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The Dame


I am writing this story shortly after I responded to Luce's post on the ghost girl that appeared at the CCP Main Theater (Who's that Girl by Luce.)

This story did not happen at the CCP, though, but at an older theater house along Lawton, right across the Manila Post Office bldg.

It's the old Metropolitan Theater, or the MET as we liked to call it: known for its art deco design. It was a huge thing during the early 1900s, and was the home of the grandest Opera, local Broadway (re) productions and Vaudeville presentations of that younger, more innocent era of modern day Philippines. It was said that some Broadway based American performers during the early fifties even came to the Philippines to take part in the local productions.

After its steady decline during the post World War II days, it was turned into a make-shift boxing arena during the day, and a high class gay bar (and some of its smaller rooms into instant motel for regular bar patrons) at night. A prominent historian romanticized this tragic part of the MET's history by describing it as a "desecration of a sacred temple ground by rustic barbarians who didn't know any better."

The early years of the Marcos Presidency saw Madam Imelda R. Marcos - self declared Patroness of the Arts and Culture - officiating over restoration work for the MET. She effectively charmed her way into the pockets and bank accounts of the pretentious "aristocrats" (novoue riche.) But its renaissance was short-lived, for soon the MET was over shadowed by Imelda's white elephant, the comparably mammoth and modern Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).

The MET provides a fitting backdrop to the tragic end of a life of visual poetry that I am about to share.

The year was 1992, and the CCP was hosting the very first week-long National Theater Festival. The event was entitled Unang Tagpo (or Act One) and featured several professional and semi-professional (campus) theater companies around the country.

I was working for the CCP Coordinating Center for the Dramatic Arts at the time, and we were the Secretariat for the festival.

One of the theater groups we were featuring at that time was Rolando Tinio's company, Teatro Pilipino, (TP) which used to be one of the two resident theater groups at the CCP (along with playwrights' laboratory and experimental theater group, the Bulwagang Gantimpala company).

In 1987, a year after the end of the Marcos regime, performing art groups associated with the old CCP (read: those groups that were favored by the former First Lady) were unceremoniously replaced, with the exception of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra and the Ballet Philippines Company. Although they retained their status, they did not enjoy the same privilege as the only resident music company or ballet company at the CCP, respectively. Sharing the limelight with them - with parallel season repertoire - were the University of Santo Tomas (UST) Philharmonic, and the newly formed Philippine Ballet Theater. There were budget cuts and redistribution of resources. Those were ugly times.

TP and Bulwagang Gantimpala were casualties of the change. And as if to add insult to the injury, the new CCP management developed a new resident theater company named Tanghalang Pilipino. Both the words "Teatro," which is an archaic Tagalog word, and "Tanghalan," which is a modern, cosmopolitan term, means "Theater." Essentially therefore, Teatro Pilipino (TP) and Tanghalang Pilipino (TP) shared the same name (and initials).

Licking its wounds, Teatro Pilipino retreated to the old MET, which was already neglected and run down at that time, and was in need of very urgent repairs.

Five years later, when Artistic Director Rolando Tinio received the invitation to join the festival, he gladly accepted it, taking it as an act of good will on the part of the CCP. He decided to mount his Filipino translation of Will Shakespeare's The Twelfth Night (Ikalabing-Dalawang Gabi), featuring his actress wife, the dame of classical theater in the Philippines, Ella Luansing Tinio in the role of Viola.

A week before the start of the actual festivities, however, Ella Luansing suddenly died due to a tragic car accident. We half expected to receive a call from director Tinio saying he will withdraw his company's participation from the festival, but he didn't. He did call to inform us that his daughter, Victoria Tinio will be taking over the role of Viola, and that we were to make the necessary changes in the list of cast for the official festival program.

I know many of the people in TP. I have worked with them backstage in at least two productions, one of which - Will Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (translated as Ang Trahedya ni Hamlet, Prinsipe ng Denmarka) - was when they were already at the MET.

