Once upon a time lived a young girl who was light-hearted and glamorous. She could dance until dawn in rhinestone-studded heels. Over candle-lit dinners at the Champagne Room she peppered her conversation with bon mots. She rubbed shoulders with millionaires, movie stars and mobsters, and had mastered the slide out of a low-slung sports car. Without flashing her undies. In her tiny purse nestled le must de Cartier … a gold pen, a sapphire studded compact, a monogrammed lighter.
It was an exciting, if somewhat artificial personal era, for someone like me. I didn’t smoke. Or drink. I cut my nails down to the quick. I was shy, overly serious and only comfortable in mud boots, riding pants, and cat hair decorated sweaters.
“Pinay Perfection” had eluded me and it’s probable I would have stayed unperfected forever, had not fate intervened. When Roxanne Lapus, Artistic Director of the premier dinner-theater group SRO, invited me to join her company, it was the royal kiss that would turn this little frog into a princess.
Standing Room Only, based at the Intercontinental Hotel, was purveyor of the supremely elegant theatrical evening. In the hotel’s largest, most lavishly mirrored and carpeted, chandelier-hung ballroom, expensive food and wine followed by light British comedy, were served up to Manila’s glitterati. It was an evening of hedonistic, yet innocent fun. Okay, the word “sexy” was worked into the ads, but in those days it didn’t carry the present day connotation. There was no nudity or raw language, no sweaty grappling, no embarrassing displays of acrobatic amour-osity.
SRO specialized in droll innuendo, side glances, rolled eyes, mistaken identities and forgotten gloves. The sets were fabulous, no cheap imitations allowed. Genuine crystal, damask, silk, leather bound books, antique lamps, painted tiles, carved wood. And the actors and production staff … well they were like the sets … only better. They were beau monde sophisticates, creative geniuses, witty and waggish, graceful and tasteful, both in and out of sin. You could fall into safe love with them. Everyone came to rehearsals freshly manicured and pedicured, with minty breath, washed hair and pressed clothing. Not for Foxy Roxy, the “I’m grungy, unhealthy, and sullen, to prove I’m a serious actor”, somebody-wannabe. She demanded a world of youth, beauty, energy and smooth accomplishment. If a few of the less than perfect did slip through, it was because they had elevated common charm to a deadly art.
We did not serve up political opinions, terrifying dramas, weepy enactments of anguish, loss, or the overall ugliness of human nature. We made no attempt to educate, tell the truth or argue the lie. Manileῆos already got that from their TVs, newspapers and government. Instead, we gave them a night to forget the real world around them.
When our audiences filled the Intercontinental ballroom (and every performance was packed), you could float a raft on the scent of expensive perfume. The rustle of designer gowns provided backdrop to the clinking of wine glasses and vibrato of highly pitched, animated greetings. Beneath the crystal (never glass darling!) chandeliers, surged a jewel decorated ocean sparkling with laughter, gossip and the adrenaline of fantasies invented and flirtations begun.
I’d been a steadily employed, professional actress since my early teens, but none of the movies or live theater I’d worked, had been anything like this. The theater art I’d known, had been heavily vested in the dark side … you know, “reality”. And the movies I worked in, hahahahahaa … well, enough said. SRO paid almost nothing, but so what? Who thinks of money when they’re dancing?
For reasons incomprehensible, Roxanne made me leading lady. At the same time, she got promptly to work on my stunning failures in urbanity. In restaurants, she’d suggest that it might be polite to ask for the chef’s recommendation and not immediately order my favorite food (french fries) as soon as my rear hit the seat. She brought it to my attention that ladies do not carry their hairbrush (my only grooming tool) in a plastic grocery bag. She coaxed me toward the miracles of make-up, hair rollers, nail polish and silk stockings. It was her arm that formally ushered me into the world of haute couture evening gowns; these, designed by her famous mother, the society couturier Nena Lapus.
Roxy was a bottomless fount of information. She knew good jewelry from costume, the correct length of a hemline, the look and feel of quality in everything. Her collection of handbags merited a gallery exhibition of their own. She knew how to talk to men and get what she wanted. Entering a store, sales people surged forward to serve her. She knew what was going on, where and when, and why we should be there. Even her actors listened seriously to her instructions (NOT something actors generally do for anyone). Never a beauty in the traditional sense, she had something more.… She had sophistication. While the rest of us were still experimenting with the cutlery, she had already mastered the art of savoir faire.
Of course much of our time was spent producing and rehearsing nifty little pot boilers, but those hilarious hours seemed merely to bookend our active social lives. We ate at all the in places, attended gallery openings, fashion shows and plays. We discussed the contents of glossy magazines, and indulged in night long debates on the merits of American movie stars and British rock bands. We took out of town trips to resorts. We patronized the avant-garde boutiques of friends. Sometimes after a night of dancing, we’d troop to the beach and float in the warm Pacific while watching the sun rise. We fell in and out of love and hate regularly, endlessly discussing the pain and pleasure of misadventure.
We didn’t discuss poverty, inequality, war and general misery. We didn’t worry about the planet or anticipate the end of the world. We were young, healthy, and excited to be alive. The fascinating rhythm of life in the fast lane was as endless as it seemed our youth would be.
In my later incarnation as a socially aware, justice demanding, mission focused, corruption denouncing rebel, I was sometimes criticized for this happily unfocused period of my life. Shake a finger if you will, but I have never looked back on those years with even an ounce of regret.
We were young, and the young live in the moment. Because that process is by nature blurry, perhaps it is best understood in hindsight.
Youth is a small room in the edifice of time. It’s a standing room only place, packed with noisy people carousing and testing the new dance styles. In this raucous rec room, you can finger paint on the walls, make experiments that explode, and eat all the chocolate you want. The days are marked by dress fittings and picnics. The endless evenings are filled with games, costume parties and passionate love affairs.
You must enjoy every moment in this room because it is a temporary place. Soon enough, the rough hands of time will push you on into other rooms marked “adulthood”, “accountability”, “awareness”. You will wear sensible shoes, read good books, eat healthy foods. You will join “discussion” groups and never stay up too late. These rooms work to expand your being and make you wiser … yet they also, have the potential somehow, to make you sadder.
I have been to, and through, most of the rooms now, and sometimes here in the quiet corners of maturity, I will suddenly snort out a laugh. Decent people turn and raise their eyebrows. I note the disapproval but cannot stop grinning at my friends, over there, in the standing room only place. They are flushed and giddy, and even the ones who have passed on, have come back for the moment, just to hear the new jokes. The room is hot, the music loud, the laughter full-throated, and the crystal (never glass darling!) chandeliers sparkle outrageously. Over there we are still light-hearted and glamorous, there, in a time and place where life was exciting, and the unknowns of tomorrow were thrilling, not disheartening.