The surprising, inspiring story of how the Met was built 2
Group of Filipino entertainers in Filipino costume pose in front of The Manila Metropolitan Theater during the Japanese Occupation, early 1940s. Photograph from Big Boy

The surprising, inspiring story of how the Met was built

While the public awaits for the NCCA to deliver on its promise--to restore the Metropolitan Theater to its former glory--we recall the beginnings of this national pride, and how it was characterized by a coming together of Manila's haves and have-littles, and an aspiration to be at par with the best in the world
Isidra Reyes | Apr 30 2019

It was 39 years ago when I first stepped into the Metropolitan Theater.  I was a 19-year-old college student taking up B.S. Psychology Pre-Med and to spice up my humdrum student life, I decided to audition for a role in a joint musical production of Dulaang U.P. and the U.P. Concert Chorus. The musical play was entitled Ms. Philippines, a parody of the Filipinos’ fascination for beauty pageants and the trials contestants undergo to win the coveted crown. I did not sing or dance too well and was surprised I did not only pass the auditions but got three roles: a model, a judge, and a callgirl!

They were not major roles but I was honored to be working with esteemed theater director, Tony Mabesa of Dulaang U.P.; Professor Rey Paguio of the U.P. Concert Chorus; Professor Isagani Cruz who wrote the libretto; choreographers Douglas Nierras and Rene Hofileña; and singers and actors Cris Vertido, Dodo Crisol, Nanette Inventor, Bing Pimentel, and U.P. Concert Chorus members Dot Balasbas, Kata Inocencio, and Noel Silverio. A young Floy Quintos, who would later become a renowned writer, director, and antique collector, was our wardrobe master.

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After a successful run at U.P. Diliman’s Abelardo Hall and U.P. Los Baños, the production was off to the Metropolitan Theater which was then newly restored to its former splendor. The first thing which impressed me was the magnificent Art Deco architecture which must have awakened my interest in the Art Deco Style. The Met was well-run by its Executive Director, Conchita Sunico and her staff, including her protegé, the young Boy Abunda. Director Tony Mabesa served as Artistic Director from 1979 to 1982.

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Manila Metropolitan Theater. Architect Juan M. Arellano, 1931.

Our production was upgraded to Met standards, with beautiful sets, costumes, and additional cast members, among them Mitch Valdés, Chiqui Hollmann, the famous People’s Journal movie writer, Giovanni Calvo, and  real beauty queens and fashion models such as Ana Lorraine Kier and Susan Africa, whom Tita Conching personally picked from her coterie of Karilagan models.  

Performing at the Met was a joy, even if it meant commuting daily from our Makati office to Liwasang Bonifacio, then going home at midnight riding jeepneys to our New Manila home. Working within its walls awakened my interest in its history and in American Colonial Era architecture. It was then I began to discover the fascinating history of the fabled Metropolitan Theater leading to its restoration in 1978.


One peso lease for 99 years

As recounted in Cristina Laconico Buenaventura’s The Theater in Manila, 1846-1946, the Metropolitan Theater was conceived due to a need for a world-class national theater for the performing arts, something worthy of 1920s era Manila with its growing reputation as a cosmopolitan city, its people steeped in the appreciation of arts and culture. The Manila Grand Opera House was by then already outdated, and movie houses, no matter how posh and new, just would not do, especially for bigger productions like grand operas and concerts.  

Spearheading the project to build a theater was then Manila Mayor Tomas Earnshaw who formed a committee composed of U.P. President Rafael Palma, Miss Evelyn Thorstensen, Sacanas Pecas, and P. Pablo Balades, especially for the purpose of deciding on the theater name. Soon after the committee’s first meeting held September 12, 1928, a press release announced that the group had unanimously agreed upon the name Metropolitan Theater.

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Front and rear elevations, The Manila Metropolitan Theater. Source: Arkitekturang Filipino

The project was a cooperative venture between the government and the people. The City of Manila provided the land leased out to the Metropolitan Theater Company at P 1.00 for a period of 99 years, an 8,293 square meter lot which was formerly the flower market of the Mehan Garden. The people, mostly wealthy Manila-based businessmen who organized the Metropolitan Theater Company, would provide capital and expertise.

Heading the corporation were its President and Chairman, Horace B. Pond of Pacific Commercial Co.; Vice President, Antonio Melian of El Hogar Filipino; Treasurer Enrique Zobel (later succeeded by his son, Alfonso R. Zobel) of Ayala y Cia; and board members, U.P. President Rafael Palma, Senator Manuel Camus, businessman J.L. Pierce, and Leopold Kahn of Levy Hermanos, La Estrella del Norte, La Estrella Auto Palace, Alliance Francaise, and the Chambre de Commerce Française. The American Colonial government participated by allowing its consulting architect, Juan M. Arellano, to design the project and to travel to New York to consult with Architect Thomas W. Lamb, one of the foremost designers of theaters and cinemas of his time.

