Monday, April 17, 2017

429. KAPAMPANGANS IN HOLLYWOOD

THE KING AND HIS WIVES Rosa del Rosario portrays one of the wives of the Siamese monarch in the 1946 film, Anna and the King of Siam, portrayed by Rex Harrison. Looking on is another "wife", Evelyne de Luzuriaga.

In the 1920s, Hollywood beckoned with promises of stardom, fame and fortune to aspiring performers and actors, budding ingénues, ambitious directors and starving artists. Indeed, of the thousands who swarmed to Tinseltown to audition and answer casting calls, many were rewarded with film roles, and turning an elite few into international celebrities.

The first wave of Filipinos to arrive in Los Angeles coincided with the rise of Hollywood. They, too, were lured with the prospects of employment that the blossoming film industry offered. In 1929, Metro-Goldwin Mayer sounded out a casting call for extras for the movie “The Pagan”. Hordes of Filipinos went to audition, and many passed the 5 foot height limit set for these extras. For decades—in movies like “She” (1935, starring Randolph Scott, RKO Radio Pictures) and “The Real Glory” (1939, a Spanish-American War film starring Gary Cooper ), Filipinos were often cast in savage native-type and service-type roles, uncredited and underpaid. They would find more job security in the periphery of Hollywood as waiters, busboys, bartenders, cooks, chauffeurs and househelps.

Filipino star-wannabes would wait for the postwar 1940s before they could see one of their own claim a legitimate acting role in a Hollywood film. Kapampangan Rosa del Rosario (aka Rosa Stagner), an American-Filipina mestiza from Bacolor, was already an established star in pre-war Philippine movies when she, on a visit to the U.S., caught the eye of an American director who was casting Asians for his  movie. She won the role as one of the king’s 14 wives in the film classic, “Anna and the King of Siam” in 1946 (to be redone as the musical “The King and I” in 1954). She was unbilled, however, in this Rex Harrison starrer.  That same year, she  appeared as Celia in the “The Border Bandits”, opposite Johnny Mack Brown and in “An American Guerrilla in the Philippines”.

More than a decade later, another artist with roots in Lubao would carve her own niche in Hollywood: Ruby Neilam Salvador Arrastia aka Neile Adams, actress-singer-dancer and wife of 60s hottest Hollywood male star, Steve McQueen. She moved to the U.S. after the war where she took dancing lessons. The pert and pretty Neile found herself being cast in shows and musicals, and one of her early appearances was in “Pajama Game”, staged at the Carnegie Hall. She moved on to TV and films,  with credits in the 1952 movie, “Grubstake” and as Patsy St. Claire in “This Could Be The Night” (1957). Husband and wife appeared in a memorable episode in “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”. Separately, Neile had a recurring role in the TV series “Five Fingers” as Rita Juan in 1960, and went on to guest star in top TV shows thrugh the 60s,70s and 80s, like “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, “Love American Style”, “Bob Hope Show”. “The Bionic Woman”, “ The Rockford Files”, “Fantasy Island”, “Vega$” and “Hotel”. In 1986, she wrote “My Husband, My Friend”, a biography of her husband Steve, who had died of cancer in 1980. Coincidentally, Neile’s son (Chad McQueen) and grandson, Steven R. McQueen (Jeremy Gilbert in “The Vampire Diaries”), are both actors. A nephew, Enrique Iglesias, is a singer and an occasional actor.

Before being known as an international jetsetter, Angeles-born Minda Feliciano flirted with modeling and acting. In the U.S., she started auditioning for acting roles and, in 1959, won a regular slot (she played the hula-dancing receptionist, Evelyn) in the popular TV series,”Hawaiian Eye”, produced by Warner Brothers. Today, she is also well-known as Michael Caine’s-ex.

The toast of West End and Broadway, Lea Salonga, has also penetrated the U.S. showbiz industry, both as actress and singer. While still with the hit musical ‘Miss Saigon’ . she was tapped to sing key songs for such movies as “Aladdin” (1992) and  “Mulan” I and II ( 1998, 2004). She had a once-in-a lifetime experience of singing “A Whole New World” at the 1993 Oscar Awards, which went on to win Best Song. Leas was also seen on a 1995 TV film produced by Hallmark Hall of Fame, “Redwood Curtain”. The film chronicles the search of an Amerasian piano prodigy for her biological father, aVietnam veteran. Other credits include guest appearances in hit TV series “ER” , “As The World Turns” and most recently, in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”.

