “the reopening of the Lyric Theater (which coincided with the Manila premiere of RKO Radio Pictures’ Hollywood musical,  Shall We Dance (1937) starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) was hailed in the May 1937 issue of The American Chamber of Commerce Journal: ‘No expense has been spared to make the Lyric, at last, a talking picture air-cooled theater rivalling the best in town. The air-conditioning installation is said to be the largest in Manila...It is now luxurious downstairs and up, the one detail not rebuilt being the projection room. This is the third building of the Lyric.  Let it bear a charm.’”  

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Escolta on a neon-lit night. In the foreground is the Capitol Theater with Lyric Theater further down.

In 1939, Lyric Theater was purchased by Eastern Theatrical Co., Inc. then already entirely owned by the Rufino family, from People’s Bank and Trust Co.  Lyric Theater was the home of first-run Warner Bros. pictures from the 1930s until 1970.  Warner Bros. presented a plaque of recognition to the Rufinos with the following inscription: “In tribute to Rufino Brothers (Ernesto, Vicente, and Rafael). Gratefully presented by Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc. on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of modern talking pictures, for their distinguished service in presenting the finest in film entertainment through the years.  Harry M., Jack L., and Albert Warner, 1952.”

According to Vicente Salumbides’ Motion Pictures in the Philippines, Lyric Theater sustained some damage during WWII.  But through the efforts and resourcefulness of the Rufino siblings, the Lyric, which was the least damaged of their cinemas,  was immediately rebuilt and in December 1945 was reopened to the public. More extensive repairs and renovation works were done by Pablo S. Antonio in 1947 with A.M. Oreta & Co., Inc. as building contractor. But while the Lyric Theater survived WWII, it succumbed to the arrival of modern movie-watching technology. Lyric Theater closed down, the property was sold, and on its site rose the JY Square Mall which also eventually closed down.



Another movie palace designed in the Neo-Mudejar Style is Bellevue Theater at Calle Herran (now Pedro Gil Street), Paco, Manila. It was built by Shanghai-based  Spanish architect Abelardo Lafuente y Garcia-Rojo, Jr.

Bellevue Theater was owned by Dr. Jose Eduque, UP College of Medicine Professor and concurrently Chief Surgeon and Chairman of the Department of Surgery of the Philippine General  Hospital. He was married to the former Germana Ascue Martinez of Balayan, Batangas by whom he had three children: Armando “Mandy”(killed by a sniper during WWII and first husband of Elvira Ledesma who later married Dr. Constantino P. Manahan), Valentin “Tito” (the basketball legend married to Inday Vargas) and Elsie (later married to a Tabora). Dr. Eduque owned at least two other theaters in Manila, Elite and Prince.

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Aerial shot of Bellevue Theater, Calle Herran (Pedro Gil Street), Paco, Manila. Abelardo Lafuente y Garcia-Rojo, architect. Source: Gerard Lico

Described by Gerard Lico as “a small theater (which) adopted Philippine Islamic imagery (perhaps borrowing inspiration from the Moorish architecture of the Alhambra Palace, the tradition of Moro-Moro theatrical scenography or the Orientalist imagery seen in movies), (the Bellevue Theater) was symmetrical, with a center plane of elaborate concrete pierced work dominating the building’s composition and flanked by two rectangular volumes topped with domes on both sides. At ground level, the cinema opened to a small foyer that led to a pseudo-grand staircase, which was (flanked) on both sides by sculptures of harem maidens. At street level, two emergency doors (enhanced) the façade with pointed arches on opposite sides.”

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Gilt image of a harem maiden at the Bellevue Theater. Source: Gerard Lico

Bellevue survived WWII as seen in a photo taken after the Battle of Manila in 1945 and was later operated by William E. Gruenberg (1916-1968), a former 1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Army and a WWII veteran from Tennessee. The Bellevue continued to be run as a neighborhood theater in Paco showing mostly second-run double programs and Chinese Kung-fu movies until its theatrical operations ceased and the building was leased to third parties and housed shops selling jeans, used clothing,  and housewares.  The building still stands and now houses the Super 8 Grocery Warehouse. It is the only remaining stand-alone movie theater building in Paco, Manila.



