The Metropolitan Theater as survivor: from culture oasis to squatters' home and back again 2
L-R: Manila Metropolitan Theater 1978; Manila Metropolitan Theater Executive Director Conchita Sunico & violinist Gilopez Kabayao on the cover of Philippine Panorama, 3 December1978. Source: Nomer Son

The Metropolitan Theater as survivor: from culture oasis to squatters' home and back again

What began as a bastion of haute culture and world-class design, the image of the Metropolitan Theater has not only survived war but undergone many phases. Will it survive its recent controversy?
Isidra Reyes | May 04 2019

Even during the early years of the Japanese occupation, the Metropolitan Theater remained an oasis of culture amidst an atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety. The good turnout for the inaugural concert of the New Philippines Symphony Orchestra in July 1942 was proof of this. The gentlemen were attired in barong tagalog while the ladies came in colorful Balintawak which were previously worn only in excursions to the countryside. Among the young ladies in the concert were Helena Benitez and Lucrecia Kasilag.

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Members of the Volunteer Social Aid Community (VSAC), including future Met Executive Directors, Conchita Chuidian Sunico and Nenita Barrios Manzano, who secretly aided POWs, and guerilla groups by holding benefit shows at the Met.

Unbeknownst to the Japanese military officers in the audience, the young Helena was the founder of the Volunteer Social Aid Community (VSAC) which helped prisoners of war in Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija and Capas, Tarlac where the survivors of the Bataan Death March were interned. VSAC secretly supported the guerilla movement by passing on intelligence information they gathered from various sources. Among the volunteer group’s members were Pilar Campos, Trophy Ocampo, Bing Escoda, Nena Liboro, Totoy Oteyza, Dodo and Bebe Ysmael, and two future Executive Directors of the Metropolitan Theater: Conchita Chuidian Sunico and Nenita Barrios Manzano.

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MET Facade, circa 2010. Photo by Estan Cabigas


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A second concert was held by the New Philippine Symphony Orchestra at the Metropolitan Theater on September 6, 1942 featuring Liwanag Cruz’s overture, Taga-Bundok. Thereafter, the Kalaw Memorial Concert in honor of the great Orientalist, Teodoro M. Kalaw, was held on November 29 the same year featuring an all-Filipino repertoire under the baton of the young Felipe Padilla de Leon in his debut concert.

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MET Lobby, circa 2010. Photo by Estan Cabigas.

Two Independence Symphony Concerts with free admission were held at the Metropolitan Theater on October 17 and 20, 1943 to celebrate Japan’s declaration of the Philippines as an independent republic under President Jose P. Laurel.  For the first time, Etenraku court music played at the Japanese Imperial Court was introduced. It was received with polite applause as Filipino concertgoers had yet to appreciate such solemn court music.

The last three concerts of the New Philippines Symphony Orchestra under the Japanese Occupation were held in 1944 and a mix of Classical Western, Filipino, and Japanese music were played. Among the music played were Georges Bizet’s Carmen Suite, Felipe Padilla de Leon’s Mariyang Makiling Overture, and Kosak Yamada’s   Meiji Syooka (Hymns to the Meiji Period).  On October 22, 1944, to commemorate the first anniversary of the Independent Republic, the New Philippines Symphony Orchestra held its last concert at the Metropolitan Theater.  

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Art Deco Style sculpture by Francesco Riccardo Monti at the MET lobby. Photo by Estan Cabigas

Apart from being the home of the New Philippine Symphony Orchestra, the Metropolitan Theater likewise staged plays by Dramatic Philippines.  Among their presentations were A Marriage Proposal, Mahiwagang Saksi, Landas ng Buhay, and Martir Sa Golgota, a religious play which featured the beautiful Susan Magalona and Naty Pardo as the Virgin Mary and Emma Benitez as Mary Magdalene. It was also the home of Musical Philippines, which aimed to sustain public interest in the best music the world has to offer through its Philharmonic Promenade presentations, an alternative to those who have had their fill of bod-a-bil shows.  


Turning Japanese

The Japanese authorities likewise used the Metropolitan Theater for their own purposes, from bringing in a Japanese revue to entertain their troops to promoting Asian culture through concerts and contests presented by the Manila Sinbun-sya. To promote better knowledge of Japanese culture and wider use of the Japanese language, the Niponggo Institute offered lectures and six-month courses in Japanese language and culture at the Metropolitan Theater Building.  Select movies, like Dawn of Freedom and Tatlong Maria were also shown there.  The Metropolitan Theater, moreover, served as a town hall, serving as venue of KALIBAPI and KAPARIZ meetings and conventions.  

