Before they hit it big in showbiz, comedians Ai-Ai de las Alas and Arnell Ignacio started as regular performers at the legendary sing-along bar Music Box, along Timog Avenue in Quezon City in the mid-'80s, where some of the finest comedy artists also had their humble beginnings.
Music Box was owned by the late Delfin Exconde De Dios, Jr., fondly called Boss Wowie by all the comedians who performed “the world’s first minus-one sing along bar” that started in 1984. De Dios died last April 9 which left many of those who know him in shock.
“Ano ba ‘yang si Boss Wowie, bigla na lang nawala sa earth?” De las Alas told ABS-CBN News. “Dalawang ninong ko na sa kasal ang nawala, because of COVID.”
De Dios, who was born on July 31, 1956, was only 28 when he opened Music Box initially along Banawe corner Simon Street in Quezon City, its original location. At that time, there was only Sonny Pingca who was helping De Dios run the place. The latter was De Dios’s “waiter, cook, host, cashier, manager,” in the venue.
After more than a year, before the EDSA Revolution took place in February 1986, Music Box transferred to its long-time address along Timog Avenue corner Quezon Avenue, in the building owned by the De Dios family.
“I was still a student at UP [University of the Philippines] and at the same time, I was already teaching at UE [University of the East],” Arnell Ignacio told ABS-CBN News. “[Director] Roni Bertubin asked me to go with him to Music Box. He told me, ‘Ang daming taga showbiz doon.’”
Music Box became a melting pot for many showbiz celebrities and creative people in the business, from directors and scriptwriters to TV hosts and even the stars themselves. Seen there were director Maryo J. De los Reyes, scriptwriter Ricky Lee, TV host Pepe Pimentel and even superstar Nora Aunor would watch shows at Music Box, then frequented by her erstwhile manager, Boy Palma.
“Roni asked me to go with him to Music Box. Kahit hindi naman ako umiinom, pinainom nila ako,” Ignacio recalled. “Then, when I was called to sing onstage, lasing na ako. Lumaklak na ako ng beer, pero kumanta pa rin ako na gumagapang sa stage. ‘Sunglasses at Night’ at naka-shades pa.
“Maybe Boss Wowie saw something in me. Pinabalik ako and offered me to become a sing-along master at Music Box. At that time, I was also performing at Minus One Bar in Agoncillo [in Malate]. Taga-bigay lang ako ng mike doon. Kailangan ko lang ng pera.”
It wasn’t hard to convince Ignacio to work at Music Box. “Ang saya-saya doon,” he shared. “Ang daming tao every night. Very dynamic.”
De las Alas graduated from college in 1985, and started working right away. She took on a day job as secretary at Bulwagang Gantimpala, which held office at the Metropolitan Theater.
“Naglayas ako noon kasi ayaw akong payagan ng nanay ko na mag-work sa gabi,” she recalled. “Mahigpit ang nanay ko, nainis ako at nag-away kami. Pumunta ako sa friend ko [Almie Bulatao], tapos ‘yung jowa niya magaling kumanta at mahilig mag-sing-along. So pumunta kami sa Music Box. Doon, kumanta ako kahit hindi ko alam ang lyrics. Tapos sumasayaw pa ako. Dancer ako, di ba? Malakas lang talaga ang loob ko.”
The next time De las Alas went to Music Box, she was offered by De Dios to become a sing-along host, which she turned down right away.
“Naku, hindi po ako marunong mag-host,” she remembered telling him. “Sabi niya sa akin, ‘Basta, ako ang bahala sa ‘yo, basta dito ka lang.'”
“Hindi naman talaga ako marunong mag-host,” De las Alas admitted. “Hindi ako makasabay. Natutuwa lang si Boss Wowie sa akin kaya ako nandoon.”
De Dios had a different perspective about the entertainment business. “Nakita niya ako, performing na lasing,” Ignacio said. “Maybe he told himself, ‘I will bet on this talent. Pupuhunanan ko ito.’ Kung iba ‘yun, maybe pinalayas na ako.”
Ignacio was later paired with De las Alas onstage. “Kami lang dalawa ni Ai-Ai ang nag-start sa Music Box. Pinaka-una kaming performers doon.”
De las Alas acknowledged De Dios’ help extended to her at the time she was still starting in the entertainment business. “Kung hindi niya ako kinuha na sing-along master sa Music Box, hindi sana ako si Ai-Ai ngayon,” she posted her message on Instagram.
