C'est chic: Ernest Santiago, Shola Luna, Dave Tupas and Imee Marcos in Coco Banana. Photograph courtesy of Lorenzo Leviste
Style Style Profile

Last days of disco: Coco Banana’s characters, catfights and costume balls

“You can’t be too straight or square if you want to be at Coco. Even society people—they have to be a little mad to dare enter.”
Jerome Gomez | Nov 02 2018

[While most accounts of Coco Banana's years are purely reminiscences of guests and devotees, this story rests on a most valuable resource: Ernest Santiago himself, the club's impresario, interviewed in 2007 to drum up interest for a party that will be thrown in Coco's honor by Metro Society—the magazine where this piece first appeared. A new interview, and a few details have been added to the article's present form just to, well, freshen things up. Photographs were supplied by the writer, erstwhile designer and stylist, Lorenzo Leviste.—Editor]   

 

To hear its devotees say it, the look of the place fails to evoke the fabled long nights and decadent parties that made it a legend. The vignettes its habitués remember comprise an old house rustic in appearance, Machuka tile flooring retained from the original structure, bleachers made of wooden planks surrounding the dance floor, the metal and glass door, and the bar at the right.

How these elements become by nighttime Coco Banana, the most fabulous club in the history of Manila nightlife, is a transformation born out of the virtuoso hand of Manila’s Steve Rubell, the creative impresario Ernest Santiago, and the cast of characters he assembles. “You can’t be too straight or square if you want to be at Coco. Even society people—they have to be a little mad to dare enter,” remembers a former Malate club owner. Of course, the people alone didn’t account for each evening’s high spirits: there was the music, there were the drinks, and then there were the drugs.

Won't you take me to Funkytown?

Coco Banana was born in the era of sex, drugs and Donna Summer. It opened the evening of the Philippine Independence Day anniversary of 1976. “It was the first openly gay club in Asia,” says Louie Cruz who can’t remember if he was already wearing his off-the-shoulder blouses then. “But it was not just a gay ghetto,” offers Ricky Toledo, who started frequenting Coco as a student in Ateneo. It was the club to see and be seen—and during the Martial Law years, it was everyone’s fun, glamorous jailhouse of choice if you want to avoid the PC (that’s Philippine Constabulary).

Ernest Santiago, designer by day, club impresario and door bitch by evening.

The place never announced its exact address. “The world knows where we are,” its tagline said. And yet, in its 12-year run, Manila’s nocturnal creatures knew exactly where to go when they wanted to party like it’s 1979: that old house-turned-hedonist mecca along Remedios Street, three houses from the corner where the atelier of designer Mike dela Rosa still stands. (One would think Santiago could have printed its location on the souvenir matchstick pads scattered at the bar. Those pads, it turned out, proved handy for jotting down the name and number of one’s catch for the night.)

“Nobody discovers Coco. Coco discovers you and imbues you with stardom all throughout your life,” says the writer Noel Anonuevo who was then in his 20s, the age of innocence and “the peak of nonchalance.”

“If you never learned how to make a drop-dead entrance in Coco,” he adds, “you can’t have a gorgeous entrée anywhere else. Coco was ground zero. A finishing school cum disco.”

Bored by the dreary Manila nightlife and with P25,000 to spare, fashion designer by day Ernest Santiago decided to open Coco Banana “para may mapuntahan naman ang mga bakla.” He was a lean, bemoustached fella with jet-black shoulder-length hair who could be wearing something fabulous of his own creation one evening (a white denim trench coat perhaps, sprinkled with rhinestones) and something that enhances his gym bunny reputation the next (military pants with a metal-studded belt, a cut-off shirt and a pair of leather boots).

Eddie Garcia, Becky Garcia and Jullie Daza, among other club guests.

He looks like a still, that man is dressed to kill

Then in his 30s, Santiago was the club’s proprietor, creative director, Mother Superior, and door bitch. By 9pm at the entrance, he would scan aspirants in the queue from head to toe and decide if one would be let in or be told to scram and change (most of those declined actually go home and change; those who don’t follow a party’s costume theme is ‘quarantined’ for an hour and a half at the holding area before they could join the party). Those whose "vibes" he simply didn’t like were told the place was full. He wasn’t called ‘Tarurit’ (or mataray) for nothing. “He was a force to reckon with,” says Chito Vijandre, who once won a trip to Paris for showing up as the lion in The Wiz. “He had the most piercing eyes,” he says of Santiago.

But even while Santiago starts watching the doors at 9, the cool kids arrive after midnight. “One never goes to a disco or club before midnight,” says Anonuevo, aghast. “Unless you’re from Cainta or Calumpang, or some sort of bridge-and-tunnel crowd.”

