The Musser-Telmo House at 1149 Teodora San Luis Street (formerly 167 Calle Fraternidad, Pandacan, Manila.
Culture Spotlight

This Pandacan house was a 1930s movie studio, birthplace of the Pinoy talking picture

In the second of a series of stories on Philippine cinema, in celebration of its 100th year, Isidra Reyes takes us inside the arched gate of the Musser/Thelmo house in Pandacan — address of the 30s movie studio Manila Talkatone where the first “talking picture” came to life.
Isidra Reyes | Sep 24 2019

Pandacan, meaning the place where the Pandan grows, was named after the fragrant Pandan plant — or Pandanus gracilis — which once abounded in its verdant fields. Lovingly described in Luning B. Ira and Isagani R. Medina’s Streets of Manila as “beribboned with clear-running tributaries of the Pasig River over which smoothly plied slender wooden bancas, the picturesque and smiling town of Pandacan was referred to as ‘Little Venice.’”  

This lush setting was conducive to romance and the flowering of music, opera, drama, literature, and the zarzuela.  Before it became an industrial area where oil companies built their oil depots, Pandacan was the home of gifted musicians, singers, and dramatists. Here blossomed the talents of Philippine opera pioneer Ladislao Bonus and his son, the production designer Vicente Bonus, the zarzuelista Miguel Mansilungan, Prince of Tagalog poets Francisco Balagtas, Tagalog writer, poet, and journalist Lope K. Santos, Filipino language educator Paraluman Aspillera, composer and conductor Bonifacio Abdon, Kundiman Queen Atang dela Rama, and filmmakers, Jose Nepomuceno of Calle Beata and George P. Musser of Calle Fraternidad.  

On the street where she lived: Imelda Romualdez Marcos spent some of her childhood years in the street where the Musser/Thelmo house is located. Sources: David Montasco and Tito Encarnacion, AHP

As is fitting, this once bucolic Pandacan District of Manila would also give birth to what would become a favorite location for movie-making from as early as the 1930s: The Musser/Thelmo House at 1149 Teodora San Luis Street, formerly 167 Calle Fraternidad. Built circa 1920s, it is a two storey concrete structure on a 760-square-meter lot that appears to be a hybrid of the bahay na bato and Spanish Colonial Revival styles. 

On the same street where the house stands one also can still find the magnificent ancestral house of former Manila City Mayor Miguel Lopez Romualdez (1924-1927), where the young Imelda Romualdez grew up, and the former Pio Pedrosa House at 121 Calle Fraternidad. On the same street likewise stood the former homes of Padre Jacinto Zamora and Ladislao Bonus, Father of Philippine Opera. 

 

Inside the bahay na bato 

One makes his or her way into the Musser/Telmo house through an arched gate which looks similar to that of a large nipa house with a high-pitched roof — which possibly stood on the property before the current structure was built. Its not suprising why film people are drawn to the structure: it boasts an elegant and dramatic grandeur. Before the ornate main door on the ground level is an arched porch with squat Solomonic columns, while above is an arched open-air balcony with similar squat-looking Solomonic columns equipped with wrought iron grilles as railing. The arched main door bordered by colorful floral motifs leads to a massive Balayong staircase which in turn leads to the second floor. The flooring on the ground floor is covered in what looks like Machuca tiles while that of the second floor interior appears to be of Narra planks. Sliding wood and frosted glass-paned windows with wrought iron grills wrap around the house’s second floor. 

The second floor sala of the Musser-Telmo House. Source: Archivo 1984

Just like in the original bahay na bato style, ventanillas with external wooden balusters can be found beneath the windows for added light and ventilation, and the sala, comedor, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom can all be found on the second floor. The ground floor is used mainly for storage and housed the sound studio and laboratory when the Manila Talkatone Studios was still operating in the house. Some of the original architectural details remain, notably the wide wood panel doors, the quaint Solomonic columns, the ornate main door, and the Balayong staircase, but the house has been renovated in various styles, including fifties and sixties Mid-Century styles. The furnishings no longer look original and are from various periods. 

