A Look Inside the Party World of Manila's Elite in the '70s

Proclamation No. 1081 didn't mean a damn thing to an elite few during the '70s.

The ex-war photographer Slim Aarons snapping the venerable aristocrats and various celebrities being flown in—aboard a private Learjet, but of course—by the affable and incredibly loaded PAL president Beni Toda into his Hermana Mayor, his own private island off Zambales, a tropical hideaway reminiscent of la dolce vita, Capri style. Did we wink or are the Marcos kids no longer kids?

Bong just arrived from Oxford and is considering taking up an MBA or just staying in town and getting into “serious work.” (“Everything’s still up in the air,” he tells Jullie Daza’s magazine, People). Imee’s appearing in a Filipino production of Trojan Women at the Manila Metropolitan Theater (she’s playing Andromache, Tony Mabesa is directing). And the youngest, Irene, is driving around Wack Wack in a golf cart, with her father as passenger—the amateur golfer who never missed a day of the Philippine-hosted 25th World Cup. What about Imelda? Don’t look now but she’s building a disco right inside her own home, which just happens to be the highest office in the land.

Guests at the private island owned by PAL president Benigno Toda, 1973.

If I snap my fingers and say Martial Law, what would you remember?

People talked in Taglish or swardspeak and everyone was bongga and nobody believed the kiyeme and everyone was looking for a “happening.” It was fashionable to ride the Love Bus if your Chedeng didn’t arrive. You had your eye on the ball but also at the illustrious crowd watching the Toyota versus Crispa championship at the Araneta. Blow-drying was all the rage with women; and for the men, shiny, satin shirts, unbuttoned to the navel. (Remember Jay Ilagan and Mat Ranillo III in Salawahan? Well, you probably don’t because nobody saw it when it opened in theaters in 1979.) Meanwhile in Bacolod, in the heart of the sugar plantations, hacienderos were literally burning money to light up their cigarettes in the sabungan.

Mary Lau Toda in her private island off Zambales, Hermana Mayor

For an entirely different demographic, the Philippines was a scintillating playground for international celebrities and various aristocrats during those years of PC raids and warrantless arrests. For the moneyed set, Manila was a small town, albeit a town more cosmopolitan than any of its Asian neighbors, more glamorous and in step with the world.

Everyone knew everyone. “You enter a club and you know the sister of this, and the brother of that. It was one big happy family,” says Louie Cruz, son of the former ambassador to Britain, J.V. Louie cut a name for himself later on in the post-Marcos years with his off-the-shoulder blouses and snazzy articles for the Manila Chronicle, before lording it over one of the most successful clubs Manila has known, Giraffe at 6750 in Makati.


Ferdinand Marcos and Muhammad Ali at the post-fight party in Malacanang, 1975.

In those days—during the ‘70s, of course, he was just one of the kids partying at Where Else? Louie Y’s super club deeply ensconced in the newly minted Hotel Intercontinental. When a break from the local scene is in order, Hong Kong is the default destination for shopping; and for nightlife, the kids of the privileged live it up in the clubs of New York, Paris, and London. “The Elizabeth Arden route,” Louie calls it, referencing the ubiquitous tagline of the famous perfume bottle.

They all went to 54 and Le Cirque and Le Jardin and they all knew each other—and knew just the right person to call. Doors swung open for them in the hottest clubs in the world where they ordered Champagne, always Champagne. “We had common interests and standards,” recalls Louie. “It was an international scene but speaking the same language.”


Ernest Santiago, Shola Luna, Dave Tupas and Imee Marcos at Coco Banana.

As Jackie O did when she was First Lady, Imelda Marcos dictated that language. “The standards were so high—in art, in clothes, in music; and entertainment,” recalls Louie. Apart from inviting the likes of Van Cliburn and Paul Williams to Malacañang, she invited the best local talents to perform in the palace. Word has it that if you’re a favorite, you are also invited to simply grab what you can from a drawer stacked with cash as soon as your singing duties are over. But I digress.

Alice Reyes and husband Dick Upton

Mary Prieto, Eula Viana, Marshall Factora, Richard Warwick and Josine Elizalde at the Red and White Party; Ernest or, as he was called then by habitues, Mama Taray.

