In this article published in the October 1929 issue of the Philippine Magazine, John Maynard reflects on his experience watching the local vaudeville scene in Manila, commending the performers' "nymph-like grace and beauty" along with the underrated talent of the city's then up-and-coming jazz icons.
When the Editor of the Philippine Magazine asked me to write my impressions of the theater in the Philippine Islands, I had no real idea of just what I was letting myself in for.
My acquaintance with various American and European performers had led me into the belief that an interview and a facile pen were all that would be necessary.
That I was mistaken was made apparent at the first theater I visited. There I found the manager suspicious and unwilling to believe that I came for any good purpose. And such was my reception everywhere. But finally, through the efforts of the Editor, Mr. John C. Cowper, director of the Savoy Nifties, came to my rescue.
Through his good efforts I was enabled to obtain some valuable information relative to the development of the Philippine variety stage.
Arriving from Chicago, where I had just seen and heard such artists as Fanny Brice, Grace la Rue, Chic Sales, Sophie Tucker, and Joey Brown, I went into a local vaudeville house.
First I was startled to learn that the downstairs seats cost less than those in the balcony. I have since been informed that the theory is that the upper seats are cooler than those on the parquet, a theory that one experience has exploded. However, a good seat being a good seat, regardless of its price, I paid my fifty centavos and entered, finding a place in the fifth row.
The moving picture flickered out, the orchestra started to play a number that was popular at the Winter Garden when Anna Held was in her prime. The curtains parted and a bevy of golden-skinned "ponies" pranced out upon a slanting stage—a principal appeared—and the show was on!
The opening chorus finished, the applause, liberally interspersed with cat-calls and hisses, was positively deafening. Dauntlessly the chorus returned, not once but three times,-I never learned why.
Act followed act—the hard benches became harder as each number took from three to five encores. Then a sketch in Tagalog which, as I could understand no word of it, I enjoyed quite well.
There was an American colored boy who seemed to be a dancer. He worked with a girl who was as awkward as he was light, but his work was professional in spite of the handicap of his partner.
Several Filipino artists sang, danced, and told stories. Upon questioning him, I was courteously informed by a Filipino seated beside me, that they were speaking and singing English. I still think that he was spoofing me.
Thus the variety show as I found it some eight months ago. Of course I was unconsciously comparing it with the work of some of the world's leading artists, an obviously unfair thing to do. I went to other theaters, to the Carnival shows, everywhere there was an exhibition of local talent. The result was ever the same. I found some real talent, but pitifully undeveloped.
But a change is in progress. While many of the actors are still presenting the same acts which have been proven laugh-getters, the shows as a whole are much improved. Thanks to the untiring efforts of Mr. Cowper, the average theater-goer is learning to distinguish between the clever and the vulgar. Stage sets have improved. Some of the costumes might grace a Ziegfield stage.
Buster Dunson, the young American whom I saw work in that first, painful performance, has done a lot to help. Himself a real artist, he has designed many of the dresses which have of recent months appeared on the stage of the Savoy. A clever and versatile dancer, he has routined the dance numbers of the show, and has developed some of the girls to the point where they show real promise.
An example of his valuable contribution to the pleasure of today's vaudeville fans is his work with the Garcia sisters, now his regular partners. He has taken two young girls, little more than children, and started them well on the way to a successful dancing career.
One of the greatest favorites of Manila variety is Catalina (Katy) de la Cruz. Starting her stage career at the age of seven in a Moro-Moro show in Bulacan she received the magnificent salary of fifty centavos per night.
Since that time Miss de la Cruz has been almost entirely devoted to the stage. A real artist, one who possesses a great amount of that elusive, but desirable something called "showmanship," she is justly entitled to the place she has won in the hearts of her fans. Always in control of her audience, sincere in her desire to please, at times a little coarse in her humor, Katy de la Cruz might well be called the Sophie Tucker of the Philippines.
An artist having a pleasing ballad voice, coupled with a good stage personality, is Toy-Toy. Discovered singing in a dance hall at Buting, Toy-Toy was given the opportunity to appear in one of the theaters. There she made such a hit that she was encouraged to go further and finally settled upon the stage as a career. Now all Manila knows her clear and bell-like, though not powerful, voice. She is unassuming and modest, and a general favorite.
Mario Padovani, baritone, now at the Savoy, is the only real singer on the local stage. Born in Genoa, Padovani studied in Italy where he first appeared in grand opera. Possessed of both a beautiful voice and the intelligence to use it, he soon became one of the leading Italian singers. Oscar Hammerstein, one of the greatest impressarios of his day, engaged him in 1910 for the Chicago Opera Company where for three years he sang with such artists as Caruso, Matzenauer, Jeritza, and Tito Schipa. He has also sung in El Teatro Nacional de Habana, Bracale, impressario, which engagement he feels was the most important of his career.
Coming to Manila with his own opera company, Padovani, through the artfulness of an unscrupulous manager, suffered reverses which resulted in the loss of his company and his own health. His misfortune has been Manila's gain, for it has given us an artist who has been recognized as one of the greatest in the world.