“Since I was working,” he continues, “I prepared for Coco by first going home to refresh and take a power nap that will fuel me all night long. Also, to change attire. Casual party glam, let’s call it that. Some go to dinner before Coco, in order to arrive by midnight. A group entrance is best. Incidentally, although boys technically wore no make-up, our eyes were properly applied with kohl, a ritual taught by make-up wiz Ruben Nazareth. Kohl eyes completed The Look. It was de riguer to have The Look. The 80s look. Think Wham, Grace Jones, and Ziggy Stardust.”

Weeding out the undesirables at the entrance allows Santiago to create the potent cocktail of a party crowd the club was famous for: a mix of artists, drag queens, diplomats, journalists, show biz celebrities and members of Manila’s 400. For the Coco impresario, it was always about the mix—and the liberating feeling of being in a huge crowd packed into a small place, with the collision of everyone’s breath, sweat, scent and smoke just adding to the dizzying effect of one’s tall drink or combination upper and downer of the evening.

Helena Carratala in costume; and Ballet Philippines pioneer Alice Reyes with husband Dick Upton.

Burn, baby, burn

The dance hall itself was dimly lit, with only a few pin lights landing on guests’s faces, “so that everyone gravitates to the dance floor like an enigma,” Santiago says with theatrical hands. A spotlight quickly locates a new guest’s arrival each time the door opens “so that everyone feels like a star.” On special evenings, a significant portion of Remedios Street will be closed and a red carpet rolled out for Coco’s guests—velvet ropes, spotlights and all.

It was a melting pot of nationalities. Whenever a foreign celebrity arrived in town, there was a big chance he or she will be at Coco. At any given night, one can meet a prince, a baron, a vicomte—if one is lucky, one moves on to the hotel room of chosen vicomte. For young men like Toledo, Coco was a lesson in international relations. “What they don’t teach you in school, you learn at Coco.”

The Coco years were the Marcos years (Imee would make her appearances), and Santiago’s flair for entertaining was so renowned that Malacañang would often call on his services to take care of its VIP guests. Champagne, needless to say, flowed like water. Once, claims Santiago, he got a call from Francis Ford Coppola asking if he could accommodate the cast members of Apocalypse Now which was then filming in the Philippines.

Celebrities from Sean Connery to members of the Village People have partied at Coco. Felipe Rose, that Native American-attired Villager, loved Coco so much he stayed on in Manila after the rest of the group left. We haven’t seen a physical copy but, also as per Ernest, when Lynda Carter, TV’s Wonder Woman, landed on the cover of Time, she sported a Coco Banana shirt from the club’s souvenir shop.

The popularity of Coco was such that it was immortalized in a popular Hotdog song which became a Nora Aunor movie, Annie Batungbakal. The same song made a household name of hairstylist Budji Layug, more famous then as Budjiwara—Budji for short (“Buhok mo’y Budji, talampaka’y Gucci”)—a member of a batch of fabulous young men which included Louie Cruz, Ron Gomez and Ruben Nazareth who made Coco their second home, fresh from their London training under Vidal Sassoon.

The fabulous Wolfie Bierlien as Jay Gatsby, with his Daisy in the person of Marilou Prieto; Chito Madrigal was proposed to at Coco by then boyfriend Manoling Collantes.

We are family

For the entrance fee that began at five pesos (which reached P150 before it closed), one is assured of an elaborate visual treat beginning with Santiago’s lighting effects and a drag show. James Cooper as Diana Ross was a star and so was a group called Coquettes who performed musical reviews. The club’s excellent production of West Side Story ran for eight weeks, prompting the CCP to write a review in its gazette. Then there was the dance music—the latest from underground cult clubs in New York. The swing was at its peak. Gloria Gaynor. Alicia Bridges. Yvonne Elliman. “People really get up and dance like it was a show,” recalls Vijandre.

Santiago prohibited any drug-dealing in the club so people brought their baon. The drugs of choices were Quaaludes (“Q”) or Mandrax (or “ekis”), and the occasional cocaine. You want a tablet of Q, Louie Cruz will gladly put one on your tongue--but he wants to see you swallow it. “Because he might want to take it in his own time,” says Louie, “but you’re there to get high sabay.” A tablet accidentally dropping on the floor will cause a mild commotion—everyone will start searching the floor to snatch it. Otherwise, Cruz jests, it was a welcome idea to vacuum-lick the Machuka.

The ekis action would reach its peak at The Rocky Horror Picture Show productions. Santiago played Mr. Frank-N-Furter, the mad scientist slash transvestite at the center of the ‘70s musical on sexual confusion and ambiguous morality.

“Walang away-away no’n,” Santiago recalls, “Everyone was kalmado, parang nakatingin lang sa langit lahat.”

Although there were minor catfights here and there, the one memorable eksena took place one Saturday night between a pair of very prominent, very rich lesbian lovers, and a Bvlgari necklace. As soon as lesbian#1 found out lesbian#2 was at Coco with a date, #1 approached #2 and dragged her out of the club by her Bvlgari. And because #1 refused to contain her rage, she slammed one of Coco’s lights with the necklace. The scene lasted a whole ten minutes—afterwhich everyone went about dancing again as if they had just blinked. But Manila society would talk about that necklace incident for weeks.