I went to visit them two days before their Technical Dress Rehearsal, partly on official business (Director Tinio was supposed to deliver a lecture on Stage Management to festival participants, and I came over to inform him of the exact venue of the lecture), and partly out of nostalgia.

Even the whole stage design was tweaked to reflect the company's state of mourning, as shown by the black and white veils that hang from the battens and falls ever so gracefully down to the stage boards.

An extra character was also incorporated into the performance - a lady in black, laced evening gown whose face is covered with a thin black veil - appearing at certain scenes on stage. This extra character was played by TP resident actress, Divina Fabrique Cavestany who bears a striking resemblance to the late Ella Luansing Tinio (same facial features, same piercing eyes, same posture, though younger by a decade.) This character was to appear whenever the actors on stage would recite a soliloquy from other plays that Tinio incorporated into the script. These soliloquies were from characters in other plays that the late Ella performed in.

Needless to say, the rehearsal that I witnessed, as a whole, was creepy and depressing (considering that Twelfth Night is supposed to be a comedy of manners). Nevertheless, some of us who have worked with the company in the past decided to see the play on closing night (it ran for three weekends, excluding the actual festival week). That was to be TP's final performance, as Rolando decided to finally call it quits after 17 years of translating and producing classics of world theater for Filipino audiences. His main disciple and creative partner, Ella, is gone, and so he figured there was no more reason to continue. All TP alumni, on stage and back stage, were invited to a quiet dinner afterwards.

During final performance, however, as Divina's character weaved in and out of scenes, something extraordinary happened. Another lady in black appeared on stage, much to everyone's horror. The face was veiled, and yet there was no mistaking those eyes that pierced through the thin fabric. Divina actually stopped her entrance from stage left, then walked right back out, as the other veiled figure stood at stage right. Being the professionals that they were, the actors proceeded with the performance as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

The audience, many of whom were regular TP fans and Classics of World Theater enthusiasts, was in complete silence: everyone knew the late Ella enough to recognize her presence. If it was a bad joke, it was done in poor taste.

The apparition appeared several times that night, often stopping Divina on her tracks. At one point, it made an entrance while Divina was already on stage. Everyone saw the two women in black on the stage at the same time. It was unnerving.

At curtain time, however, only Divina came out in her costume, sans the veil to take her final TP bow. As the curtain fell for the last time, the unnerved audience stepped out of the theater in such a hurry you would have thought there was a fire somewhere.

I don't know if many of the cast and TP alumni stayed for the dinner after the performance. I know I didn't.

In the months that followed, many of TPs disenfranchised resident artists went on to join the CCP based Tanghalang Pilipino. Others, the old guards who were faithful to Tinio, decided to teach at Universities and became Artistic Directors of their respective University Theater organization. Others crossed-over to doing TV ads and television series as character actors/bit players.

Not long after that, the MET again steadily declined into disrepair before it completely closed down altogether. It was like it was doomed from the very beginning. A woman scorned by her lovers.

Many of the old costumes from previous performances were found in the stock rooms. Apparently, Rolando simply left behind all 17 years-worth of costumes, hand props, stage furniture, a whole library of TP translated works, and the final stage set of Twelfth Night at the MET warehouse to rot. Two other adjacent rooms contain all the costumes, hand props, furniture, musical instruments, old posters and programs of all productions that had been staged at the MET since it first opened to the public.

Two years ago, a TV network featured the old MET for its Halloween special. I got misty eyed as I saw the shell of what was once considered the Diva of architecture in the old Manila district. Apparently, rehabilitation work is again ongoing, and several construction workers who mostly stayed and slept on site, were interviewed. They told chilling stories of how a "performance" would play out at ungodly hours of the night, mostly around two. They recounted how they would be awakened by the dialogues delivered, and arias sung by ghostly performers in the complete darkness of the now abandoned art deco Opera House.

