At the corner of Padre Burgos Avenue and Arroceros Street in Manila, where jeepneys, buses, and other vehicles jostle for slots along that crowded and bustling thoroughfare, one finds a grand old lady, an elegantly imposing landmark to culture and art that, in the face of decades of neglect and urban blight, has stood proudly—derelict and creaking at the edges nonetheless—serving as one of the last great examples of Art Deco architecture of this scale in the country: the Manila Metropolitan Theater.
Located beside the equally historic Mehan Gardens and Plaza Lawton, with the Post Office building just a stone’s throw away, the birth of the MET, as she is fondly called, transports us back to that glorious, prosperous period in the Philippines called peacetime, before the dark clouds of WWII brought unthinkable havoc on our beautiful isles—“The Pearl of the Orient Seas”—particularly on our capital city.
It was through civic pride and duty that the plans for the MET’s construction was first initiated. It was under the auspices of then Manila mayor Tomas Earnshaw—this was around the 1920s—who felt the need for and the importance of a theater venue, a “people’s theater,” to showcase the performing arts. As government funds were in short supply, the private sector was called upon to help bring this vision into fruition, with the city providing, on long-term lease, an 8,293.50-square meter parcel of land.
Thus, the Metropolitan Theater Company was born, with prominent members of the business and political community of the time as founders: Horace Pond, founding director, American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippine Islands; Leopoldo Khan, co-founder of jeweler La Estrella del Norte; Manuel Camus, lawyer and Philippine senator; Enrique Zobel of Ayala y Cia; Rafael Palma, senator, writer and educator; and Antonio Melian, founder of El Hogar Filipino. One million pesos was the initial capital raised with stocks in the said company sold to prospective investors.
Appointed as architect of record for this momentous undertaking was Juan Marcos de Guzman Arellano, one of the first Filipino pensionados sent abroad for further study, where he attended the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts and, later, the Drexel Institute for his degree in architecture. Among his other noteworthy projects are the Legislative Building, the Post Office, and Jones Bridge. And for the MET, Arellano went for a modern Art Deco style, albeit one that was Philippinized, tropicalized, and, well, engrandized: a colorful stain glass marquee by Kraut—depicting flora and fauna and a sunburst—adorns her facade; fancy wrought-iron grill work, various sculptures by Francesco Monti, two murals by Fernando Amorsolo idealizing music and dance, and other lavish details and ornamentation adorn the structure. And then, too, you have the theater’s grand proscenium, extended colonnades, and mosaic tiled walls. “It’s a tropical Art Deco masterpiece imbued with wonderful art inside and out,” declares Paulo Alcazaren, urban planner and heritage conservation advocate.
“The public was probably enthusiastic when the Metropolitan Theater was inaugurated in 1931,” relates Augusto Villalon of the Heritage Conservation Society. “And its sumptuousness was unparalleled. Juan Arellano repurposed Philippine motifs like the banig and local flora and fauna into Art Deco decorative elements for the building’s interior and exterior. The theater proudly exhibited the best that there was of the Philippines, and that the country was right up there, abreast with the latest in the globe.”
And so, in 1931, the Manila Metropolitan Theater was finally inaugurated—fully air-conditioned, but of course, thanks to an ingenious underground tunnel system that led to the Insular Ice Plant across the road. Pablo Tariman writes that the MET’s opening production on December 10, 1931, consisted of performances by violin prodigy Ernesto Vallejo; two arias from Samson et Delilah rendered by soprano Montserrat Iglesias; and Alexander Lippay leading the Manila Music Academy in playing the “Coronation March” from Meyerbeer’s The Prophet.
Marvelous operas, too, graced the MET’s stage during this glorious era, from Gounod’s Faust, to Puccini’s La bohème (with Jovita Fuentes) and Tosca, and Verdi’s Aida. How splendid and cultured indeed! July 30, 1939, meanwhile, saw the premiere of Giliw Ko, directed by Carlos Vander Tolosa, LVN Pictures’ (one of the so-called “Big Three” movie studios) first movie release. In attendance was no less than the First Lady, Mrs. Aurora Aragon Quezon.
Even as Manila was declared an Open City by General Douglas MacArthur in December of 1941, with the idea of protecting it from attack and eventual destruction, the city was virtually razed to the ground due to heavy bombing from both Japanese Imperial and American Forces. The MET, alas, was not spared—her roof had caved in as a result. Struggling to survive the damage inflicted on it during the war, she served as a venue for boxing matches, became a warehouse, until she was overrun by squatters and pretty much left to seed.
But in 1978 under the auspices of First Lady Imelda Marcos as Metro Manila Governor, the Metropolitan Theater would undergo a major restoration, with Arch. Otilio Arellano, Juan’s nephew, supervising the project. Tapped to run the show, so to speak, was society doyenne Conching Sunico, serving as the MET’s executive director. At this point, apart from being the home of the Manila Symphony Orchestra, “extravaganzas”—Broadway reviews such as the Great White Way, My Fair Lady, and Flower Drum Song were mounted, as well as opera productions such as Turandot, The Pearl Fishers, Mefistofele, and The Mikado. Ditto with OPM concert presentations such as Dahil sa Iyo and Hindi Kita Malimot. Later, a small studio theater for more experimental works called Dalubdulaan was opened.
“It was a time warp,” recalls Henry Strzalkowski, who performed in a number of productions there from ’80 to ’81, including The Sound of Music. “Imagine performing in such a historical place. Actually, my mom used to go there back in the day. I even have a photo of her dancing in the ballroom which I gave to Tita Conching.”
Alas, the rebirth that the MET enjoyed would be short-lived, what with limited funding and waning support as the mid-eighties rolled on. She was shuttered and padlocked in the late nineties, where again her fate seemed uncertain, including a protracted legal war over her ownership.
But hope, indeed, springs eternal. In 2015, the government’s Department of Budget and Management approved the release of 270 million pesos to allow the National Commission for Culture and the Arts or NCCA to finally acquire the MET. At long last, the legal issues that hounded the Metropolitan Theater were a thing of the past and her revival—slowly but surely; piece by piece, part by part, and section by section—could now commence.
Early this year, a call for volunteers to help in a clean-up drive for the MET was initiated. And much to the pleasant surprise of the NCCA, they received a deluge of responses from students and people from all walks of life. It was a truly heartening experience, one that helps embolden the MET’s restoration team, led by consulting architect, Gerard Lico, to carry on.
Presently, survey work on the structure is ongoing in preparation for the restoration. “Eighty percent of the MET’s structure is structurally sound,” Gerard points out. And thanks to the latest laser-guided scanning technology available, they are now able to do a full 3-D, 360-degree survey of the whole building, allowing for detailed, extremely accurate walk-throughs, fly-ins, cross sections, and even aerial shots via drones. “When we do restoration, it’s not guess work. We have to be empirically accurate. If you don’t have documentation or evidence, it’s fictionalizing,” Gerard enthuses. And this data can be referenced against extant blueprints from the 1930s.
Construction has started since December, and looking at a timetable of one and a half to two years on the first phase, depending on availability of funds, “we promise that we will have a usable theater,” Gerard declares.
And so goes the saga of the MET. Amidst the odds and numerous trials and tribulations, like the protagonist in a play, she refuses to die, waiting for her much-awaited encore.
This article was first published on Explore Philippines Issue 14
Photography by Andrea Genota