Young Ethan Dizon, whose father, Eric Dizon,  traces his ancestry to the Dizons of Mabalacat, made his acting debut as a 3 year-old child actor in the CBS hit series, “How I Met Your Mother”, He then had guest roles in  “Grey's Anatomy”, and “'Til Death”. His film credits include: “Get A Job”, “Bad Words” ( with Jason Bateman), and the “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete”, where he is best-known for playing Pete.  In 2017, he will be seen in “Spiderman: Homecoming”. A gifted artist, he was nominated for Best Actor at the NBCU Short Film Festival 2014 in "Paulie", where he played the title role.

Rico Hizon made a name for himself as an international journalist, but his credentials now include acting in a Hollywood film. In the 2016 film“I.T.” topbilled by Pierce Brosnan, the BBC correspondent portrayed himself in this nail-biting thriller directed by John Moore. Rico Hizon’s mother, Leonor Morales, is from Mabalacat.

Behind the camera, Kapampangans have also left their mark in the American entertainment industry. Leading the way is the venerable Gorge Sunga, who first joined CBS as a production supervisor of “The Judy Garland Show” in 1963, and later, “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”. He went on to produce the hit TV shows  "Good Times," (1974)  "The Jeffersons," (1975) ,  “All in the Family” (1974)  “Three’s Company” (1976) and many other successful serials. In 1989, Sunga was elected  officer of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.  For his commitment to diversity in television, an award in his honor was created and given yearly at the Media Access Awards. The Sungas are from Guagua, Pampanga. 

Two world-class film artists and technicians of Kapampangan descent are currently making waves in Hollywood.  Winston Quitasol, whose mother is from Pampanga, has worked on many known animated feature films like Disney’s “Big Hero 6”, where he was the senior lighting artist. He has also served as visual effects technical director and lead digital compositor in some blockbuster movies like “Ghost” (1990), his first movie project. Recent works include “SpiderMan 2”, “ Iron Man 3”, “300: Rise of an Empire” and “Frozen”.

On the other hand, animator Jess Española, from Lubao, made history when he was won the prestigious Emmy Award for his work on “The Simpsons” in 2008 ( ‘Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind’ episode). The U.P. Fine Arts graduate overcame poverty (he was raised by a single mother), and working his way up, first, as an animator for Burbank Animation in Makati. He then joined Optifex which did the Hanna-Barbera cartoons (Flintstones, Scooby Doo, Jonny Quest) . Española did so well that he was sent to the U.S. mother studio in the U.S. which led to opportunities after the Manila offices downsized. Eventually, he moved to America, where Española worked at Film Roman for “King of the Hill,”, one of the primetime shows of Fox that also includes Matt Groening’s “The Simpsons”.

More recently, in the CBS TV sitcom “The Great Outdoors”, Kapampangans were treated to an episode in which the characters of actors Joel McHale and Stephen Fry,  spoke  in Kapampangan—albeit, with a thick American accent—so they could disguise their secret plan to leave young campers in the wild without their smartphones. The idea was conceived by story editor/ writer, Kristine Songco, who sought the help of her father in crafting the dialogues. The Songcos are a prominent family from Guagua.

While we have yet to see a Filipino actor conquer Hollywood with the same degree of success as China’s Anna May Wong and Jet Li;  Hong Kong’s Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan;  Japan’s George Takei and Pat Morita; Taiwan’s Ang Lee and Malaysia’s Michelle Yeoh, we are happy  to note that a few Kapampangan artists are leading the way towards the attainment  of their great Hollywood dream--always ready for anything--especially their close-ups!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

*428. Sky’s No Limit: CAPT. BEN HUR D. GOMEZ

FINDING HIS CORNER OF THE SKY. The future aviation pilot, Ben Hur Gomez y de Leon of Mabalacat,  as a young high schooler at Letran. "Benny" was named after the main character of a Hollywood movie of the same title, "Ben Hur", starring Ramon Navarro. Courtesy of Capt. Gomez.

One of the leading names in modern Philippine aviation is a Kapampangan provinciano who didn’t even finish high school but rose to become an international pilot and founder of the premiere flying school in Pampanga. Capt. Ben Hur Angel D. Gomez (b. 15 Dec. 1931) was one of 6 children of Carlos Ramiro Gomez Sr. whose mestizo looks were courtesy of his ancestor, Fray Guillermo Masnou aka Nicanor Gomez. His mother, Paz Dionisia de Leon , was the daughter of Don Jose de Leon, who owned vast tracts of lands in Mabalacat, parts of which she inherited. With their consolidated wealth, the Gomezes built a large farmstead  in Tubigan at the boundary of Stotsenburg, where their children grew up.