The last production of note presented at the Metropolitan Theater during the last days of the Japanese regime was Santuzza, a Tagalog operetta based on Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana shown on 10 September 1944. Gerry de Leon’s Tatlong Maria, shown twice on November and December 1944, was the last film shown at the Metropolitan Theater before the Battle of Manila in February 1945.  


The bombs that destroyed its roof

The bombings during the Battle of Manila in 1945 blew off the Metropolitan Theater’s roof, leaving its ruins derelict for several decades, during which the remaining shell housed “a boxing arena, cheap motels and bars, a basketball court, a garage, a warehouse, and home to fifty squatter families.”  

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Aerial views of the ruins of The Manila Metropolitan Theater after the Battle of Manila in 1945.

It was restored after a group of artists and scholars petitioned the then National Historical Institute (now the National Historical Commission of the Philippines) for its declaration as a national historical landmark to be restored, preserved, and valued. Restored under the leadership of then First Lady and Metro Manila Governor Imelda Romualdez Marcos and her Executive Committee composed of Executive Director Conchita Sunico, Architect Otilio Arellano, and DPWH Minister Aber Canlas, the Metropolitan Theater’s construction commenced in August 1978 under the supervision of DPWH Minister Canlas.

According to an account in Times Journal dated August 15, 1976, some 1,600 men worked in three shifts with Architects Otilio and Alejandro Arellano, both nephews of the Metropolitan Theater’s original architect, Juan M. Arellano, keeping tabs on the restoration works with the original blueprints as their reference.  Four months after, the Metropolitan Theater reopened on December 17, 1978 looking as splendid as it did when it first opened on December 10, 1931, like a phoenix rising from the dirt, soot, and squalor of three decades of neglect.


Restored to its former self

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Manila Metropolitan Theater as restored by Architect Otilio Arellano, 1978.

The main attraction at the restored Metropolitan Theater’s inauguration was the building itself. Brought back to its former splendour, the theater looked truly magnificent. The lobby, save for the original fountains, looked pretty much the same as the original, with marble flooring, Kraut stained glass panels, intricate Art Deco Style grillwork, sculptures of Adam and Eve by Francesco Riccardo Monti, and Fernando C. Amorsolo murals entitled Awit and Sayaw were again displayed, the former restored by Susano Gonzales, Jr. and the latter reproduced from images of the original by Roger San Miguel. The  Met’s inaugural presentation was Rosauro de la Cruz’s Isang Munting Alamat,, produced by Imee Marcos with Tony Fabella as choreographer, Salvador Bernal as set and costume  designer, Monino Duque as lighting designer, Alex Cortez as Production Manager. Winston Raval set De la Cruz’s lyrics to music and was in charge of musical scoring.  One hundred thirty child performers wearing colorful costumes, aged 8-12 years, sang, danced, and acted amidst playful lighting and greeted guests as they entered the theater. In her own words, First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos called the theater “a home where Filipino artists can give full expression of their art...dedicated to a singular goal:  to surface the true, the good, and the beautiful in the Filipino.”

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Photo of the inauguration of the restored Manila Metropolitan Theater on 17 December 1978 with President Ferdinand E. Marcos, First Lady and Metro Manila Governor Imelda R. Marcos, Manila City Mayor Ramon Bagatsing, and Executive Director Conchita Sunico leading the ceremonies.

From 1979-1986, the Met produced five to six shows yearly and consisted mostly of Filipino works. There were revivals of zarzuelas such as Ang Kiri (1979), modern zarzuelas such as Ang Palabas Bukas (1979) and Ms. Philippines (1980); musicals like Batibot (1979), Kapinangan (1981), Gomburza (1982), Ewagan (1984), and EDSA (1986); musical revues such as Hindi Kita Malimot (1981), Dahil Sa Iyo (1982), Great White Way I (1983) and II (1987); and plays like Tatlong Pag-ibig (1980), Nag-iisa sa Karimlan (1980), and Josephine Bracken (1980), and 1898: Sa Mata ng Daluyong (1981). Apart from Filipino works, the Met continued its tradition of presenting world-renowned classic works, in both original language and Filipino translations: Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot (1979) and Mefistofele (1980), Alexander Borodin’s Kismet (1980), Noel Coward’s Private Lives (1980, Filipino translation), Nora (1981) adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s Doll’s House (1981), Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado (1983), Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady (1982), and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music (1982).