The introduction of talking pictures to Philippine moviegoers came with the premiere of Fred Waring’s  Pennsylvanians in Syncopation on August 1929 at the Radio Theater in Plaza Santa Cruz. This was achieved by synchronizing phonograph records with the film — but the sound was faint and muffled in parts.  As expected, the audience complained.  Radio Theater stood on the site of the former New Paris Hotel and Restaurant and Lux and Majestic Theaters and according to Lico in his essay, “Popcorn Palaces,” in the book, Art Deco in the Philippines, had a major impact on the design of cinemas. “It eliminated the  need for an orchestra pit and full stage facilities for live accompaniment and live show intermissions. The pulsating facades of the new cinemas were also an expression of sound. Radio Theater demonstrated this tendency with a soaring ziggurat-like facade embellished by bas-reliefs of cubistic human figures constituting a jazz quartet whose propulsive rhythm was expressed through a series of concentric circles penetrated by sharp and stylized thunderbolts and waveforms.”

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Art Deco facade of Radio Theater in Plaza Santa Cruz where talking pictures were first introduced in the Philippines with the premiere of Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians in Syncopation on 2 August 1929. It stood on the former sites of the Lux nd Majestic Theaters and had a major impact on the design of cinemas in the Art Deco Style. Source: Art Deco in the Philippines

Over time Radio Theater underwent further incarnations and transformations.  It was Cine Oro shortly before WWII; Cine Astor (ran by a certain Henry Yang) after WWII; then finally Savoy Theater in the 1960s. Adjacent to the Monte de Piedad Building at Plaza Santa Cruz (1938), its site is now occupied by the MBI Building.



State Theater, located at Rizal Avenue, Santa Cruz, Manila, was first built in 1935 by Architect Juan Nakpil, one of the foremost architects of some of the poshest cinema palaces of Pre- and Post-War Era Manila and Makati, among which were Capitol Theater, Avenue Theater, EVER Theater, Gaiety Theater, and Rizal Theater, all owned and operated by the Rufino family’s Eastern Theatrical Co., Inc. and Luzon Theaters, Inc. 

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Murals on the subject of Philippine Indigenous Music commissioned from the Triumvirate--Carlos “Botong” Francisco, Galo B. Ocampo, and Victorio Edades--for the State Theater lobby. Source: Edades, National Artist

Its Art Deco Style facade featured ornate grillework with stylized coconut palm motifs, a cartouche on its pediment surrounded by salakot motifs and stylized carabao heads flanking it, all done in high and low reliefs. Other highlights were murals on the subject of Philippine indigenous music, commissioned by Juan F. Nakpil, by the Triumvirate Edades, “Botong” Francisco, and Galo Ocampo. “The work covered the entire wall of the second floor, which led to the loge section,” said the book, Edades, National Artist. “It showed an Igorot woman beating a drum, a man playing a nose flute, and floating figures of women.”  

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Murals on the subject of Philippine Indigenous Music commissioned from the Triumvirate--Carlos “Botong” Francisco, Galo B. Ocampo, and Victorio Edades--for the State Theater lobby. Source: Edades, National Artist

Home of first-run Twentieth Century Fox pictures, the State Theater was one of the premiere movie palaces along Rizal Avenue.  Among the Hollywood films shown at the State Theater were John Cromwell’s The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), James Whale’s The Man in the Iron Mask (1939), and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), shown shortly before the onslaught of WWII in the Philippines.  

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Print ad for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) shown at the State Theater. Source: Cesar Hernando

Damaged during WWII , State Theater was rebuilt in 1946 and was already fuIly air conditioned. The theater seated 708 in the Orchestra, 242 in the Balcony, and 64 in the loge area. According to Cary Rufino, as relayed through his cousin, Marivic, State Theater’s original theater proper was on the ground floor and was only moved to the second floor after the theater was rebuilt in 1946. Also from the same source, Vicente Rufino, President of Luzon Theaters, Inc. and General Manager of Eastern Theatrical Company, Inc. held office at the State Theater Building as did film distributor,  MEVER Films, Inc., headed by Johnny Litton, son-in-law of Ernesto Rufino, Sr.  Just like its neighboring theaters along Rizal Avenue, the State Theater succumbed to competition from mall theaters and the construction of LRT1 along Rizal Avenue.