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Officers and members of the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Theater Company headed by President Horace B. Pond, Vice-President Antonio Melian, Treasurer Enrique Zobel de Ayala, succeeding Treasurer Alfonso R. Zobel, and Leopoldo Kahn.

Raising a million pesos to fund the project was a community effort. Fundraising dinners with the Filipino, American, Spanish, French, and Chinese communities in attendance were held and shares of stock were sold to the public at affordable prices: Class A for P 100.00 and Class B for P 5.00 par values. Foreign capitalists offered to finance the project but the local community’s participation was preferred.


Moonlighting as cinema

The Metropolitan Theater was primarily planned as a venue for concerts, operas, and other stage presentations. Due to the increasing popularity of the movies at the time, especially with the advent of the talkies, it was decided that when no such presentations were ongoing, the Metropolitan Theater would be operated as a cinema. In the building’s outer wings would be a restaurant, a bar, a ballroom, shops, and offices—the income from which was projected to bring sufficient returns for the Metropolitan Theater’s investors.

After the cornerstone was laid in February 1929, construction went in full swing with Pedro A. Siochi & Co., Inc. as contractor. The Metropolitan Theater was inaugurated on December 10, 1931 with prominent government leaders, businessmen, professionals, and the culturati in attendance.  Among those who graced the opening were then Senate President Manuel L. Quezon, Interim American Governor General George C. Butte, Speaker of the House of Representatives Sergio Osmena, Sr., Manila Mayor Tomas Earnshaw, U.P. President Rafael Palma, the Archbishop of Manila, officers of various Chambers of Commerce from different countries, and members of Manila’s 400.

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Foreign language films shown at The Manila Metropolitan Theater.

The Inaugural Program, attended by 1,670 music fans, catered to a wide audience. It began with the song, “M’Appri”, by Tito Schirpa of Paramount Movietone, then moved on to violin solos, Albeniz’s Tango  and Pablo Sarasate’s Zapateado by Ernesto Vallejo accompanied by Professor Julio Esteban-Anguita, vocal solos by Señorita Monserrat Iglesias from Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila, The Community Players’ presentation of George Ade’s one-act play, The Mayor and the Manicure and the Circulo Escenico’s presentation of the one-act comedy play, Operacion Quirurgica. The Philippine Constabulary Band played Johann Strauss’ Overture from Die Fledermaus, Sibelius’ Triste, Beethoven’s Turkish March, and Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, ending in the Coronation March from The Prophet, under the baton of Dr. Alexander Lippay.  

The Inaugural Month was highlighted by various social events, such as the Inaugural Ball, the University of the Philippines’ Grand Christmas Concert, and a dance concert featuring the beautiful Spanish dancer, Teresina.

In succeeding months, the Spanish community presented the Metropolitan Revue, which cast 150 society girls in choral numbers, tableaux, short comedy skits, and dance numbers for the benefit of the Hospital Español de Santiago.  Despite comments which complained about the theater’s acoustics, theater and concert lovers still came in droves, with some coming in from the provinces just to see and hear visiting world-class foreign artists such as Polish pianist Arthur Rubinstein, the San Carlo Gran Opera Company, which presented La Traviata, Tosca, Madame Butterfly, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, Lucia di Lammermoor, La Boheme, El Barbero de Seville, Carmen, and I Pagliacci on different nights from November 1 to 15 in 1932, with soprano Valdi and tenor Lorenzo Poerio.

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The cast of the Lucia de Lamermoor which was staged at The Metropolitan Theater on 8 November 1933. Source: The Theater in Manila, 1846-1946

Even more anticipated were returning Filipino artists such as the coloratura soprano Mercedes Matias who performed in El Barbero de Sevilla; Consuelo Felix-Veloso who performed in I Pagliacci; Jose Mossesgeld Santiago who sang Italian, English, Spanish, and Filipino songs with equal aplomb; Prima Donna Isang Tapales who returned to the Philippines in 1937 after gaining acclaim in Europe; and Prima Diva, Jovita Fuentes who performed Madame Butterfly in her native land for the first time opposite the Italian, Adolfo Belloti as Lt. Pinkerton.

