The ’81 Film Center Tragedy: When Mystery Turns Into Reality

Photo by Tony Pionilla

Photo by Tony Pionilla

By LEO ORTEGA LAPARAN II, Manila Bulletin Research Head

[Published on November 17 and 18, 2012]

On this day, 31 years ago, the Manila Film Center tragedy occurred. The scaffolding on the sixth floor of the nine-level building collapsed and sent workers – many of them – falling into quick-drying cement.

Scarce news stories about the mishap in the days hence reported that “there were 40 to 45 workers at the site of the collapsed floor.” Other sources placed the numberof casualties, who were allegedly “entombed alive,” at as high as 169.

Fast-forward to today and the very site is an entertainment hall of glitz and glamour.

About 170 mostly Korean spectators clapped and cheered for the current-running show of transvestite performers lip-synching and gyrating through their numbers on a reconstructed stage.

With the Yuletide spirit in the air and the chorus line belting out “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” all memory of the tragic incident that befell the peak of the halls constructions have been lost in happy faces.

Perhaps, this is because the rest of what had happened were not much publicized, inspiring imaginative minds to spur “urban legends” out of the tragedy.

Situated at the far southwestern end of the Manila Bay reclaimed area that is now the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP)

Complex in Pasay City, the Greek Parthenon-inspired Manila Film Center was meant to be the venue of the much-trumpeted 1st Manila International Film Festival on January 18-29, 1982.

The edifice and the event—brainchild of then First Lady Imelda Marcos—were also expected to turn Manila into the “Cannes of Asia-Pacific.”

Architect Froilan Hong designed the Manila Film Center — whose construction cost P170 million and required some 4,000-7,000 laborers working in three shifts round-the-clock in 170 days from August 1981 until 15 minutes to the very opening night of the filmfest on January 18, 1982.

Long-time CCP Complex sidewalk vendor Lina Nabor, whom MB Research got to talk to during a casual “ocular” visit at the Film Center premises one night last month, was witness to the construction of the touted “film palace” from start to finish—including the horrific accident.

“It was raining when it collapsed. I just heard from the other vendors who were positioned close to the construction site that the bodies of those who were buried alive there were not retrieved. There were many of them. They got only those on top of the pile,” narrated 69-year-old Nabor, who has been selling cigarettes and snacks at the vicinity of the Film Center for 40 years now. Her husband, she said, was supposed to be among the laborers, but she dissuaded him and opted to just sell with her.

After the accident and the filmfest, she would hear sounds of people crying and singing from somewhere inside the building.

“I tried looking for them, as I thought there were some happenings at the stage in front of the Film Center. But I did not find them,” said Nabor. “It scared me, of course, so I stopped vending for a while and moved to a farther portion when I came back.”

Nabor added that six to seven masses and blessings, with them vendors in tow, have already been offered at the site, helping the weird manifestations disappear eventually.

The CCP Administration declined MB Research’s request for an interview to shed light on the matter and give official statements on anything that has to do with the Film Center. CCP’s public relations office said through a telephone call that

“Originally, the Manila Film Center, is not part of CCP’s jurisdiction and that their officials are not privy to those matters.”

The international filmfest had only one more installment in 1983. Then, the July 1990 Luzon earthquake struck, causing cracks and rendering the Film Center unstable. The Department of Foreign Affairs’ Consular division and passports section, which held office there, abandoned the mammoth edifice after just two years.

Mention “Film Center” during that period, and the words “haunted,” “ghostly,” and“eerie” would easily define, at least in Filipinos’ minds, about what had become the most infamous building in Metro Manila—or probably in the country. People tried to veer away from going, or even just passing by, near the dreaded building.

In an interview with MB Research, University of Santo Tomas Sociology professor Josephine Aguilar-Placido explained the “haunted” image of the Film Center that persists to this day.

“Everything rooted from the idea that everybody knows something [unfortunate] had happened during the erection of the Film Center. That started it all,” said Placido.“It’s a phenomenon. It looks haunted to us, even if it may not be, because of that particular accident. Many spirit questors who have entered the building before have even confirmed on camera the presence of ‘unwanted spirits’.”

That deadly collapse in 1981, according to Placido, had become a stigma of the structure. “It’s a label. Once [something is] labeled, will it disappear? No.”

Not a majority of the public, though, knows that almost 10 years after it was abandoned, the Manila Film Center was brought back to life via what was then the Amazing Philippine Theater, a nightly Las Vegas-style transvestite musical show.

It has been so at the Manila Film Center for 11 years now—despite the stigma.

“Do we feel things? Of course, we feel things!” Amazing Show President Casie Villarosa said unhesitatingly, in an exclusive interview in his office at an upper floor of the building two weeks ago.

