The year was 1992, and I had taken a hiatus from Theater to concentrate on other careers in Advertising and Journalism. I had moved from the agency, Hemisphere-Leo Burnett to help restaurateur Larry Cruz as the Managing Editor of Metro Magazine. This was way before the glossy publication was purchased by ABS-CBN.
Larry gave me free rein to work on stories that I thought would develop the magazine in the Vanity Fair mold. Unusual angles, subjects who were out-of-the-ordinary glossy magazine fare, "pa"- intellectual stories with arresting visuals. When I pitched the story on bringing together Bibot Amador, Rolando Tinio, Behn Cervantes and Tony Mabesa, the four Icons of Philippine Contemporary Theater, for a photo shoot, I remember that Larry looked at me with disbelief and said, “Kaya ba yan? Di ba magkaaway ang mga yan?" But he approved of the story anyway.
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Coordinating the schedules of the four was real work. Since they all had rehearsals or shows in the evening, daytime was the only option. I was to pick up Behn at 8am, proceed to Tony, then pick up Bibot. Rolando would meet us at the CCP, he said. But at the last minute he asked to be picked up in Tandang Sora, which threw the whole sked off. Still, it was great fun as the Metro van grew rowdier with each passenger. I remember telling photographer Jacinto Tee not to be shocked and just take it all in.
Especially when Behn would ask him, "Are you good? Can you make me look like Ava Gardner?"
At the CCP Little Theater, the real action began. I had some thumbnail sketches to show how we envisioned the photo, but Rolando had other ideas. At one point, he even pulled down his pants and showed off his ass "because this picture isn't just for posterity but for Posteriority!" Behn , who was dead serious about pictorials, kept telling Rolando to behave.
Tony said, "O basta ako, kailangan maganda!" Bibot was the coolest of them all. She just kept laughing at the antics while cooperating. At one point, I told Jack (Jacinto Tee), “Shoot ka na lang nang shoot. They will not stand still, no matter what I say."
After the shoot, Metro treated the fab four to lunch at Bistro Remedios. It was there where they all grew quiet and more relaxed, sharing memories and stories from past productions. Larry dropped by just to see how it was going. "O, buhay pa silang lahat?" he kidded. It was popular belief that all four could not stand each other or were bitter rivals. Very few knew of their common roots, and how , despite their different artistic leanings, they would always be, first and foremost, Colleagues. And yes, Family.
My one memory of that lunch is one of four old siblings, all at the peak of their careers, just enjoying the company of one another. No one was a star in that table, all were equals. And there was very little talk of their theater groups and current projects! Old friends, mentors, actors who had passed on, private jokes and pranks they had all played on each other as young theater artists were the topics of conversation. Indeed, why talk about what you were doing now when there was such joy to be mined in the past?
They are all gone now. If memory serves, Rolando went first, then Bibot, and then Behn. I remember once telling Tony, that he was, of that great pride, the last lion standing.
Ever humble (and he truly was for those who knew him), he said "Uy, si Pagsi ( Mr. Onofre Pagsanghan) pa. And he is most deserving of the National Artist award."
I look at these photos and think all the greatness, all legendary qualities we imbue them with fade away. I will remember most the Humility, the Constancy of Friendship, the Joy, the amazing Humanity without which great artistry is never achieved.
Tomorrow at the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater, Palma Hall, University of the Philippines Diliman, there will be a tribute to Tony Mabesa called “Tonite for Tony! A celebration.” The evening will begin at 5PM for a public viewing of the theater titan’s remains. There will be a mass at 7PM, and a celebration featuring the friends and students of Tony Mabesa by 9PM.