The voice of Padovani is still fresh and youthful, so incomparably greater than any other on our local stages that he should never be forced to sing with mediocre talent. On the contrary, he should be permitted to choose his own numbers and to work entirely solo if he is to be heard at his best.
Perhaps the most talented eccentric dancer of local fame is Richard Reynolds. The son of a Filipina mother and an American Negro father, Dick, as he is popularly known, was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Coming to the Philippine Islands with his father, Dick and his brother, Ray, decided that they would go on the stage and give the local audiences a taste of American vaudeville. In 1921, at the age of seventeen, Dick made his first appearance "on this or any other stage," at the Stadium with Borromeo Lou. In spite of having had no training, other than having closely watched the dancers at the theaters he attended in the United States, Dick made good, and his popularity as one of the better entertainers has increased each year.
Another interesting personality is that of Leonora Reyes. Miss Reyes early had the urge to "go on the stage." Her history, until the day she "landed" with Mr. Cowper's company, was largely one of hired and fired. As a chorus girl she couldn't dance, as comedienne she couldn't act. In 1923 she was working in a tobacco factory, but the urge towards the bright lights would not be stilled. At that time the Savoy theater was holding an amateur night once a week. Miss Reyes felt she must look across the footlights once more. To her surprise she won first prize. Always the producer, Mr. Cowper offered her a trial in his theater, singing native songs in costume. Feeling the girl had possibilities, a way was found to give her vocal instructions. Today she is receiving the hearty applause of her audience.
A word about Mr. Cowper. A man of wide experience in the world, much of which has been gained in the newspaper and theatrical business, John C. Cowper has been called, deservedly perhaps, the Dean of the Philippine variety show.
His first venture in this field was at the Paz Theater on Calle Poblete where he opened with an all-European vaudeville in 1911 as stage manager and director. This theater presented what was really the first strictly vaudeville show in the Islands, other than traveling shows. Prior to its opening, local audiences had thrilled to the efforts of several Spanish companies offering a sort of musical comedy combined with extremely mellow melo-drama and vaudeville skits. Of course these performances were entirely in Spanish and held very little appeal for the non-Spanish speaking playgoers.
The moving pictures took first place from the moment of their arrival and the Spanish shows were gradually frozen out.
For various reasons, the European artists' venture was not a great success. The expense of obtaining artists was all out of proportion to the return through the box office. So Cowper left the show business and entered a private commercial enterprise. But 1920 found him again in the entertainment game as manager and press agent for Borromeo Lou, a Filipino jazz pianist with a background of training and experience in the United States.
Until 1922 Borromeo Lou's company played the Olympic Stadium, when they opened at the Lux Theater (now the Radio), being the first local vaudeville troupe to play a downtown house. When Borromeo Lou went to the provinces, Cowper reformed remnants of the Lux company and moved his show to the Rivoli (now the Tivoli) theater. His lucky star was in the ascendency, his show was a success, and, after another reorganization, he opened at the Savoy with his new show, the Savoy Nifties.
The Nifties have been popular; the music, directed by M. Vicente Lopez, is on the whole good, the dancing is acceptable, and while there are no really great voices among the girls, the singing compares favorably with that of the average American vaudeville star.
And last, but by no means least, is the chorus. I can truthfully say that on no stage have I seen more attractive girls than upon the stage of the Philippine theater.
There is a dainty nymph-like grace and beauty about these tiny Malay figures possessed by no other race in the world. They are quick to learn their routine, and are natural dancers. It is not strange that with patient coaching these girls prove to be excellent chorus material.
It is an unfortunate thing that with these endowments they have almost no artistic ambition. In questioning nearly all of these girls, I have not found one who expressed the least ambition beyond being able to work in the theater. They are perfectly content to remain just where they are, with no desire to become principals, willing to accept stardom if forced upon them, practicing only at official rehearsals. Out of one hundred and eleven chorus girls who have passed across his stage in the past few years, Mr. Cowper tells me that there has been only one who has been made a star. What often happens is this: A girl gets a little popularity, some love-sick swain tells her that she is the only important part of the show, her relatives tell her the same. The girl's head begins to grow, then she becomes "temperamental." Her parents come to the manager and they say "If you do not pay my girl more money I quit". Many promising careers are thus cut short, for the manager knows that there is only one remedy and that is to discharge the girl if her people continue to cause trouble. He knows also that he has a large waiting list and that the place of the girl who is gone is easily filled. Yet the girls laugh and dance their way along; they have enough to eat, a place to sleep, they are in the public eye, what more could anyone desire? This rather disjointed story is the theater in the Philippines, from back stage. In my next article I will try to give you the picture "out front" as seen by the performers.
In conclusion let me say that from all indications, the show business is forging ahead, better talent is being developed, better presentation methods are employed and in its short history of some twelve years there has been a vast improvement in the quality of performance offered.
Maynard, John. 1929. "Impressions of the Manila Vaudeville Stage." Philippine Magazine 26, no.1. University of Michigan archives.