By SOL VANZI
The Cultural Center of the Philippines, which opened on Sept. 8, 1969, was born one clear afternoon in 1966 when then First Lady Imelda Marcos, while giving billionaire philanthropist John D. Rockefeller III a tour of Manila, realized there was nothing to show the visitor but the beautiful Manila Bay sunset.
Mrs. Marcos vividly recalls that moment in a one-onone exclusive interview with the Philippine Panorama very recently.
“Twenty years after independence and 21 years after World War II, the Philippines was still recovering, reconstructing. We had nothing. No world class theater, no decent hospital, no orphanage, no public parks,” she says. “I stopped the car on Roxas Boulevard near the Philippine Navy, pointed to the bay before us and told Mr. Rockefeller he was looking at the site of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, and invited him to its opening in 1969, before the end of President Marcos’ first term.”
She remembers how Rockefeller looked at her in disbelief, shook his head, and gently advised: “My dear Mrs. Marcos, I see nothing but water. I admire your optimism, but your plan is impossible to accomplish. It took my family 18 years to finish the Rockefeller Center in New York, using the most modern construction technology. If you do build your Cultural Center within your time frame, I’ll take my hat off to you, but I do not see how you can do it.”
Undaunted, Imelda replied: “Mr. Rockefeller, here’s how we will do it. On the first year, we will drive the piles. On the second year, we will reclaim land from the sea. On the third year, the building will rise. And on the fourth year the curtain will rise.”
On March 12, 1966, President Ferdinand Marcos issued Presidential Proclamation No. 20, which permitted work to start on the CCP project. Marcos followed this up with Executive Order No. 60, which formally established the CCP and appointed a board of directors. The board elected Mrs. Marcos as chair. This authorized her to raise and manage funds for the project.
As she had promised, the CCP’s first major building—the Theater of Performing Arts—was opened on September 1969, three days after Pres. Marcos’s birthday and two months before the presidential election. The inaugural festival lasted a full three months. Attending guests included foreign dignitaries headed by California governor Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy, representing US President Richard Nixon.
President Nixon had, in fact, sent two names for Malacañan to choose from.
“I picked Ronald Reagan because he was good looking and more popular, having been a Hollywood actor,” Mrs. Marcos reveals. “It was the start of a lasting friendship between our families.”
Inaugural rites were disrupted by demonstrators.
“I was worried that a visitor might get hurt. I was not afraid, I was little irritated and there were visitors and they were making gulo,” she says. “Ninoy Aquino even filed a case during construction but I did not stop.”
Why culture as first focus
“As wife of a congressman and senate president, I traveled all over the country and saw that for our people, living on 7,000 plus islands meant diversity. Each island has its songs, dances, language, beliefs and traditions,” Imelda narrates. “Yet once a year, during the town fiesta, everybody celebrates, united by their love of music and the arts.”
This observation led the Marcos couple to vehemently oppose the proposal of Sen. Raul Manglapus to legally ban town fiestas.
On the first year, we will drive the piles. On the second year, we will reclaim land from the sea. On the third year, the building will rise. And on the fourth year, the curtain will rise.’
As Imelda explains, “I grew up in a small town by the sea, among people who lived the whole year looking forward to the town fiesta—one grand day of merriment, worship, music, and camaraderie. We could not, should not, take that away from them. It would be like taking away their soul.”
Making a home
Understanding the role of culture in the lives of Filipinos, Imelda knew what to do when her husband became President and gave her a task.
“As President and father of the nation, I will build a very strong house. You, Imelda, are Fist Lady and mother of the nation and it is your job to make it into a home,” Imelda recounts her husband saying.
Motherhood, for Imelda, is love in its purest form, a manifestation of all that is true, good, and beautiful. Love is Nature, she says, adding that the nurturing of nature is culture.
“Beauty is something that comes from nature which is the gift of God,” she concludes in her very own inimitable way. Ferdinand Marcos said her ideas were not logical but enlightened, and described her vision as profound.
Another man who praised her projects was Mao Tse Tung, who told her in 1971 that he admired her work. At the height of the Cold War, she was in China and Chairman Mao kissed her hand.
“Mrs. Marcos, I admired you long before I met you because China was not united with the gun, it was united by the Cultural Revolution. You finished your Cultural Center and you were on the right track,” the Chinese leader told her.
Night of stars
On the night of Aug. 26, 1977, three of the world’s greatest art ists performed at the Cultural Center of the Philippines: American pianist Van Cliburn, Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, and Great Britain’s prima ballerina assoluta Dame Margot Fonteyn.
The magical night, billed “Alay sa Pangulo,” was described years later by the London Daily Telegraph.
Every major performance in the CCP makes me feel I was right and people who attacked the CCP were wrong.
“Wherever Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev danced the ballet Marguerite and Armand, people saw the love story not only of the courtesan Marguerite and the hopeful young Armand, but also (they fancied) of Margot and Rudi themselves. She, a sophisticate of impeccable but declining glamour; he an ardent youth rekindling her with his irresistible passion—the affair summed up in 40 minutes of unbelievably romantic dance by Frederick Ashton and wildly romantic music by Liszt. After the pair’s last performance—in Manila, for their friends Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos in 1977, when Fonteyn was 58—it was seen no more. By then it was unthinkable that anyone else could ever dance what was almost a private ritual.”
Reading the review, Imelda Marcos smiled. “Every major performance in the CCP makes me feel I was right and people who attacked the CCP were wrong.”