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Autographed photo of coloratura soprano Mercedes Matias who performed El Barbero de Sevilla at The Metropolitan Theater. Source: Pablo Tariman

Principal roles in operas were also given to locally trained Filipino talents, and school-based drama groups such as the Ateneo Players’ Guild and the UST Thespians’ Guild were given the chance to perform at the Metropolitan Theater. Ateneo de Manila, then still in Padre Faura, only had a makeshift stage before their 1,000-seat auditorium was completed in 1936. 

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Students of Madam Luva Adameit in Maria Clara dress. Madam Luva Adameit’s students at the Cosmopolitan Ballet and Dancing School performed at The Manila Metropolitan Theater. Source: Tuklas Sining

The art of dance was likewise celebrated at the Metropolitan Theater.  Apart from foreign performers such as the Spanish dancer Teresina, the Russian classical dancer Xenia Zarina, and the dancer and impersonator Alfred Strebel, there were likewise ballet recitals by Madame Luva Adameit’s students, the impressive solo performance by the teenage choreographer and dancer, Leonor Orosa, and the celebrated performances of the Manila Ballet Moderne headed by the Czech-born ballet dancer and teacher, Trudl Dubsky, who would later become the wife of Manila Symphony Orchestra conductor, Herbert Zipper, who succeeded Professor Alexander Lippay upon the latter’s death from a heart attack in Baguio in 1939.  

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Herbert Zipper in a dramatic pose as conductor of the Manila Symphony Orchestra. Source: Lou Gopal

As earlier mentioned, when the Metropolitan Theater was not being used as a performance arts venue, it was used as a movie theater from 1933, screening a wide array of cinematic fare from various countries and in various languages. Among the films shown at the Met in its earlier years were  Frank Capra’s Dirigible (1931), Allan Dwan’s Wicked (1931), Ernst Lubitsch’s Una Hora Contigo (1932), Adolphe Menjou’s Bachelor’s Affairs ((1932), Cecil B. De Mille’s Sign of the Cross (1932), Richard Boleslavsky’s Rasputin and the Empress (1932) and Frank Borzage’s A Farewell to Arms (1932), Mexico Lindo (1938), Jaime Salvador’s Castillos en El Aire (1938), and Andre Hugon’s Le Heros de La Marne (1938).  

Quality Filipino films were likewise screened, among which were Jose Nepomuceno’s Punit na Bandila (1939) starring Fernando Poe, Sr. and Lucita Goyena and Vicente Salumbides’ Florante at Laura (1939) starring Carlos Padilla and Lila Luna.  In July 29, 1939, LVN Pictures’ first feature film, Giliw Ko, directed by Carlos Vander Tolosa and starring Ely Ramos, Fernando Poe, Sr. Mila del Sol, and Fleur de Lis (later known as the great character actress, Mona Lisa), premiered at the Metropolitan Theater with no less than President Manuel L. Quezon and his daughter, Zeneida, in attendance.  


Bod-a-bil takes over

With World War II making its way to the country in December 1941, presentations and movies were temporarily suspended at the theater—but not for long. By mid-1942, it was doing brisk business as a movie house, along with other movie theaters, providing momentary escape from the anxieties of wartime life.  When no new movies were available for showing, vaudeville or bod-a-bil shows took over, featuring native songs and dances, slapstick comedy, acrobat shows, romantic skits, and musical fantasies. The International Revue Company took charge of the theater’s daily presentations with two shows daily. The so-called vaudeville fantasies with titles such as Rancho Grande, Hawaiian Charms, Siamese Fantasy, Pearl of the Orient, and Cuban Fantasy were staged in lieu of Hollywood and Filipino films which were no longer available.  

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Print ad for Dawn of Freedom (1944), a Japanese sponsored propaganda film starring Filipino actors shown at The Manila Metropolitan Theater. Source: Video 48

To cater to their audience with more refined tastes, the bod-a-bil shows were alternated with programs featuring light classical music and operatic arias, which sometimes resulted in embarrassing moments for classical music performers when those who preferred bod-a-bil would boo them and demand for more popular entertainment fare.  

The New Order ushered in the New Philippines Symphony Orchestra which had its inaugural concert at the Metropolitan Theater on July 26, 1942.  The all-Filipino symphony orchestra conducted by Dr. Francisco Santiago played Taga-Ilog, his opus in four movements with 15 year-old Basilio Manalo as violin soloist and Professor Ernesto Vallejo as concertmaster. The Vivaldi and Tschaikovsky concertos which followed were reminiscent of the Pre-War concerts but the playing of Kimigayo, the Japanese national anthem reminded the audience that they were under a new colonial master.


This weekend, the Metropolitan Theater after the war.