Sunday, June 3, 2012

*296. TESSIE AGANA: Philippine Cinema’s First Child Superstar

AGANA BE A STAR! Child superstar Tessie Agana is the child of Tarlac-born doctor, Adriano Agacoili Agana and actress Linda Estrella. Her paternal grandfather, Marcelino Agana, was a former governor of Tarlac.

Before there was Vilma, Roderick, Snooky, Niño, Janice, Matet, Aiza, Serena, and now Jillian, there was the original child wonder of Philippine movies, who, with just one film, singlehandedly saved a leading production company from bankruptcy, while stealing the hearts of millions of fans with her winsome, precocious performances on the silver screen.

Maria Teresa Rigotti Agana, or Tessie Agana, born on 16 May 1942, was the child of movie star Linda Estrella (Consuelo Ver Rigotti, in real life, an Italian Filipina mestiza) and Dr. Adriano “Aning” Agcaoili Agana, a practicing obstetrician-gynecologist from Tarlac, Tarlac. Adriano’s father, lawyer Marcelino Esguerra Agana, was a former governor of Tarlac (1928-1931). Adriano and Consuelo met at a Red Cross canteen during an event at the Philippine Women’s University. The meeting was facilitated by Consuelo’s classmate, Felicidad Pineda—who was Adriano’s cousin.

After a courtship of just a year, the couple were wed on 8 June 1941. They immediately had their first child, Tessie, and a second daughter followed. Tragically, Cynthia would die from flu complications just 12 days after she was born. It was said that her doctor-father could have saved her, but much to his regret, he was away in Tarlac at that time, campaigning for his father. (The Aganas would later adopt another girl—Maria Lourdes, born in 1954).

Much love and attention was thus focused on the remaining child, Tessie. But with a famous artista for a mother, Tessie got used to the limelight very early on. At age 5, her mother was approached by the Vera-Perezes of Sampaguita Pictures to audition for the movies. As Linda was a close relative of the Vera-Perezes, she agreed to their request. Tessie impressed Dr. Jose Perez with her ability to cry on cue and soon she was cast in several movies, her first two with Pancho Magalona.

No sooner had she started when Sampaguita Pictures was razed by a fire, leaving the studio in jeopardy. But the contract stars rallied around the Vera-Perezes, offering their services for free so that the studio could be rebuilt. A serial novel written by Mars Ravelo in Tagalog Klasiks became the basis for a tearjerker movie entitled “Roberta”. Cast in the lead role was 11 year old Tessie, supported by another child actor, Boy Alano. The budget movie was megged by Director Olive De La Torre.

During the shooting of the movie, Tessie was bribed with Max’s Fried Chicken to put her in an acting mood. She did not disappoint; she memorized all her lines, cried at the drop of a hat, and stole every scene she was in. When “Roberta” was shown at the Life Theater, it became a monster hit—and the one week run was overextended, until it broke all existing box-office records. Her convincing performance as a poor, pitiful child endeared her to an audience who took her into their hearts, and catapulted her to instant stardom—the first child superstar of Philippine movies.

Sampaguita Pictures managed to get back on its feet and would eventually come out even bigger and better than it was before. In gratitude for helping save the studio, Tessie was cast in picture after picture, and soon she was being hailed as the Philippines’ own Shirley Temple. Before 1951 was over, she did three films: "Ang Prinsesa at ang Pulubi”, “Anghel ng Pag-ibig” and “Batas ng Daigdig”. The following year, she had the title role in “Rebecca”, “Munting Kerubin” and “Ulila ng Bataan”. She even did a take on Shirley’s movie, doing “Munting Koronel” (Little Colonel) in 1953.

 Like all child stars, Tessie had to go through the awkward stage. After 1954, she did just one film—“Baril o Araro?”, which had a more adult slant. In their desire to give Tessie a “normal life”, the family migrated to the United States in 1957. They quickly established themselves there; her father worked at the Johns Hopkins in Maryland while mother Linda took up a music course at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. Tessie, meanwhile, enrolled in a foreign language course and graduated from De Paul University in Indiana.

At age 18, Tessie was prevailed upon by the Vera-Perezes to return to the Philippines so she could continue her movie career that was put on hold for 3 years. Now a young adult, she appeared in the popular “Amy, Susie and Tessie” with screen stars Amalia Fuentes and Susan Roces, and “Love at First Sight” with Jose Mari Gonzales.

Eventually, the reluctant star opted to go back to the United States, where in 1962, she would meet Dr. Rodolfo L. Jao at a medical convention, who would eventually become her spouse. The Jaos would raise a big family of 9 children—all grown-ups with families of their own, and all successful in their fields: Marita, Radmar, Rodger, Roderick, Michelle, Mylene, Rodolfo Jr., Rodney and Rodell. It is interesting to note that Radmar had a brief fling with showbiz, appearing on TV (Seinfeld, Dharma and Greg, ER, Boston Commons) and movies (The Minority Report, The Phantom) before giving up everything to be a Jesuit priest.

Now settled with her husband and most of her children in Valparaiso, Indiana, Tessie Agana had long ago put her wonder years behind her. But it cannot be denied that she blazed the trail for future child stars to follow, proving that the same superstar status once reserved for leading men and ladies can also be attained through sheer talent--regardless of age.

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