Note: I tried to attach a photo of Dame Ella Luansing as she appeared in one production where she wore a veiled costume similar to the one worn by Divina that night, but I don't know how. The only difference between Divina's and Ella's costume is that Ella's costume in the photo is purple.

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MysticFrance (5 stories) (95 posts)
5 years ago (2019-01-11)
Rest In Peace, Clarence. You're one of my favourite writers here. Your stories are very detailed and amazing and this, The Dame, is my favourite so far. I read this (and will still read) over and over.

clarencetuvera (7 stories) (41 posts)
9 years ago (2015-05-12)
A TV special on the Manila Metropolitan Theater
clarencetuvera (7 stories) (41 posts)
11 years ago (2013-11-23)
[at] Fergie: Thanks for appreciating the story. As for Dame Ella's apparent insistence on taking a final bow with the company, that can be expected of her. I mostly work backstage, and so I never understood the temperaments of actors. But if you will allow me, I'd like to shed a bit more light on Ella and Rolando.

Rolando was teaching Comparative World Literature when he met Ella. She was, in fact, one of his students. What caught his attention was that Ella had an exceptional mind for textual criticism.

Ella was considered "theatrically beautiful," as her features could be shaped into the form that Rolando wanted. But she was never a conventional beauty. Without her costumes and her make-up, she was considered average.

Many believed it was never a sexual attraction, as Rolando was in fact gay (it was observable, but was never ever discussed. If it was, maybe in whispers then.)

Rolando shaped Ella into his own personal "Sarah Berndhart," and made her play only classical heroines from the pens of Shakespeare, Chekhov, Dumas, Tennessee Williams, Brecht, Goldoni, Jean Anouilh, Euripides, Sophocles, and the list goes on and on.

When he finally married her, everyone believed it was a case of a Pygmalion marrying his Galatea.

Any actress in the world would be slain with envy if they'd see the list of characters that she had played on stage.

But there was also the whispers among the theater circles in Manila that Ella is probably no more than the Director's wife. She's alright as an actress, but she's not that spectacular.

They did have children, but there was also the suspicion that theirs was an unhappy marriage. Whispers of Rolando's tryst with this and that young male actor whom he met at some workshop abounds. Some of them even landing a role in TP productions, sharing a scene with Ella.

Those remain to be unfounded rumors.

After Ella's death, Rolando retreated from theater, the academe and society, until Celeste Legaspi, a popular music personality in the Philippines, and one of the early disciples of Rolando in Teatro Pilipino, drew him out to direct a new Filipino Opera, "Larawan" (Portrait), based on a Three-Act gem of a tragedy of Philippine Drama, A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino by Nick Joaquin.

Celeste was Rolando's "it" girl during the early years of Teatro. She was everything that Ella was not: beautiful, able to sing, and an actress.

But Celeste did not have Ella's brain power. And so, in many productions, Ella was Celeste's alternate.

Celeste left Teatro after two seasons to pursue her growing singing career. "Larawan" was to be a happy reunion, and some of the old guards of Teatro came and offered to work again with Rolando. Everyone was optimistic that he would be back for good.

"Larawan" was to be presented at the CCP Main Theater. In a way, it was to be a home coming of sorts for Rolando.

Towards the final week of rehearsals, and before the show could take off, however, Rolando died of cardiac arrest.

Posthumously, Rolando S. Tinio was given a National Artist Award and recognition. But for us who admired him, the award and the recognition came too late.

These readings on Tinio might interest you:

1. An NCCA page recognizing him as a National Artist:

2. A creepy article of a Journalist's recollection on Rolando S. Tinio:

Here are photos of Ella in several of her roles:

1. Ella as Margueritte in Alexander Dumas' Camille: this is almost how her apparition appeared on the night of the final performance. The only difference is that her costume in this photo is purple, while the apparition was in black:

2. Ella as Hedda in Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler:

3. Ella as Julie in August Strindberg's Miss Julie:

Here is a link to some online photos of the ill-fated MET (Diva of Manila's architecture):

1. By Roadworthyman:

2. By Hapipaks:

3. From the blog Salt & Pepper:
Fergie (40 stories) (1159 posts)
11 years ago (2013-11-21)
Thank you Clarence for your well written narrative.

