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Reentering, from 90 years ago: Witnessing the rebirth of the Metropolitan Theater

The once crowned “Grand Dame of Manila”—the Metropolitan Theater—is slowly regaining its place in the local culture and arts scene.

Buildings are not just piles of bricks devoid of life and memories. Be it abandoned, destroyed, or refurbished, the space that remains holds a footprint of faded moments that were once cherished. Along the busy street of Ermita—across the Manila Central Post Office—a decaying structure is an intriguing sight to passersby. Behind the peeling paint and mounting dirt is a pink building with a fading artistic facade that seems to have belonged in the past.

Indeed, Arsenio “Nick” Lizaso, National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) chairperson, confirms this to be true. During the 1920s, “many Filipinos were longing for an arena where they could express their sentimentality and creativity,” he shares. This longing is what built the Metropolitan Theater (MET), once gloriously christened as the “Grand Dame of Manila”.

Memories bygone

Yet, being an antiquated structure, the glory days of the MET are blurry to many living in the current generation. As Andrea Gregori (IV, AB-CAM) says, “I think I first found out about the MET when I read about it in a textbook back in grade school.” Being a thespian at DLSU Harlequin Theatre Guild, she wonders how the MET once withstood the test of time as a grand structure dedicated to art.

Ivan Man Dy, author of Deco Filipino: Art Deco Heritage in the Philippines, recalls that the theater was a modern marvel when it opened in 1931. “It drew different types of people, different market segments, [and] different crowds because the products it showed catered to different interests and types of people,” he details. From bodabils to sarswelas, and even movie shoots, the MET was not only a hub of the country’s artistry, but it also welcomed all forms of artistic expression.

Hence, it was unsurprising that it also served as a space—a starting opportunity—for budding artists to showcase their art to both local and international audiences. In fact, Lizaso describes the MET as a place where “well-known figures found their start on their road to fame and glory.” 

Dy reiterates that the history of the MET should not only be regarded by its grand presence. Above all, this theater “holds a lot of our city’s and our country’s cultural memory”—a reminder of the footprints left by the older generations. It is agonizing that all these turned into grime. After the destruction brought by World War II, the pink building became a no man’s land in the rapidly changing Manila cityscape. While the theater was restored in the 1970s, it soon closed in 1996 as ownership disputes arose between the City of Manila and the Government Service Insurance System. 

Removing the rust

Luckily, in 2015, the NCCA was offered to buy the building and restore it to its former glory. “The main goal was to restore it to the original pre-war state,” Lizaso shares. He further likens the MET’s restoration to restoring old clothes, “We should not patch a new cloth to an old coat because it will destroy the value of either the new cloth or of the old coat.”

Similarly, Dy advocates for the MET’s rebirth, as the building’s designs made it unique compared to Art Deco-inspired structures found in the West. “Juan Arellano (the MET’s original architect) added a lot of Filipino elements,” he explains. “He put bananas and mango detailing…which made the MET contemporary and, at the same time, sort of exotic.”  

Yet, reconstructing a seemingly outdated theater in an ultramodern generation appears conflicting. Lizaso himself admits, “What was challenging was trying to modernize a building built in 1931 with amenities necessary in the present time.” Still, the MET finally saw the light of day when the theater opened December 22 of last year, on the theater’s 90th anniversary.

However, Lizaso laments, “It’s unfortunate that the MET’s completion came [during] this global pandemic.” After all, the pandemic is still a significant factor in deciding the fate of live theater productions. But that doesn’t mean the theater’s resurgence is a slow start. Since its opening, it has allowed artistic performing groups to use the theater’s facilities and record performances. From live streaming Nicholas Pitchay’s Lapu-Lapu to Ballet Philippines’ Paquita Grand Pas Classique and Bolero, the MET tries to make its historic presence relevant once again. Lizaso also shares that they are “lining up [additional] virtual activities to [further] launch the MET in cyberspace,” awaiting the day they can welcome people inside the theater again. 

Despite the buzz it made on social media, the MET still hasn’t gained much traction. Gregori admits that she doubts people would be hankering to go to the theater, noticing how they’d rather seek entertainment in the comfort of their homes. “The MET has yet to be relevant to the public again,” she adds. “One way…is through showcasing…works that can help the youth relate their experiences to those outside of their own.” 

Our Filipino heritage

Amid surviving the onslaughts of war and emerging from ownership battles, Lizaso proudly proclaims that “the Metropolitan Theater stood strong against all adversities.” Aside from preserving the theater’s majestic beauty, the public’s active patronage of the theater will also help reinforce the MET’s relevance in today’s generation. “These [heritage structures] are important to us; they say something about us [and] our past,” he affirms, emphasizing the need to support not only the MET but also other historical structures in the country.

Furthermore, Gregori hopes the restoration will give birth to more original Filipino creative works. “It can also open up the possibilities of art spaces [being more] accessible to the public,” she opines, wishing for platforms where Filipino artists get to showcase their homegrown talents. Dy shares similar sentiments in hoping for a renaissance of the theater’s glory days. “[The MET] will attract a new breed of people who will patronize the theater, an [establishment] people can use to entertain more people,” he says.

The reason why the MET stands today is not only due to its sturdy columns and indestructible foundation. It’s also because of the country’s slow yet steady interest to revive cultural gems of the past. “Because it is a legacy we inherited from the rich culture and wisdom of our ancestors, it is imperative for us to preserve and even enhance such [a] gift,” Lizaso concludes. The Grand Dame of Manila’s timelessness is a heritage that transcends ages, one that can hopefully continue to persist for more generations to appreciate. 

By Isabelle Santiago

By Kazandra Vargas

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