 

The aswang of Teodora San Luis

Fortunately, while there are no period photos of the house in its original state, the Musser/Thelmo House has been extensively documented in the movies. The very first movie photographed here was Manila Talkatone Studio’s Ang Aswang (1933), as confirmed by the movie’s sound technician himself, William “Billy” Smith, who gave an on-cam tour of the house in Agustin Sotto’s documentary, Philippine Cinema, 1912-1984.  

Philippine Cinema’s First Sound Engineer, William “Billy” Smith and renowned photographer and cinematographer, Charles “Chas” W. Miller, worked together in George Musser’s Ang Aswang (1933).

Footages of Araw Films’ Princess Tarhata —which is part of the omnibus film Brides of Sulu (1934) and shot in the Musser/Thelmo House, survive, showing the structure in its original splendor.

To better appreciate the Musser/Thelmo house’s significance, it is best to go back to the roots of the Musser family and George Musser’s Manila Talkatone Studios.

Still photo from George Musser’s Ang Aswang (1933) showing a levitating aswang. Source: CCPEncyclopedia of Art, Second Edition, Vol. 6-Film

George Patrick Musser was born on August 2, 1904, one of two sons of Henry Musser, a wealthy American businessman of Dutch ancestry, and Hermogena de Jesus, who belonged to a prominent landowning family from Pandacan, Manila, related to at least two families who both resided in Pandacan: the Romualdez and the Mendoza families. According to his obituary published in the Journal of the American Chamber of Commerce (February 1928), “Henry Musser was already residing in Manila when  Admiral George Dewey defeated the Spanish fleet.” He lived at the European Hotel on the site of what is now Regina Building in Escolta. He was “suspected of liaison connections with the fleet and had difficulty keeping out of the clutches of authorities.” Born in 1851 in Richmond, Virginia, Henry Musser moved westward, first to Leadville, Colorado then to Alaska, where he was involved in gold trading and mail transport via dog sleds between Juno and Nome, Alaska. While in Leadville, Colorado, he became a member of the Elks and later became a founding member of the Manila Elks Club. 

Photo of Eduardo de Castro and Adelina Moreno, lead stars of Brides of Sulu (1934) with a Caucasian male on the of the movie.  Was he John Nelson, the movie’s credited director?  Source: Adelina Moreno Album

According to Paquito Dela Cruz in a post in the Facebook group Manila Nostalgia, Henry Musser was already well-established in the islands at the time of the Battle of Manila Bay, operating a plumbing services and supply company in Calle Real, Intramuros for several years together with his partner, Herbert Rees.  Don Henry “Enrique” Martyn Jones (1859-1936), an American from Kansas who was previously a builder in Central America, came to the Philippines and initially partnered with Musser before buying out the business of Henry Musser & Co. under the entity, American Hardware & Plumbing Co. Jones later saw the potential of swamplands south of Luneta, acquired  properties from Malate to Paco, reclaimed these lands himself, and developed them into subdivisions.  

Screen grab from Brides of Sulu (1934) showing lead stars Adelina Moreno and Eduardo de Castro.

After selling his share in the business in 1902, Henry Musser became a plantation owner in Davao briefly before moving back to Manila several years later. He then established a new firm, Henry Musser Plumbing & Sheet Metal Works Co., with offices at 203-205 Plaza Santa Cruz, Manila, which was later run by his sons, Henry, Jr, and George.

George Patrick and his brother, Henry, Jr. received their early education at Central School (later renamed Bordner School) at the corner of Taft Avenue and San Luis Street (now T.M. Kalaw Street), later enrolling at Inglewood High School in Los Angeles, California. Henry got honors in athletics while George returned to Manila prior to graduation in 1925 because, according to him, “my father was growing old and he wanted me to have some practical experience in the business before he died.” George Patrick and Henry, Jr. both inherited the business after their father died.  As described in Henry Musser, Sr.’s obituary, the Mussers were “fine manly boys, both devoted to their father, and both seemingly very capable and enterprising.”