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Posters of MET productions, 1970s- 1980s, including originals and revivals of both Filipino and Western operas, zarzuelas, musicals, plays, and fashion shows. Courtesy of Nomer Son.

The Met was also home to the Manila Symphony Orchestra, Asia’s oldest symphony orchestra, the Metropolitan Theater Concert Chorus, and the Metropolitan Theater Dance Company which were organized to train the youth in the art of singing and dancing, performing both at the Met and abroad as cultural ambassadors of goodwill.

World-renowned artists graced the Met with their rousing performances through the years. Opera divas Montserrat Caballe and Nelly Miricioiu; pianists Cecile Licad, Rowena Arrieta, and Fou Ts’ong; Brazilian cellist Antonio Meneses , legendary violinists Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin, American dancer Ted Shawn, and returning Manila Symphony Orchestra conductor, Herbert Zipper, in his last performance in Manila.

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World-renowned opera singer Nelly Miricioiu greets MET Executive Director Conchita Sunico’s successor and fellow VSAC Member, Nenita Barrios Manzano, with MET publicist, Boy Abunda, looking on. Source: Pablo Tariman


Hardly broke even

As recounted by cultural historian Pablo Tariman who worked with Conchita Sunico at the Met, in his article, “More Met Memories,” “despite the rave reviews and standing ovations, with the lack of sponsorship hounding our good intentions, we hardly broke even.”  He further recalled how Conchita Sunico helped keep the Met alive at all costs, even in her deathbed.  Just to keep the Met alive, Tita Conching (as she was fondly called) agreed to rent out space to Vilma!, Vilma Santos’ GMA TV variety show, and leased out office space even to recruitment agencies sending Japayuki entertainers to Japan. Visiting former MSO conductor, Herbert Zipper, once asked Tita Conching to do away with Vilma!  Tita Conching replied thus: “I have a theater to maintain and employees to feed.  If you promise to maintain this theater and feed my staff regularly, then I’d do away with that TV show...You have all the right to protect Mozart but I also have to protect my employees.”  As recounted in the same article, Herbert Zipper’s last Met concert in the 1990s played Mozart’s Requiem, which was ominous of its decline and eventual closure.  

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Inside the shuttered and decaying MET Theater. Photograph by Andrew Chester Ong

As recounted by Gemma Cruz Araneta in her article, “Resuscitating the Met.” the overthrow of the Marcos regime had devastating effects on the Met as the new president, Corazon Aquino, declared that culture was the least of her priorities. Conchita Sunico resigned and leadership of the Met was passed on to Nenita Barrios Manzano, Tita Conching’s fellow VSAC member.

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INSIDE the MET Theater undergoing restoration, 2019. Photo by Lito Ligon

But without Miss Sunico’s magic wand, keeping the Met alive was a struggle.  The GSIS and the City of Manila battled for ownership of the Met and it died a slow and painful death. Mayor Alfredo Lim showed deep concern for the Met during his second term as Manila City Mayor and worked out a tripartite agreement between the City of Manila, the GSIS, and the NCCA to revive the theater. 

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Elaborate Art Deco architectural Details at the grilled entrance door of the MET. Photo by Ivan Man Dy.

In 2015, the NCCA acquired the Met from the GSIS for P 270-M and embarked on an extensive rehabilitation and conservation project which was stalled in view of allegations of mismanagement and anomalies detailed in Barbara Mae Dacanay’s ANCX article, “Panic at the Met:  Where is the Theater We’ve All Been Promised?”  NCCA has vowed to see the project done properly with good governance and architectural integrity “within the year.”  Hopefully, the NCCA shall make good its promise and we shall all see the Met rise again from the ashes of neglect, conflict, and uncertainty and once again regain its former glory.  For indeed, the Met had a glorious past not only worth reminiscing but building on.


Acknowledgments to Mr. Nomer Son for generously sharing his collection of Met memorabilia; Mr. Pablo Tariman for his writings and photographs on the history of Philippine theater, opera, and music; Andrew Chester Ong, Estan Cabigas, Lito Ligon, John Tewell and Ivan Man Dy for sharing their photos; and to the late Cristina Laconico Buenaventura who has written the most definitive history of the theater of Old Manila through her legacy of a book, The Theater in Manila, 1846-1946, an invaluable resource for lovers of Philippine theater, opera, and music.