The barrage of foreign guests arriving in town necessitated top-brass hospitality, hence the rise of the five-star hotels which didn’t only compete for foreign currency but for peso-paying clients, and which outdid each other—or to use a term in those days, paistaran—with the most strambotic (another word from that era) fashion shows.

The hotels didn’t only change the city’s skyline but ushered in a completely new lifestyle. Suddenly, it was no longer that fashionable for the ladies to have their three-hour lunches with just food and society chatter at Nora Daza’s Au Bon Vivant. The action was happening at hotel ballrooms where lunch came with a show—the day’s top models sashaying in the latest fashions from the country’s top designers as soon as dessert was over.


Fashion patroness Chito Madrigal with then-boyfriend Manoling Collantes at Coco Banana; Wolfie Bierlien as The Great Gatsby with his Daisy played by Marilou Prieto.

If hotel lounge singers had what they called, puwesto, so did the couturiers. The Hilton boasted regular shows by the more senior fashion minds like Pitoy Moreno and Ben Farrales. Hyatt had Gary Flores, Auggie Cordero, Rusty Lopez, and Ernest Santiago. There was Boy Saulog at the Philippine Village, and Tower Hotel had Oskar Atendido. If there were luncheon fashion shows, the evenings offered galas. Fifty to 70-piece collections that were immediately snapped up by the donyas in attendance, the better to have something to wear at the next event—of which Manila wasn’t lacking. “The peso was very strong and people believed in Filipino fashion designers,” recalls Lorenzo Leviste who was a very young designer at that time. “All the Asians came here! I would have clients from Hong Kong and they’d buy anything that you had just because walang kamukhakasi pangfashion show!”


Larry Leviste as Josephine Baker with Leo Khan as Toulouse Lautrec at Coco’s Legends Party.

The designers, therefore, were the celebrities of the time, their parties and shows and travels well documented in the few publications that existed. The young Inno Sotto—then called Guam Boy—had a show advertised in the papers as “strictly for the 400” but attracted much, much less of his declared target audience. Ben Farrales’s 47th birthday shebang at the Hyatt’s La Concha clocked in 150 guests that included society swan Chona Kasten, actress Pilar Pilapil, and Mother China herself, Lily Monteverde, the movie producer, who came with favorite director Joey Gosiengfiao and favorite fortune teller who went by the name of Dolly Khinbu. And who can forget the perennially costumed Helena Guerrero’s Friday the 13th birthday party where she had the entire Fiesta Carnival to herself, with her usual cohorts of eccentrics and elitists swirling about in roller skates? “The chicest, wackiest circus birthday party to go down in the annals of fest history,” reported People. At the Budjiwara hair show, did you notice Chito Vijandre and Bobby Novenario weren’t speaking to each other? Whatever, they will all end up at Coco come Saturday night.


“And so disco was our church, disco was our gym! Dancing all night and taking poppers, partying! That was our exercise, our gymnasium, and we would sleep the whole day.” 

As the society scene moved out from the dinner soirees in the residences of Forbes and Dasma, so did the society mavens that hosted them. Disco was causing a major explosion in the major capitals of the world, coinciding with the explosion of the gay lifestyle, and Manila was not to be left out. As Leviste puts it, “The ladies wanted to see the gays, the gays wanted to see the boys, and the boys wanted to see the chicks.” Hence, sightings of Mary Prieto and Chito Madrigal rubbing elbows with Eddie Garcia and Elizabeth Oropesa at Coco Banana. Chito Madrigal being proposed marriage to one evening by the diplomat Manoling Collantes in the same club. Among the younger group, there was Cristina Valdez arriving in full Eliza Doolittle regalia in one Coco party.

A signed picture from Village People’s Felipe Rose.

Over the top was de riguer, and bongga always encouraged. And nowhere was this thinking more prevalent than in Coco Banana, the epicenter of cool and chic and glamorous, the scene of the most extravagantly imagined parties of the day: a Chinoiserie fete, a white-themed party inspired by L’Uomo Vogue, a carousel party. At any given night there would be a group of muscular men carrying a lady dressed as Cleopatra, mannequins painted with street graffiti, vintage clothing hanging from copper wires, a throng of elves (made up of some of the staff of the nearby Hobbit House). “Parang Midsummer Night’s Dream araw-araw,” a regular once put it. Ernest Santiago’s version of Studio 54 never put its address in any of the club’s collaterals, because, as its tagline proudly declared, “The World Knows Where We Are.” And the world did find its way. The Village People’s Indian-costumed member Felipe Rose who fell in love with the Manila scene, Linda “Wonder Woman” Carter who wore a Coco Banana shirt when she landed the cover of Time. Even Francis Ford Coppola had gotten in touch with Ernest then—the director was shooting Apocalypse Now in the Philippines—and had inquired if the club could possibly accommodate the movie’s cast and crew.