Employees of Henry Musser Plumbing pose in front of their company office/store in Plaza Santa Cruz, Manila. Source: Paquito Dela Cruz, Manila Nostalgia FB Group

 

Plumbing the depths of cinema

It is not known how George Musser developed an interest in filmmaking considering that the family’s business was really plumbing, but in 1932, George Musser organized Manila Talkatone Studios, importing P50,000 worth of optical sound equipment and turned a part of his house in Pandacan into a film studio. He was joined by Charles Miller as his cinematographer and William P. Smith as his sound technician.

The first feature film produced by Manila Talkatone Studios was Ang Aswang which took a year to complete. According to Nick de Ocampo’s Film, American Influences on Philippine Cinema, Musser did not devote all his time to making the film and only shot on weekends and holidays. It is probable that George Musser was too busy running the family’s plumbing business with his brother, Henry, Jr., on weekdays and could only devote his weekends and holidays to working on the movie.  

George Musser peering through his movie camera at Manila Talkatone Studios. Source: Archivo 1984

Despite its Filipino language title, the dialogue of Ang Aswang was in Spanish and English, perhaps to reach a wider audience abroad, particularly the United States and Latin America. Starring in the film together with the actress Mary Walter and “Queen of Horror Pictures” Monang Carvajal were newcomers Monserrat Garcia, Arturo Swanson, stage veteran Matias Garcia, and the beautiful Celia Xerez-Burgos who was entrusted with the leading female role. 

When asked by writer Rosendo V. Donida in his article on the movie published in Graphic dated 1932, Garcia had an interesting comment regarding locally-made talking pictures. He believed that Philippine-made sound films “will find good markets in South America, for the people out there speak Spanish, as we do.” He also said people in South America were equally interested in our activities, like our fascination for locally produced photoplays.  

Katy Pons Musser with two of her four children, Charles “Charlie” and George.

As pointed out in Nick De Ocampo’s abovementioned book, “even as late as the 1930s, (there) was a clear preference for the production of Spanish-language films aimed at audiences in Latin America where people spoke in Spanish, not English. This is an added evidence of continuing Hispanic cultural influences three decades after the American Occupation. It allowed Manileños to think of their external market as Spanish-speaking peoples.”  

But the inclusion of English dialogue in Ang Aswang is also evidence of the growing number of English-speaking Filipinos in the Philippines at the time.

Ang Aswang even had an English title, The Vampire, perhaps for non-Filipino viewers unfamiliar with this Philippine mythological creature.

Aswangs in various forms and guises have long fascinated Filipino filmmakers and moviegoers. The very first Tagalog horror photoplay was Jose Nepomuceno’s Tianak (1926), starring Rosa del Rosario and Rogelio de la Rosa, which was a huge moneymaker. Jose Nepomuceno followed it up with Ang Mananaggal (1927) with Mary Walter in the title role. 

 

Critical acclaim 

Musser’s Ang Aswang, which debuted to critical acclaim at the Neo-Mudejar Style Lyric Theater in Escolta on January 1, 1933 (it had a regular run from January 4 to 5 at the Tivoli), is considered “the first talking picture” in Philippine Cinema, according to Vicente Salumbides in his seminal book, Motion Pictures in the Philippines (1952). With the advent of sound in the 1930s, it was a time of experimentation for local filmmakers. While not the first Filipino movie with sound, Ang Aswang was the first to use optical sound. According to some reviews, however, this first attempt was sometimes out of sync and inaudible in parts. Carlos Vander Tolosa’s previous attempt to come up with a sound movie, Collegian Love (1930), only synchronized the silent film with sound coming from a phonograph record.

Newspaper ad for George Musser’s Ang Aswang (1933), which premiered at Lyric Theater, Escolta, Manila on 1 January 1937.

Ang Aswang’s soundman, Wiliam “Billy” Smith, an American mestizo born to a Thomasite father and a Filipina mother, was considered the first Filipino sound recording engineer. While still in his teens, Smith was employed by Lyric Film Exchange to install sound equipment in theaters in the Philippines and Indonesia. In Agustin Sotto’s documentary, he fondly reminisces on the shooting of his very first film while revisiting the Musser House in Pandacan: “This was where we made the interior shots of the movie, Ang Aswang fifty one years ago. The first sound (movie) in the Philippine Islands.  Everyone worked part-time on Sundays and holidays. We also shot in the Pasig River and also in Intramuros. This was the first sound booth in the Philippine Islands. I had this sound booth constructed (in the Musser Residence) with a glass window where I could see the shooting.  This was where my mixer would be, the recorder here, and the battery here...this was also where we had the laboratory where we would process the films in total darkness. Then they would be spun into reels for drying, after which they were ready for printing.”  

