Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tita Munoz - A Friend and Fair Lady

My family and I had already settled in California for several years when I took one of the yearly vacations to the Philippines to visit my very close friends and fellow professionals in media and marketing whom I worked with in the past. Seeing Manila, the city of my birth, never fails to give me that needed boost of energy, and I always leave with a heavy heart. Perhaps, it is because I really miss the Manila that my uncle, Nick Joaquin, has written about and cherished in his books and plays.

It was in a party given to me by former friends where I saw Tita Munoz. She was slender, a bit of gray hair peeping from among his brown tresses and having seen me across the room raised her hand and voice and called my name, “Tony! Hace tiempo…” and at the same time rushing toward me when we exchanged a strong abrazo and a soft peck on my cheek.

We both were holding our drinks, she her non alcoholic iced tea and me my scotch, no ice. And before long we were updating each other on the intervening years as we sat in a corner area of the open-air azotea. It was at this time when she caught on that I was no longer living in Manila but in California. She asked me “How long are you staying? And I answered, “About a month”

Her dark eyes lighted up and she smiled her beautiful perfectly formed teeth at me. “Good.”

In the next few minutes she told me that she was appearing in a cameo role in a current soap opera with the name Victoria Hills. And she added that she needed one male partner also to do the same cameo in the TV soap and she thought I would fit the role with my salt and pepper hair. I was not able to conceal my delight and said, “I am game -- if we can do it within my time frame, for I have to return to California at the end of four weeks.”

Finally, I was at the studio set and so were the cast and crew at 5 in the afternoon. I knew some of the actors, which included Roderick Paulate and Herbert Bautista, and met a few young beauties in lead roles.
I learned that the modus vivendi of soap opera production, as practised in Manila, was to shoot all the sequences and episodes during one 12-hour session–nonstop starting at 5 p.m. straight through 6 the next morning. Yes, no one had any sleep at all. And that was what Tita and I did. In the TV series, we both played the role of former lovers who, after having lived abroad, now old and grey, happen to return to Manila and to “accidentally” meet once again. Too bad, I could not stay to watch the episode but I did cherish those moments with Tita.

Then I had to leave for California and did not hear from her for several years again. Then, some years back I read about Tita’s having been victim to a hypertensive stroke, which left her paralyzed accompanied by the heartbreaking report that she was now living alone in a dwelling with other poor elderly women in a sort of community place. On April 11, 2009, Tita died of a heart attack.

Our friendship, actually began in the mid 30s in San Juan where we both lived. Tita lived with her brothers and sister on J. Ruiz, while I was two streets away on G. Reyes and N. Domingo Street. Tita was two years ahead of me in school. While she was second grade at St. Joseph’s Academy, I was in kindergarten.
Right after the second world war, Tita met and married an American military officer, and they left for the U.S. After four years I saw her again back in San Juan, and she admitted with pain that her marriage did not work out.

As an actress, Tita popularized the part of the “contrabida.” Tita certainly showed how well she could act. And with her mestiza features, she was extremely good. Before television came to the Philippines, Tita was already doing extremely well in radio, because she spoke English and her native Spanish very well. Eventually, Tita became the highest-paid Philippine radio talent in the early 50s.

With the arrival of the new technology known as television, Tita was among the first radio personalities to migrate to television. The “First Lady of Philippine Television” also made history with the very first lips-to- lips kissing scene, opposite actor Ronald Remy.

Tita’s versatility and dramatic talent was showcased in the challenging lead role in “Sorry, Wrong Number,” adapted from the 1943 American radio play by Lucille Fletcher. She played the role of a woman who learns accidentally that she is about to be murdered. Tita won acclaim in that enviable play.

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