“There is this feeling that someone is touching you with the tip of his finger, but there’s none when you look around… stuff like that. Well, I just feel,” Villarosa continued. “Name a place where you won’t feel anything. You’re alone at your house, which has been yours for the longest time, and you will hear its floor or its walls creaking or moving, maybe because of a rat or whatever creature. It’s all the same thing.”

Villarosa admitted, too, that it’s creepy “down there,” referring to the infamous basement of the building. “Any place without light and has dilapidated items is a creepy place. If you’re superstitious and you believe in all these [scary thoughts], then they’re true.”

Being “very practical,” however, Villarosa explained: “If I had a ‘third eye,’ which some of my employees say they have, I would’ve left this place early on. If I don’t feel it, maybe, it does not exist. So, I don’t worry about it.”

Britney ,25, one of the gay performers whom MB Research spoke with after the show, knew about the Film Center tragedy all along, but has not experienced anything strange or eerie, so far, in his 10 years with the show.

“I don’t feel anything, perhaps, because I don’t believe in it,” he said. “Some of my co-performers say they feel something, but for my part, there’s none.”

The same is true for Nica. “They say that this place is ‘haunted’. When I started working for the show (three years ago), I also thought of it because I know the story. Most of the time, when we have an earlier call time, we sleep over here. So far, I haven’t experienced ghosts or spirits making their presence felt,”the 37-year-old performer said. “Maybe, because I just have a strong faith in God.”

Even the building’s security guards, who have been working for the show and at the building for the last nine years, have no creepy stories to share.

‘Ghost Palace’ No More?

“The carpet was powdered, everything was dust, but the structural conditions were good,” said  Villarosa, when asked in an exclusive interview to describe the Manila Film Center prior to his company’s moving into the enormous edifice 11 years ago.

“What you didn’t maintain for nine years, that’s how this building looked like when we came in. I’ve wandered around every crevice of the building because as a would-be occupant, I had to know what’s in here. This was a ‘ghost building,’literally.”

Villarosa and unnamed Korean investors established their theatrical endeavor, Amazing Philippine Theater (now Amazing Show), under the business name Center for Philippine Arts & Cultural Entertainment Association, Inc. (CPACEA, Inc.) on August 15, 2001, with an initial capital investment of roughly US$ 1.4million (P71 million at that time). Two months later, CPACEA, Inc. leased the Film Center from the Philippine government, in coordination with the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP),which took over the building’s ownership in 1986, following the abolition ofthe Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP). The show had its maiden presentation on Dec. 10 of the same year.

Villarosa recounted that his group hired some 200 workers, who took around three months to  refurbish the abandoned building. “That’s not even structural renovation; just basic, interiors only,” he said.

When they were starting, Villarosa disclosed, they would spend P3.9 million- P4.3 million on average every month: about a million pesos for the Film Center rental; P800,000 for electricity; P250,000 for water; and the rest, for salaries of employees.

In April 2007,Villarosa and company signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with Film Center administrators for an eight-year lease of the property that would allow them to occupy and develop the structure until 2015.

The show’s president thus dismissed published reports that their “lease contract expired in 2009, leaving the building abandoned once again” as “inaccurate and irresponsible.” “It’s absolutely not true, as obviously, we’re still here,” hesaid.

Aside from Amazing Show, the Manila Film Center today houses a café at its lobby, a Korean travel agency at an upper floor, and a Korean restaurant at the right side. A stem-cell clinic will soon open on the side directly opposite the restaurant.

Why did they choose a long-reputed “haunted” building to house their show? Villarosa asked back: “Next question: Why not here?”

Initially, he said, their group eyed the Metropolitan Theater in Lawton, Manila but changed their minds when they looked at the traffic situation in the area and the possibly tedious dealings with the Manila City government. “Renovation-wise,too, I felt it would cost us much more,” he added.

And so, notwithstanding its negative image, their group settled for the Manila Film Center.

“Most of my investors are Koreans, and they don’t [care] about this building’s reputation,”said Villarosa, as he recalled how the suppression of the press before 1986 might have caused the Film Center’s undeserved blemish. “You suppress the press, lots of urban legends would come out. Not like now, we have freedom of the press, which basically means the press is powerful.”

The mere fact that the Koreans invested for the show means a lot, according to Villarosa. “It brings employment, definitely. Nationwide, we have so many employees.”

After opening in Manila, Amazing Show developed two additional branches: one in Lapu-Lapu City in Cebu in September 2004 and one in Boracay in July 2007.

Nica, 37, one of Amazing Show Manila’s transvestite performers, is among those who benefit from the Korean investment. “I feel happy, because I like to perform and at the same time, I give happiness to the people who watch our shows.”

“I enjoy the fact that we transvestites can gather through our work here. Besides, dancing is my passion, too,” added Britney, 25, another performer.