Horror movies from Early Philippine Cinema: Jose Nepomuceno’s Tianak (1926), Tor Villano’s Taong Demonyo (1937) and Halimaw (1941). Source: Pinoy Kollektor and imdb.com

After working with Musser’s Manila Talkatone Studios, Smith moved to Filippine Films in 1933 and Parlatone Hispano-Filipino in 1935 and applied the knowledge that he gained working with American technicians. In 1937, he and Luis Nolasco chose the location of the Sampaguita Pictures at Gilmore Avenue, Quezon City and set up the first Reeves black & white laboratory and developed its first optical sound equipment. After the war, he produced the first Filipino film in color, Si Malakas at Si Maganda (1947) and would later put up Smith Sound System Laboratories at J. Fernandez Street, San Juan City together with his wife which pioneered in the reduction of 35 mm. films to 16mm.  He helped train many veteran soundmen, cinematographers, editors, and labmen.  For his many achievements and generosity in sharing his expertise, he gained the esteem of the Filipino film industry and was awarded a Natatanging Gawad Urian in 1984.

 

Father of Philippine sound pictures 

Ang Aswang cinematographer Charles “Chas” W. Miller, master photographer of the famous Chas Miller Studio, is said to be the “Father of Philippine Sound Pictures.”  Born in London, England, from grammar to high school, he stayed with his uncle who was a painter who influenced him in his later career as cinematographer and photographer. In the 1930s, he also worked as a cameraman in Hollywood for Universal International Pictures. Before WWII, he had his own photographic studio, Chas W. Miller Studio at 114-116 Escolta, Manila which reopened after the war as Chas W. Miller & Son, first at 563 Isaac Peral St. and later at the ground floor of Elena Apartments at the corner of A. Mabini and Romero Salas Sts., Ermita, Manila.  

For three and a half years during the Japanese Occupation, he and his family were incarcerated at the U.S.T. Internment Camp. His son, Robert Walker Miller later ran his photographic studio, one of the most renowned in Pre- and Post-War Manila.

Manila Talkatone Studios would make at least two more films, Bonifacio and Pulong Walang Diyos. While the company made only three films, its studios, the Musser House, and its then state of the art equipment continued to be used by other film production outfits.  Moreover, George P. Musser, seems to have had a network of Hollywood connections as evidenced by a society page account of a lavish reception at the Mussers’ Pandacan house attended by executives of Hollywood studios such as a Director Scott of Paramount Pictures, and a Mr. Morgan, photographer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Studios, who were on a pleasure trip in the islands.  

According to the same newspaper account, the guests were shown the studio of Mr. Musser. “All guests admired the studio and its costly equipment.” 

Jose Nepomuceno before his movie camera. Source: Nepomuceno Productions FB Group

As mentioned earlier, Araw Productions’ Princess Tarhata, produced by cinematographer Jose Domingo Badilla and starring Dally Moreno and Adolfo Sotelo, was shot at the Musser House and the Manila Talkatone Studios. Its female lead, billed as “Dally Moreno” was also known as Adelina Moreno and later as Gilda Gales, the better to highlight her likeness to Hollywood legend, Greta Garbo. She made another film for Manila Talkatone Studios, Bonifacio, which was not well-publicized and may have been only shown abroad due to its controversial subject and in deference to Emilio Aguinaldo who was still alive at the time.  In 1935, Gales received an offer from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for a role in Frank Lloyd’s production of Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) starring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable. She would have played one of the island women in the movie but unfortunately, she was ill at the time and could not stand the rigors of travel.  

