‘Stars’ take stage amid phantoms of Manila Film Center
The notice from management was clear: no cameras or video recorders. But there were about 20 handheld cameras running in the audience that night as a bevy of “showgirls” paraded Vegas-style during the opening number on the main stage of the Manila Film Center.
No ghouls or “white ladies” here, just impressive look-alikes of Anne Curtis, Marian Rivera, Katrina Halili and an incumbent senator. From a vantage point 30 feet from the stage, the soloist in one act came across as a fantastic cross between KC Concepcion and Ethel Booba.
Welcome to “The Amazing Show (TAS),” a series of 16 lip-synched musical numbers performed by gay impersonators nightly except Mondays.
Ten years in operation, the production has transformed the Film Center, notorious for its reputation as a haven of restless spirits, into a hotspot of stylized adaptations of opera (“Phantom of the Opera”), cinema (“Moulin Rouge”) and Bollywood.
TAS vice president Casimiro Villarosa recalled that a group of Korean backpackers based in the Philippines were so impressed by a similar format they saw in Thailand that they decided to transport the concept to Manila.
“The word ‘amazing’ actually came from the tourist slogan ‘Amazing Thailand,’” he said.
Business ties were forged in August 2001. “I was involved by accident,” said Villarosa, a former conflict resolution specialist of the United Nations and ex-professor of political science at De La Salle University.
Auditions were held the next month, with 250 gays showing up in response to an ad for “beautiful transgenders.” The chosen ones were trained to dance and lip-synch to at least six of the 16 numbers in three months.
By December 2001, what was then known as “The Amazing Philippine Theater” invited representatives from 200 travel agencies to occupy the Film Center’s 850-capacity main theater to watch the performances.
“We offered a pig’s head to the guests. It’s a Korean ceremony for prosperity,” Villarosa said, adding the assurance: “It was cooked when we ate it.”
The group waited three to four months before the paying audience trickled in.
But why choose the supposedly haunted Manila Film Center as venue?
“The first option was the Metropolitan Theater, but the city government of Manila had other plans. On hindsight, I look at the traffic around The Met, [and realize] that’s not good [for business]. The Film Center is good but we Filipinos would never consider this venue given its history,” Villarosa said.
Number of dead unclear
From sketchy reports, a floor that was under construction collapsed on a group of workers on Nov. 17, 1981, as the government was rushing the building for the first Manila International Film Festival early in 1982.
First Lady Imelda Marcos, the wife of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, was widely blamed for the deaths.
The number of those killed is unclear to this day. Baltazar Endriga, former chair of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), supposedly once estimated it at 30, while a group of psychics was heard saying it could be more than 100.
One of those psychics visited Villarosa and told him that 48 workers had died there.
“Reports at that time were heavily censored. During the Marcos era, it was easy to impose a news blackout,” Villarosa said.
During Corazon Aquino’s presidency, the Department of Foreign Affairs moved its passport processing operations to the Film Center.
Employees working alone at night were said to have heard certain sounds, such as typewriters being used.
A strong earthquake that struck in 1991 provided enough reason to question the building’s structural soundness and leave.
Nearly 30 years later, stories of restless spirits still seeking justice remain in the public consciousness.
But while Villarosa and the other local employees had all heard of the ghost stories, the business-minded Koreans could not be bothered.
Villarosa said TAS chair and president Lee Jong Hyun took one look at the Film Center during their scout, called it “a magnificent structure,” and decided on the spot that it would be the place.
“Nobody else wanted it. The building has a stigma but [my bosses] talked to then CCP president Nestor Jardin and then chair Endriga. [They persevered] until the CCP officials came out with a memorandum of agreement (MOA),” Villarosa said.
“We started renting from the CCP. Initially, the lease was for a period of three years—not the whole building, but just the main theater and some significant office spaces. Ultimately, the MOA was renewed to include the whole building. We can stay here … until April 2015,” he said.
The building has seven levels.
The main theater, with its 70-foot-high ceiling, occupies three. Sets for the “high” production numbers are assembled in the dark onstage behind closed curtains while “low” production performers entertain the audience.
Giant electric fans distributed around the auditorium aid its air-conditioning system.
A coffee shop occupies the left side of the lobby. Outside at the colonnade, a 120-seat Korean restaurant faces the nearby 5-star hotel.
Underneath this is a mini-driving range where guests can play virtual golf while waiting for the show to begin.
According to old-timers, Villarosa’s office at the second floor was designed for Imee Marcos, the dictator’s eldest child and now governor of Ilocos Norte.
Imee was the head honcho of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines at the time the Film Center was built. Her supposed ex-office has panoramic windows that offer a scenic view of Manila Bay by day and of the distant lights of ships and boats by night.
One traverses a long corridor to get to another office. A stretch of this corridor is noticeably wider than usual. A wall of bookshelves has survived.
“This was supposed to be President Marcos’office,” volunteered Villarosa’s secretary, Jerica.
Decay and deterioration are notable in areas where theater viewers are not likely to stray.