“Sobrang nalungkot ako. Siya ang mahal kong boss. Salamat Boss Wowie sa opportunity na binigay mo sa akin. Salamat sa friendship. Salamat sa kabaitan mo sa akin. Salamat at ikaw ang unang naniwala sa amin ni Arnell.”
De Dios was a “well-educated” businessman and boss, according to Ignacio. “Hindi lang puro ka-cheapan at ka-artehan kapag nag-iisip. Marami siyang big ideas, like awards night.
“Magaling din siya sa negosyo niya. He could balance everything he did. I would say he was way ahead of his time. Ang humor niya very ‘Saturday Night Live.’ Nakikita niya sa amin noon ‘yun. Kami ni Ai-Ai at ni Sonny.”
Music Box was always packed nightly that shows often extended to sun up. “Pero 'pag dating ng 5 in the morning, palagi kaming tumatakas ni Arnell kasi pagod na kami,” recalld De las Alas. “Minsan, makiki-usap sa amin si Boss Wowie na mag-stay kasi may tao pa.
“Pero madalas hindi ko na kaya, kasi may work pa ako sa Manila ‘pag dating ng 8 a.m. Madalas, kumakain na lang kami ni Arnell ng goto o lugaw sa restaurant malapit sa Music Box.”
De las Alas attested she was really a workhorse then. “Masipag talaga ako. Gusto ko marami akong pera na mabigay sa nanay ko. Pumayag na siya na mag-work ako sa gabi.”
Their take home pay nightly was P200, but De las Alas and Ignacio would usually earn more from gratuity from customers who frequented Music Box.
“Meron akong mga fans galing sa gobyerno na pumupunta sa Music Box every night ‘pag nandoon ako,” she said. “Loyal sila. Mga 30 sila ‘pag nanonood.”
De Dios subsequently formed the Friends of Music Box (FMB), composed of not just prominent showbiz personalities, but also business executives, lawyers and even the elite names who frequented the place.
“Maganda ang environment sa Music Box,” Ignacio said. “Star-studded, creative and dynamic people. Cat’s Eye ang tawag ng mga executives who went there. Bosses sa office by the day, then pupunta sa Music Box at night.
“Hindi sila in when they didn’t go to Music Box. Napakayaman ng roster ng personalities at Music Box. Ang saya. Palaging puno ng tao.”
De las Alas’ work eventually took its toll on her health. “Marami akong pinasukan na sing-along bars, apat yata ‘yun,” she disclosed. “Para akong nagka-TB [tuberculosis] at nagkasakit ako dahil sa second-hand smoke.”
By 1989, she started her TV guestings and eventually segued to her showbiz career. But she never failed to look back to her humble beginnings in the entertainment business.
Not one to tie you down or hold you back once an opportunity comes, De Dios readily allowed his talents to explore other avenues or take on another job. Ignacio later had a TV offer to host a noontime show, “Chibugan Na,” on RPN 9.
Eventually, he also started to perform in other night haunts like Cosmo in Greenhills, San Juan. De Dios had no qualms about giving his blessing to Ignacio for the latter to move on.
“Wowie was not the type who would take anything against you,” Ignacio attested. “Happy siya talaga kapag umaasenso ka. Wala kang mararamdaman na sama ng loob sa kanya.
“Hindi siya marunong manumbat kapag nakikita niya na dapat lumipad ka na. He would never demand anything from you. He was so generous. So ikaw, talagang babalik at babalik ka sa kanya, when it was his birthday or anniversary ng Music Box.”
Ignacio lamented how a number of his friends had been leaving so soon, whose lives had been curtailed by COVID-19. That included De Dios. "‘Yung mga pangyayari, hindi mo pa nalalapatan ng tamang emosyon, meron na namang susunod,” he explained. “Matutulala ka na lang. Litong-lito ako. Everything was really very, very painful for me.”
De Dios revolutionized a lot of things in the entertainment business. “Predecessor siya for a lot of concepts in live performing,” Ignacio said. “Sa Music Box lahat nangyari ‘yun. Back then, we only knew one boss, si Wowie lang ‘yun.”
Even as the owner of Music Box, De Dios never kept a high-profile lifestyle on the scene. “Hindi nga siya kilala,” Ignacio insisted. “Never siya nag-crave ng attention for himself. That was not his personality. He was very unassuming.
“Ang lawak ng mata niya sa entertainment, lalo na sa comedy. Siya ang unsung father of sing-along. Hindi ko ma-imagine ang showbiz career ko na wala ang Music Box.”