Not much is known about the fate of Manila Talkatone Studios after the three films it produced. It is likewise unknown if the Musser Plumbing business continued as it is no longer listed among the leading plumbing companies in Manila in Cornejo’s Commonwealth Directory of the Philippines (1939). Did the Mussers sell the business or did it just fold up? A notice of properties and owners with real property tax delinquencies published in The Tribune on April 7, 1937 included the Musser property at 167 Fraternidad under the name of Hermogena de Jesus de Musser, George P. Musser’s mother. And when George Patrick Musser passed away on 24 May 1960 at the Far Eastern University Hospital in Manila, the Report of Death of An American Citizen listed his address as 740 A. Alejandro 6, Sampaloc, Manila which was different from the address of his wife, Catalina Pons Musser, and children, George, Jr., Charles, and Teresita, who all resided at 1450 Union, Paco, Manila.  Later, all his family relocated to Los Angeles, California and the Musser House at 167 Fraternidad, Pandacan, Manila was sold to Pedro and Milagros Llerena Telmo (Thelmo) in 1970.

The Telmos were a family of professionals and businessmen. Milagros passed away on March 22, 1977 while her husband, Pedro, followed her in 1982. Only their son Agapito, a lawyer, remained as resident of the house until his passing last 15 June 2018.  

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Casa Matta von Pandacon. Dumont D’Urville, 1835. 

Glamour studio photo of the very handsome Eduardo de Castro dubbed as “Rudolph Valentino of the Philippines lead star of The Moro Pirate/Moro Pirates and Brides of Sulu. Source:  Gardner Photo Album

Photos of the Don Miguel Lopez Romualdez House, Teodora San Luis Street (formerly Calle Fraternidad), Pandacan, Manila.  This was the house where former First Lady.

Filipino movies shot at the Musser/Telmo House: Chito Rono’s Ikaw Lang (1983), Raya Martin’s The Great Cinematic Party (2012), and Adolfo Alix’s Padre de Familia (2015). 

Main Entrance Door with arched colonnaded porch, Musser-Telmo House. Source: Archivo 1984

Still photo from Brides of Sulu (1934) showing lead stars Adelina Moreno and Eduardo de Castro.Source: Adelina Moreno Album

Screen grabs from Brides of Sulu (1934) showing the interiors of the Musser House. 

The beautiful Celia Xerez-Burgos, lead actress of George Musser’s Ang Aswang (1933).  Source: Film, American Influences in Philippine Cinema, from Graphic, December 1932 

Autographed photo of Monang “Patring” Carvajal, Pre-War Queen of Horror Movies and one of the stars of Ang Aswang (1933). 

The Musser/Telmo house eventually became a favorite location for the shooting of movies and teleseryes. Among the most memorable were Chito Roño’s Ikaw Lang (1983); Raya Martin’s The Great Cinema Party (2012) which shows the Telmo House still opulently furnished and shot in black & white; Adolfo Alix, Jr.’s Padre de Familia (2015), starring Nora Aunor, Coco Martin, Joel Torre, and Anita Linda; and the ABS-CBN teleseryes, Kokey, Pangako Sa ‘Yo and Forevermore. 

After being in the market for a long time, the Musser/Telmo House was recently sold by a branch of the Telmo family.  Reportedly, it is now fenced off, ready for demolition it seems. It would be a big loss should the house be demolished as it is not only architecturally significant but is an important part of the history of Philippine Cinema—which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this month. It is where the very first sound movie in the Philippines was born, and now that physical evidence of that period in local moviemaking is hard to come by, the house on Teodora San Luis Street would serve as a marker not only of an important moment in Philippine movies, but as a reminder of what Pandacan once was. 

 

In commemoration of 100 years of Philippine Cinema, Archivo 1984 Gallery presents: Manila Talkatone Studios and the Movie Art of Vicente Bonus, featuring never before seen photographs of behind the scenes prewar movie productions of director, George Musser, and production designer, Vicente Bonus. The exhibit opens with back to back film talks with Teddy Co and Lito Bonus (son of Vicente Bonus) on the makings of early film, and Andrew Leavold on Philippine Diasporic Cinema in Hawaii.  
 
The exhibit opens on the 25th September 2019 at 7PM at Archivo 1984, Pasillo 18, 2241 La Fuerza Compound, Chino Roces Avenue, Makati City.