I got goosebumps while reading this. The historical detail adds to the veracity of your tale. Knowing how dedicated actors can be, it is not surprising that Dame Ella would have taken her 'final bow', however disconcerting it must have been to the other actors and audience.

Thanks again for sharing your chilling experience.
clarencetuvera (7 stories) (41 posts)
11 years ago (2013-11-20)
[at] Redwolf: Thanks. I really appreciate your kind words. I'll consider it. Maybe there are classes I can attend at night. BUT, the story of Ella did happen, and maybe, the reason I was able to write the story the way I did is because I knew the people - there's that emotional connection with them, and with the Company, and the sad fate that befell them.
RedWolf (31 stories) (1292 posts)
11 years ago (2013-11-20)
Indeed you should take up writing in you spare time as you painted a picture of the story so well. As everyone knows that is part of what makes a great author. I found the story and history behind it fascinating. I got chills when you were talking about the second woman whose face was veiled showed up on stage and you knew it was the woman who had just died shortly before in a tragic car accident. Your description of how fast the theater emptied was amusing.
I was not able to read any of the Harry Potter books as I found them way too wordy. I can't read books like that they bore me to death. I also fell asleep during each movie. Now I am not a slow reader I read the first Jurassic Park Book in less than 18 hours. I have even fallen asleep while reading a story on this site because it was wordy and a bit confusing as it was written by a teenager who couldn't get his/her (I can't remember which) thoughts together. 😆
Any way well written and as I said I think you should consider writing in your spare time.

[at] miracles I hope your child feels better soon.

clarencetuvera (7 stories) (41 posts)
11 years ago (2013-11-16)
[at] Miracles51031: On Dame Ella wanting to be part of the final performance, that struck me as even more tragic - it is as if even from beyond, and in spite of herself, she's mourning Teatro Pilipino's eminent demise as well. Hope the sick child is okay and recovering fine 😁

[at] Seraphina: Thank you for appreciating the story. I am not a playwright, although I must admit that when I was a student at the university, I did dreamed of becoming someone famous in the field of literature and the arts. My early involvement in professional theater, especially with Teatro Pilipino (no matter how brief it was, and how seemingly insignificant) was a step towards that direction. I learned a long time ago that Theater and Playwriting are for the privileged who can live comfortably even during the dry times. I do not have the fortitude to romanticize myself as a starving artist. 😆

Nowadays I work as a copywriter, researcher and public relations officer for a government in-house advertising and communications office.
Miracles51031 (39 stories) (4999 posts) mod
11 years ago (2013-11-15)
elfstone - thank you 😊 Hopefully he'll be back to normal before much longer ❤
elfstone810 (227 posts)
11 years ago (2013-11-15)
Wonderful story and beautifully told! Thanks for sharing it with us. This is going straight into my favorites. 😊

Miracles, hope your little invalid feels better soon!
Seraphina (7 stories) (147 posts)
11 years ago (2013-11-15)
What a gripping story! The historical background, rich details and dramatic events held my interest from the beginning. Are you sure you're not a playwright, Clarencetuvera? Thank you for sharing this story with us.
Miracles51031 (39 stories) (4999 posts) mod
11 years ago (2013-11-15)
clarencetuvera - I'm not an actor, and have never participated in any theater productions so I don't know the passion actors/actresses have but it seems as if Dame Ella needed to be part of the final performance. It is only fitting I think.

As for the "performances" at the Opera House, in my opinion, I think those would continue whether renovations were going on or not. Even though renovations stir up activity, I truly believe that the passion and energy from events like this would be enough to create residual hauntings. Restoration/renovation wouldn't be necessary to hear or see activity.

I apologize to everyone if none of this makes sense. I'm at home today with a sick child who has the TV on, making my concentration non-existent 😆

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