Leila Benitez was an ‘It Girl’ in the earliest days of Philippine television, although she really started in radio—as the star of the legendary “Student Canteen” when it was just a radio show on DZXL. The program was so named because it was an instant hit to listeners and hangers-on from the schools in the vicinity.
“Student Canteen” was literally located in the chow-room of the Chronicle Broadcasting Network — the ‘CBN’ in what would be the behemoth ABS-CBN of the Lopez empire. From those beginnings, the show quickly morphed into the country’s very first noontime show, the kind of snappy, happy entertainment millions of Manilans tuned into and enjoyed over lunch.
“Student Canteen” was a sensation on local TV and throughout its run on the station until 1965. Alongside TV screen immortals such as Eddie Ilarde, Pepe Pimentel and Bobby Ledesma, Leila Benitez was a pioneer of Philippine live entertainment and was the first Filipina to be so. She counted her fans across the country in the millions.
This “It Girl”, however, was not your average show-business beauty. She came from the distinguished Benitez family: her grandfather was Judge Higinio Ortega Benitez who married Soledad Francia, a beauty from Pagsanjan, Laguna. Her father was Eulogio Benitez Sr., one of the country’s first assemblymen in 1919 and later a popular congressman who in turn married Rosenda Lavadia, another belle from the old town.
Eulogio, along with his brothers, were among the first pensionados of the U.S. government, a program intended to mold the scions of influential families into the American way of life. He had attended Georgetown University — and daughter Leila did the same. Much was made of her distinctive American accent and bubbly ‘Stateside’ personality when she returned to Manila and joined the television world.
Leila’s ‘Tita Helen’ was a senator of the republic, the founder of the country’s first and only national dance troupe, the ‘Bayanihan’, and chairperson of the influential Philippine Women’s University.
Leila, born in 1930, was the kid sister of Emma Benitez, who married the collector and cultural savant Luis Ma. Araneta and later the dashing Col. Napoleon Valeriano, the close personal aide and military adviser of President Ramon Magsaysay. Her other siblings included the dashing airforce pilot Teofilo, the restaurateur Mario, Alberto and Eulogio Jr.
In point of fact, Eulogio Jr, alongside the Syjuco family, brought Darigold milk into the country and, banking on his sister’s enormous popularity, launched the equally famous TV show “Darigold Jamboree” which was programmed right after “Student Canteen.”
Leila would later host ‘The Leila Benitez Celebrity Hour’ which guested both Filipino and international stars. She would also establish the first coffee-shop of note, with her own name, in the Makati Commercial Center, on the left side of the landmark Rizal Theater. Leila would also be the first social directress of the newly-built Hotel Intercontinental on Ayala Avenue. When the TV star moved to the United States, she became an important anchor of the “Voice of America” program that was broadcast throughout the Asia-Pacific.
The beautiful Leila would marry Donald McCollum, founder of the first marketing and television research company in the United States. She would retire in Manhattan, at the grand Beresford coop, which counted among its residents Glenn Close, Diana Ross, Jerry Seinfeld, Mike Nichols, and John McEnroe. She passed away April last year in New York.
This beloved star of Philippine television lived a wonderful and fulfilled life, adorned not just with music but also artworks that reflected her refinement, energy, and spirit. Among the treasures in her art collection are several featured pieces in the upcoming Magnificent September Auction: a brilliant Juvenal Sanso landscape, and two cubist works by Oscar Zalameda—a market scene and a scene that involves fishermen preparing to leave shore (both works acquired directly from the artist). Both Zalamedas exemplify the well-regarded artist’s “spirited and buoyant form of cubism” while all three works effortlessly reflect the vibrance and buoyant spirit possessed by Leila herself.
The Magnificent September Auction is happening on September 11 beginning at 2PM. Check out the offerings by clicking on this link. The event is presented by the country’s premiere auction house Leon Gallery together with ANCX.ph, the lifestyle and culture website of ANC, the ABS-CBN News Channel.
All photos courtesy of Leon Gallery