To the manor born, Ben Hur and his siblings led comfortable lives, in a magnificent farmhouse with large rooms and bay windows, equipped with electricity powered by a windmill, and guarded by a tall, turbanned Indian Sikh. Ponies and other animals roamed the expansive yard which also had a playground. The young Ben Hur or Benny was doted on by his adoring aunts despite his “kuneho” (rabbit)  ears.

His Papang though, introduced him early to the value of hard work and responsibility. As young as 8, Benny  helped out in the family businesses which included not only the farm, but also a gas station, a bowling alley and a bazaar. He counted money, issued receipts, prepared vouchers and distributed wages to farm hands.

Benny finished his elementary years at the Holy Family Academy in Angeles, run by German nuns. He spent a year of high school at next-door Holy Angel Academy, but his schooling was interrupted by the war. The family moved to Manila, in their Pasay home, where they waited out the end of the war years.

In 1946, as the family was sending off their Papang to the U.S., the teenager Ben saw his first DC-4 at the Manila International Airport, complete with its smartly-dressed crew. That sight inspired him to become an international pilot.

In his last high school year at Letran, Ben applied to 3 flight schools in the U.S. He chose Embry Riddle Aeronautical School, not only because it was the biggest flight school in America, but also because the school had sent him a brochure with a pretty girl in bathing suit on the cover!! There, Ben immersed himself in his commercial pilot course, and in subjects like  instrument reading, and multi-engine rating, studying 16 hours each day. By so doing, Ben completed his flight course in 18 short months, instead of 33!

When he returned to Manila, he managed to land a his first paying job at the Philippine Aviation Development as a mechanic, earning a whopping  P350  daily. He also became a part-time pilot with an hourly fee of  P50 per hour. While the pay was good, his ultimate goal was to see the world and become an international pilot.  So, when Philippine Air Lines beckoned in 1953, he said yes to a new flying job, first, as a domestic pilot, then moving up to become an international pilot with the rank of a captain, flying the Viscount, BAC 111, DC-4, DC-8, DC-10 and the Boeing 727-200 in all parts of the globe.

His association with PAL would last 38 long years, accumulating over  33,000 flying hours without a single accident. During his stint with the nation’s flag carrier, Capt. Ben also served as president of the Airline Pilots Association of the Philippines (ALPAP) for 3 full terms. He initiated many landmark reforms like improving the salary structure for international pilots and their crew. He was also named vice president for Safety and Security and Asst. Vice President for Flight Operations.

Retirement for the captain meant returning to Mabalacat to resume his life as a gentleman-farmer. In the past, even as he flew planes, he was engaged in some profitable ventures here and there—from export-selling komiks and balut to Filipino communities in Hawaii, providing school bus services, to running a gravel-and-sand business . With his entrepreneurial acumen, he learned how to grow broilers and chickens--and soon, his OMNI Farms became a steady supplier of chickens to San Miguel Foods.

Then,  in 1994,  together with former colleagues,  he took over the old Clark Aero Club and transformed it into the country’s largest aviation training institute—OMNI Aviation Corporation. Capt. Ben would grow its fleet to 25 planes that includes Cessna 172s, and the flagship twin –engine plane, Piper Seneca.At its peak, OMNI Aviation attracted pilot-students from 28 countries and had over 300 enrollees, many of whom are ace pilots today.

It has been a great journey for the former pilot who continues to look for new fields to explore and conquer—even at age 81 . His latest project is his expansive museum home in Angeles that houses his varied collections that he accumulated from his trips abroad. On display are 135 crosses and crucifixes, various tableware from Asia ( netsukes, sake cups, chopstick rests, napkin rings), European crystal ware, Delft ware, brass sculptures, Buddhas, travel souvenirs and many more. He also enjoys occasional visits from any of his 5 kids, and grandchildren; there’s always a room reserved to accommodate them.

The still-sharp and healthy Capt. Ben has also been quietly giving back through his philanthropic works—from helping build the village chapel to extending financial help to indigents and handicapped people in need. Currently, he is even taking care of an old priest, who has helped him rediscover his Catholic faith.

It’s incredible, indeed,  how Capt. Ben could cram all these achievements in a single lifetime, fulfilling all his dreams that he relentlessy pursued.  Not bad for a provinciano and a high school dropout who describes himself as a graduate of the university of hard knocks! But then, he’s never known to set limits to what he can do---not even the skies which he once flew.