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Rediscovering the medley: Bodabil, a jewel of the past

Bodabil’s magic has lost its shimmer in the Philippine entertainment repertoire. But its legacy lives on, inspiring many of today’s variety shows.

Imagine you’re living in the 30s at the heart of Manila—a “modernizing, multicultural port city,” as Chinese University of Hong Kong Cultural Studies professor Elmo Gonzaga describes. Filipinos are queuing in line to see another bodabil classic. Meanwhile, bodabil artists are backstage getting ready to put on a great show, practicing their world-class talents that’ll enrapture audiences. Once the curtains open, an attractive array of dazzling lights; colorful, extravagant costumes; and a miscellany of performances nothing short of stunning come in quick succession, ending with boisterous applause.

For James Figueroa, this is what a live bodabil looked like when he was a kid. Recalling his very own grandmother—the “Queen of Bodabil” Katy de la Cruz—those days of visiting theaters to see her perform became his routine, and he loved every minute of it. “[After] the smaller venues, she graduated to the [bigger theater] houses like the Cine Amor, the Lux, the Dimasalang, the Rivoli,” he lists off, recounting the majestic theaters that his grandmother performed at.

But bodabil performed its swan song after the rise of film and television. Amid the rise of advancements in technology, the people had simply moved on to newer trends in the media and entertainment industry. With the ever-expansive nature of Philippine theater, one asks if bodabil will ever see the light of day again—especially as theater companies reopen their doors for patrons.

Dawn of an industry

At the onset of the American colonial period, the Philippine theater scene remained heavily influenced by the Spanish regime as religious dramas, sarswelas, and komedyas played out across the country. To separate themselves from their former colonizers, University of the Philippines Diliman College of Music professor Arwin Tan explains that Filipinos were willing to embrace “everything American as a symbol of their modernizing habits, lifestyle, and taste.”

One of these cultural shifts was by being infatuated with American vaudeville—“live theatrical entertainment made up of a series of highly varied performance skits which were meant to elicit a strong audience response,” as Gonzaga imparts. These performances gained popularity as it amassed a Filipino audience who felt that their values were more reflected in this new colonial culture compared to the Spanish occupation.

But it wasn’t until the 20s when this genre truly belonged to the Filipino masses. Tan conveys how Luis “King of Jazz” Borromeo Filipinized vaudeville into bodabil. “[He incorporated] Filipino elements in his production [like the] inclusion of kundimans, Filipino dances…and short plays that highlighted Filipino values,” he states. But the shows did not stop at skits and song and dance numbers—with eager audiences also witnessing acrobatics, juggling, magic tricks, and boxing matches.

Due to its rising popularity, theaters such as the Clover Theater and the Manila Grand Opera House became home to bodabil acts. Bodabil awed viewers with its main selling point: performers who skillfully impersonated American superstars. “Canuplin was the Filipino mimic of Charlie Chaplin and Katy de la Cruz was known as the Filipina version of Sophie Tucker,” supplies Tan. However, the rise of these stars attested to Filipino talents that were beyond American comparison. “Lou Borromeo—[the] well-known impresario—concluded that lola would be one of the vaudeville greats,” Figueroa shares about de la Cruz, whose influence remained intact through the generations of their family. “Her mainstay was always the stage,” he reveres nostalgically.

A stage for the Filipino

But amid all the glamor, bodabil was a dynamic art form that catered to the city’s middle-class population. “Because [some bodabil productions] were improvised skits which didn’t require a set or props, they were more affordable to stage,” Gonzaga suggests. Thus, it became more accessible to audiences in the early 20th century because it provided “quick, versatile entertainment”. 

Tan even adds that bodabil tried to venture out of its reach to satisfy posh tastes. “Efforts to win the upper class were done through including excerpts of earlier elite-patronized European operas and zarzuelas,” he notes. 

But bodabil wasn’t just a burgeoning entertainment industry that integrated local music and theater. As history unfolded, it became clear that it played an important role in preserving the Filipino experience against an onslaught of foreign control. “Bodabil was a way to see the innate flexibility of our people in embracing American culture, while at the same time negotiating for a space where symbols of Filipino-ness could be presented, if not highlighted,” Tan holds, citing that bodabil helped the Filipino audience feel represented.

During its twilight years, bodabil was also sensitive to the politico-social milieu. During World War II, the Japanese kept a tight grip on the local film industry, and some film actors—who were otherwise unemployed—were absorbed into the art form’s variety shows. “​​[Since film] censorship was strictly enforced, bodabil shows became venues for their [Japanese] propaganda,” Tan furthers. “Many bodabil artists refused to take part in these shows which reflected their strong patriotic sensibilities.” The stage of bodabil was not simply a venue of cultural negotiation—it was also a political one.

Curtain call

But the reign of bodabil didn’t last forever. “[Social dances] like the Lindy Hop, crooners like Frank Sinatra, and…movies were becoming [more] popular, leading to a decline in onstage entertainment,” Figueroa remarks. In the latter years of bodabil, Tan points out that show producers shifted to provocative burlesque performance acts to maintain popularity, especially among male audiences. However, the attention it gained was short-lived as viewers were inevitably swayed to films that were similarly risqué.

Even the best of bodabil artists found other ways to create art. “Lola swam with the tide,” Figueroa shares, “maintaining her popularity as she adapted to the changes.” With the decline of bodabil, de la Cruz indeed frequented other forms like radio and film, even winning an award in 1953 from the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences as Best Supporting Actress for Inspirasyon

Bodabil’s purest form may be gone, but it is not dead yet; it lives on in the landscape of the present-day Philippine entertainment industry. “The very nature of offering a variety of entertainment acts is still rampant in the many television and stage productions we experience today,” Tan notes. Eclectic variety shows like the Got Talent franchise, It’s Showtime, and ASAP Natin ‘To are reminiscent of bodabil productions, which proves that in some ways, bodabil is still thriving.

Thus, many doors are open for bodabil to be reintroduced to fit the modern mold. Tan hopes for “an improved incarnation, possessing and displaying elements of what [anthropologist] Greg Urban refers to as a ‘metaculture of newness’.” As people trace the theatrical magic of bodabil from almost a century ago, they do not seek to be back in the 30s; the once regaled theater houses and impresarios are long gone. But what has remained is the evolving depth of Filipino talent and the penchant for culture and the arts. As Filipinos continue to rediscover patches of bodabil here and there—in latter-day shows ever beloved by the masses—one knows its toe-tapping, heel-clicking legacy lives on.

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