And then there will be another Santiago gimmick to talk about: an Orientalia party, a L’Uomo Vogue-inspired night of all white and mirrors all over. “Parang Midsummer Night’s Dream araw-araw,” describes a regular. From nowhere, muscled men will be carrying a Cleopatra-wannabe to the dance hall. One time, Santiago rented the little people from neighbor Hobbit House so that he entered the party escorted by a throng of elves. There was an evening where there were mannequins everywhere painted with street graffiti. There was an ukay-ukay theme, with vintage clothes that hung from a number of suspended copper wires, as in a sampayan. A favorite of the gay men were the horses at the Carousel-themed shebangs. “They will sit on the horses holding their drinks. It was a great place for vogue-ing. And cruising,” says Toledo, who once appeared at Coco wearing a Roman toga and sandals, holding a party mask with its replica painted on his face.

Lorenzo Leviste as Josephine Baker at the Legends Party, with Leo Khan as Toulouse Lautrec.

“Everything was done in good taste,” says Santiago, “wild but in good taste.” Not surprising since it was the favorite hangout of the style and fashion set, from designers like Inno Sotto, Rusty Lopez and Romulo Estrada, to top models like Anna Bayle, and fashion patrons like Chito Madrigal. One could watch Chona Kasten or Mary Prieto all night just being themselves, keeping their poise no matter the number of drinks. Once, socialite Cristina Valdez showed up in Eliza Doolitle’s Ascot garb complete with parasol. “Mama Ernest would change the decor yearly. And a costume party would inaugurate the new style,” recalls Larry Leviste on Facebook. Being invited to the occasion meant “you were to be attired as a living or dead legend. I was Josephine Baker, completely naked except for sequined bananas. My escort Don Escudero [was a six foot Mickey Mouse.” The designer Joe Salazar once won a prize for his stylized Ibong Adarna costume: a bodysuit with feathers, sequins and mirror chips. Helena Guerrero of Azabache fame stole one evening when she came in full geisha regalia.

“The very first Coco ball which had a Hollywood theme, I came in a corset as FrankN Furter in The Rocky Horror Show. Unfortunately, the cult musicale had not reached Hollywood yet, so nobody understood my Rocky Horror corset costume. Elvira Manahan lent me her corset. I couldn’t breathe!!!”

 

Don't leave me this way

Much as there was always someone to look at, there was always something to turn one’s gaze to above eye level: a huge jar with an outrageous, larger-than-life flower arrangement for example. Santiago has a reason for this: when the eyes are looking up, they are strained to become bigger. And in those days, big spotlight eyes were all the rage.

 

Click on the image below for slideshow

Cora Relova as LVN's Doña Sisang.

Jane Umali in wet gauze. 

Larry Leviste and Quito Cu-unjieng as taxi dancers from Sweet Charity, at Coco's Hollywood-themed anniversary.

Tetta Agustin, then model of Hubert de Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent, wearing a red chantilly lace number by Rusty Lopez, her escort.

Mary Prieto, Eula Viana of Realistic Institute, Marshall Factor, Richard Warwick and Josine Elizalde in the Red and White Coco party.

Chito Vijandre as the Lion in The Wiz, and Ernest Santiago as a Vegas showgirl. 

From Baul ni Juan, an invitation for the Legend Party in 1982.

Cristina Valdez as Eliza Doolittle.

Menchu Menchaca in Auggie Cordero.

Felipe of the Village People who stayed in Manila to play the lead in the club's SRO production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. 

At one point in the evening, just when everyone is in the highest of spirits, say when Diana Ross is on her last notes of “I’m Coming Out,” a wave of Santiago’s hand would bring the music to a halt and a collective “Awwwww” and whistles will be heard from the crowd. Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer’s “No More Tears” would come in past 4am, a signal from Santiago that says, “no more partying, enough is enough.” Most nights, guests would pass out wasted on the cushioned bleachers, from which they will be carted off by their drivers who would knock on Coco’s doors come four in the morning to retrieve their senyoras.

Nobody it seemed wanted to leave Coco Banana. At six in the morning, one could still hear glasses tinkling inside. Even in the last days of disco, the club’s loyalists continued to want more.

In 1988, however, Santiago thought the club has had its time. Vijandre recalls the tears during that last big party. Everyone turned up and partied to the hilt, as if doomsday was but a few hours away. Nobody remembers exactly what happened the night of the last big Coco shebang—and with the club's reputation, it's totally understandable. In fact, Santiago recalls no such party. In his mind, he gave no announcement of the club’s exit. If his memory serves, he got up one morning and locked Coco’s doors forever—closing an era of glitter and wild abandon Manila has never again witnessed.

 

All photographs courtesy of Lorenzo Leviste, except Legends Ball invitation from Baul ni Juan.