Pablo S. Antonio's Life Theater (1941), commissioned by Dr. Teofilo Villonco, was a first class theater totally dedicated to first-run Filipino movies. The Villonco family was the V in LVN Pictures, which was founded in 1938 by three families, L for De Leon (Doña Narcisa "Sisang" B. de Leon), V for Villonco (Carmen Villonco), and N for Navoa (Eleuterio Navoa,Jr.). It opened in 1941 with Gerry de Leon's Ang Maestra (1941), starring Rogelio de la Rosa and Rosa del Rosario. It was a highly successful film and paved the way for the showing of more Filipino films in first class theaters along with Hollywood movies.  The management of Life Theater, in fact, was so proud of its distinction that a large neon sign installed atop its roof proudly announced: “Life, Home of LVN, Sampaguita, Premiere, X’Otic Pictures.”  From 1955, however, Life Theater was the venue of Sampaguita Pictures movie premieres with Doña Sisang's Dalisay Theater showing mostly LVN Pictures releases.  

From dream palace to ruins: The life and death of Manila's grand movie houses 23
Life Theater was built in 1941, shortly before WWII came to the Philippines. Designed by Architect Pablo S. Antonio, the Theater was commissioned by Dr. Teofilo Villonco. Photo by Carl Mydans enhanced by John Tewell.

As described in The Architectural Legacy of Pablo S. Antonio, 1901-1975, "Pablo Antonio's design for the Life Theater exemplifies his formal yet playful fusion of design elements which underscore the fantastic allure of cinema. The Spartan white facade fuses Art Deco Streamlining with Neoclassical references with its exaggeratedly scaled round columns tipped by conical finials." 

Badly damaged during WWII, Life Theater was rebuilt by Architect Antonio after the war to accommodate a seating capacity of 1,144  (Loge-94; Balcony-265; Orchestra-785). On September 17, 1948, Life Theater, Inc., a family corporation headed by Romeo Villonco, was organized to continue the theater business of their late father, Dr. Teofilo Villonco, who passed away April 1947.  Apart from Life Theater, the Villoncos likewise owned  Palace Theater at Ronquillo Street, Quiapo, Manila and Cathay Theater at Gandara Street, Binondo, Manila.  

When the trend shifted from stand-alone to mall cinemas, Life Theater was closed, renamed as the T. (Teofilo) Villonco Bldg. and was run as a shopping arcade.  In recent years, the Life Theater/T. Villonco Building was sold by the Villonco family and demolished, save for its facade.  According to reports posted in social media, on its site will rise Fonix Center, a 33-storey commercial building just behind Quiapo Church.

From dream palace to ruins: The life and death of Manila's grand movie houses 24
Colorized photo of a rebuilt Life Theater after WWII showing a rerun of Lives of A Bengal Lancer (1935) starring Gary Cooper. Photo by Carl Mydans colorized by Homer Fernandez

The exodus of businesses from Escolta, Binondo, and Santa Cruz, Manila towards the Makati Business District, and the Post-War urban sprawl to the suburbs dealt a heavy blow to Manila’s Popcorn Palaces.  New and more accessible theaters sprouted in the suburbs: Rizal Theater, the QUAD, and Magallanes Theater  in Makati; Greenhills Theater in San Juan; and New Frontier, Nation, Remar, Coronet, Diamond, Grand, Circle, and Delta Theaters, among others, in Quezon City.  Thereafter came LRT-1 which hastened the decline and plunge into darkness of the once vibrant Rizal Avenue theater district. Rising real estate prices, real property taxes, maintenance costs, and the need to distribute inheritance to co-heirs have made disposing and demolishing these crumbling theaters more practicable for some theater owners. Among the buildings named above, only the Bellevue stands but we don’t know for how much longer.  It is not even a theater now but a Super 8 Warehouse.

In his requiem to the Popcorn Palaces of yore, Gerard Lico lamented:  “Television and video technology shifted our attention from the delights of the silver screen. The super malls and multiplexes have made the cinema palaces obsolete and forgotten. The once magnificent architecture of fantasy is now deteriorating and crumbling. The last remaining seats inside are infested with mites and prostitutes. They are mere relics of nostalgia. The curtain might have fallen on those glorious edifices, but the spirit of the Filipino cineaste has not died down. The mechanic hum of the projection room and the faint sound of the audience’s laughter still seemed to reverberate through its cavernous auditorium, saying that once upon a time, it was a place where dreams were born.”