Based on information available at the company’s web site, Amazing Show posted gross sales amounting to P57,860,384 and P60,081,512 in 2005-2006, its peak years since it started operations. Then, it suffered an 11.5 percent audience decline the following year.

Villarosa confirmed that their venture, at least in Manila, has been getting negative figures lately. “For the last four years, [Amazing Show Manila has] not earned a single centavo,” he said. “So, probably now, we spend around P3.1 million- P3.2 million monthly, depending on what season. We cut down a lot of expenses because we’re dying.”

Even so, he intimated he was not yet ready to give up his company’s home for a decade now despite several parties’ interest to occupy it.

In a September 2009 report published in Manila Bulletin, then-Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri confirmed negotiating with CCP officials on the possibility of leasing the “film palace.”

Zubiri said Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Senator Edgardo Angara proposed the Senate’s transfer to the Film Center, citing the good architectural design of the building. He also mentioned that engineers had verified that the buildingwas “structurally sound and only needed to renovate the electoral piping andwater system.” It was also found to be fire proof, since it is made of concrete.

Villarosa also noted that even then-Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) chairman Bayani Fernando eyed the Film Center to be his agency’s office.

However, an official from the Pasay City Engineering Office revealed that his office already sent Amazing Show a letter some three years ago, asking the company to vacate the building “for safety purposes.”

“It’s better that we are assured. We, together with the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), had conducted inspections on the Film Center and gave [Amazing Show] our observations on the structure. We have also given them enough time to take the necessary action,” said Pasay City Operations Engineer IV Salvador Villarin III in an interview.

But Villarosa maintained he had not received a copy of the letter and that every year, his company is issued a renewed business permit.

“Why are we [being asked] to represent Pasay? Why do activities of the tourism and cultural development office of Pasay are linked to us? How come we won’t be a good player in Pasay?” commented Villarosa, adding that they also have a tie-up with the Korean embassy.

“How long has this building been abandoned? How long has this remained useless? We revived this building and that’s what I can be proud of…,” continued Villarosa. “After we’ve used this, all of a sudden, people come in saying, ‘Oh, so, the building can be used after all, since no one died from them and no one got insane because of seeing any ghost’.”

Asked whether the government officials who were eyeing the Film Center as their new office had connections with the issue of asking Amazing Show to leave, Villarosa uttered a ‘maybe,’ as he didn’t want to speculate.

“As far as we are concerned, we provide employment to our fellow Filipinos,” he asserted,“and we [do] pay taxes.”

A verification with the Pasay City Treasurer’s Office-License Division revealed that CPACEA, Inc. has consistently paid its dues since 2005.

Copies of the company’s official receipts and payment breakdown documents for 2010-2012 furnished by the Pasay City Hall to MB Research indicated that CPACEA, Inc. had already paid a total of P39,100 for1st-4th Quarters of the current year. The payment covered the business tax of P23,100; Mayor’s Permit, (P3,000); Tourism Registration (P1,000); and Building Inspection (P120), among other fees.

“The figures may be small, but still, they add up to Pasay City’s coffers,” said Collecting Officer Marlon Leviste.

His company’s secret in having stayed the longest in the supposedly “haunted” structure? “It’s not haunted, that’s why. It’s that simple,” Villarosa emphatically replied.

The “haunted”image of the Film Center, University of Santo Tomas Sociology professor Josephine Aguilar-Placido stressed in a separate interview, is “technically impossible” to dispel because the tragedy story has been passed on from one generation to another.

“No matter how you launch programs that would change the image of the Film Center, for as long as those who were born [at that time when it happened] are cognizant of what had happened, the story will be told and retold. So, it won’t stop,” said Placido. “You have to allow those generations to disintegrate, so you start anew. For as long as you don’t put anything on your thoughts or entertain any negative idea on [the Film Center], then it’s also okay.”

As for Villarosa, the show goes on—with or without those “ghosts.” The last 11 years of being at the Film Center has been all about business for the 114 employees, 60 of whom are performers, of Amazing Show Manila.

“People watch our shows, they get entertained for an hour and five minutes, no more, no less,” Villarosa stated.

Britney has this appeal to the public: “Don’t dread the Film Center. Many might have died in the tragedy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean, that there are ghosts here; otherwise,we would’ve left this place early on. What you should fear of are the living bad elements in our society.”

It’s an entirely different thing now, stressed Villarosa.

“The building is here. It earns revenues for the Philippine government, for our Filipino employees, and for us as a company. Even if it’s ‘haunted’, we’re still here,” he said. “Before [anyone] talks about something, and say something negative, he has to know that something first.” (With reports from Bryan Edward G. Villasana, Frederick Louis R. Castro II and Manila Bulletin archives)

Copyright © 2013 Manila Bulletin | Latest Breaking News | News Philippines. All rights reserved

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