“Keeping this building is really very hard. You cannot fix it because it’s not yours,” Villarosa huffed.
The first time he entered the building in 2001, “there was no electricity, no running water.”
Recalled Villarosa: “The rugs were virtually pulbos (powder). Durug-durog (in shreds). If I wanted to go to the bathroom, I had to go to the public toilets at the CCP and pay P5 per visit.
“The (‘Malakas at Maganda’) mural of Imelda Marcos at the lobby was laden with graffiti. Vandals drew genitals and fangs on the subjects. One member of the art department and I spent weeks restoring the mural with acrylic and small brushes.
“People suggested that we just paint over it. I wouldn’t. It’s not high art, but it’s part of our heritage.”
Villarosa said the psychic who had called on him at his office warned that the Film Center was acting as a magnet for other restless beings.
“I was told that from the 48 who died, there are now 125 or 127 [spirits]. The psychic said the originals were inviting lost souls who drowned in Manila Bay or who were [run over] on Macapagal Avenue to take shelter in this building,” he said, adding in jest:
“I immediately called the security officer. I told him, ‘Joe, you’re such a dope! The ghosts can get into the building without your knowledge! Are you listing them in your logbook?’”
Still, Villarosa said, he and the other employees felt a “sense of eeriness” every now and then.
One of the star performers, Anna Marie Gauten (not his real name), said he occasionally got goose bumps. But he blamed this on his mother for telling him stories about the building when he was young.
“My mother said a lot of people died here when I told her that I was going to perform here,” Gauten said.
Fellow talent Christina Dandan (not his real name) cited the “environment” of the building.
“It’s better to forget the unpleasant stories. Anyway, the company I enjoy here more than makes up for the stories I heard,” he said.
Admitted Villarosa: “Honestly, you can sense a lot. But as long as they don’t show themselves, that’s okay with me. Sometimes we get visitors who claim they have a third eye and that they see a lot of beings. So I tell them, ‘Come, let’s poke that third eye out so you’d be at peace.’”
Villarosa complained that in some instances, the locals themselves were to blame.
“There are taxi drivers who, when told by a tourist to take him to the Film Center, would immediately tell the passenger that there are ghosts here. That it’s an abandoned building, and why would they even want to visit?” he said.
Villarosa said he wanted “to remove this stigma, to get rid of the negative perception of the Film Center.”
“We thought of giving it positive publicity through ads and billboards, but those cost a lot of money. We’re not making a lot at this point. That’s why the matinee tickets are sold at almost giveaway prices [of P250],” he said.
He pointed out that the building was built with taxpayer money.
“To abandon it would be injustice. Let’s just gain from it,” he said.
Villarosa broke into a guffaw when he remembered a group of 30 persons who rented the basement, said to be the most haunted part of the building.
“One time, somebody paid to do some ‘spirit questing.’ I supposed the cash was given for renting the place while they were there. But I thought, what stupid ghost would appear before 30 people?” Villarosa mused.
“They were here for like, five hours. I was drinking beer in the coffee shop when they left. They were laughing. No one approached me. That means nothing happened. If something did, someone would come to me and say, ‘Sir, we saw something.’ I guess it was a bum steer, but that’s no longer my fault,” he said.
Villarosa said he had even considered cashing in on the Film Center’s reputation, if only to generate more revenues.
“Honestly, I’m opening up my doors to spirit questing, because that’s additional income. Look, Star City [a nearby amusement park] spends money to make itself look scary for guests [during Halloween]. While here, it’s a given,” he said.
To date, TAS employs 137, including the 60 talents who perform nightly, as well as production staff in charge of wardrobe, makeup, hair, choreography, rehearsals, personality development, art and engineering.
The father of a member of the maintenance crew once walked up to Villarosa to thank him for giving his son a job that allowed him to wear a barong.
“The son used to be a cell-phone snatcher in Pasay City,” Villarosa said.
Believe it or not, government officials have taken interest in the Film Center.
Villarosa said in 2003, then Metropolitan Manila Development Authority Chair Bayani Fernando thought of transferring his office where TAS holds its nightly shows.
“He was going to make it pink and blue,” Villarosa said, chuckling.
More recently in 2009, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Senators Edgardo Angara and Juan Miguel Zubiri (since resigned) led a campaign for the transfer of the Senate, and the Film Center was considered as a location.
“[Sen. Miriam] Santiago was even quoted as saying she wanted to sleep in the basement. I wanted to give her a bed at that time,” Villarosa quipped.
That government officials are still interested in the building has given Villarosa confidence in its structural integrity.
He said he had once read an article saying the Department of Public Works and Highways conducted a test in 1996 and found that the building was structurally stable.
“Every now and then, a window breaks, but more likely it is due to the wind during a storm. But if the government decides to take this back, I’m a citizen … Of course we have fallen in love with the building …” Villarosa said, trailing off.
“I usually tell people, there are no more ghosts here, just many gay ghosts,” he added with a laugh.
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