A typical house party of La Salle Greenhills kids.

Over at Where Else?, the Marcos kids were leading the 12-step on the dance floor—a series of 12 different movements as the group face north and south and east and west of the club’s mirrored walls. “Manila partied under different kingdoms during those days,” Leviste adds. “The Coco Banana kingdom, which was headed by Ernest and Bobby Caballero and myself as the daughter. The Malacañang group of sila Bongbong and Bong Daza and Louie Ysmael, with their beautiful girlfriends.” There was the flock headed by the fabulous German, Wolfie Bierline who would throw the wildest parties as if he were the Great Gatsby. “Once he had these obese women walking down his staircase singing 'Bakit Ako Mahihiya?'” And then there’s Helena Guerrero’s group, which was all about over the top costumes. People stayed in the clubs up to four in the morning, unless of course, you had a curfew pass—then you can actually move from one discotheque to another.


“Martial Law was happening just as disco was exploding all over the world,” Leviste says. “And so disco was our church, disco was our gym! Dancing all night and taking poppers, partying! That was our exercise, our gymnasium, and we would sleep the whole day.”

Society women, like Imelda Ongsiako Cojuangco, sat for a portrait by Rupert Jacinto (this one appeared on the cover of People).

There were no drug problems in the ‘70s. There were just drugs, and plenty of them. The purest. From friends who’ve just flown in abroad—and there was always someone flying in from somewhere. There was one party in New York where the Filipina hostess greeted her guests with a “welcome” spelled out in cocaine on the console table. There was one December party in Manila when a Christmas tree arrived decorated with marijuana joints and other such mood enhancers.


“[There were] very pure drugs, pharmaceuticals they were downers which were actually tranquilizers, Quaaludes,” shares Leviste. “The ingredient was methaqualone which would make you numb so para kang zombie, you’d be fighting it and that was the bangag, fighting the numbing sensation. Madrax mixed with coke—which would bring you up. If you took both of them you would be in what you would call ‘on a speedball.’ Upper and downer. Your mind and eye and mouth are on coke, and your body was very relaxed and ready for sex. You would lose all inhibitions.”

Rene Knecht announcing the opening of Gaiety in the social chronicler of the time, People Magazine.

Those inclined would bring their baon to the clubs (Santiago raised his taray eyebrow to anyone seen drug-dealing at Coco), and everything’s for sharing. You could always tap into someone’s generous heart and they would gladly put a tablet of Q on your tongue. Louie Cruz would want to see you swallow it, though, he told me years ago when I wrote a story on the club for Metro Society. “Because he might want to take it in his own time, but you’re there to get high sabay.”


Sex was no biggie then. There was the pill, after all. And syphilis and gonorrhea were as curable as a hangover. As Louie Cruz puts it, the scene was “like one big Peyton Place.”

“People had sex every night,” says Larry. “In Where Else?, at the poolside. In 54, in the balcony upstairs. Instead na uuwi pa, mag-sex na lang sa tabi-tabi tas balik sa dance floor!

“Sex was not an emotional thing, it was like you played a round of tennis and then you shook hands. You sweated and you say, ‘See you sometime!’ It was not promiscuous, it was innocent.”

Helena Guerrero as Madame Butterfly (behind her model Gina Leviste as Margot Fonteyn).

Preparing to go out was as much of a fantastical ritual as the going itself. Think Tony Manero spiffing himself up for a night on the town in Saturday Night Fever which came out in 1978. The men all wore the same cologne, wore Fred Perry shirts and Nik-nik tops which were available at Cartimar.


As for the girls, they would have their clothes made by Gaupo or Christian or Rusty, their hair blown and their faces made up at Budjiwara. Friends would call each other to meet up early so they can rehearse their dance steps. Rehearsals are followed by dinner in some nice restaurant and then off they go to Stargazer or the handsome cosmopolite Rene Knecht’s Gaiety, whose pre-opening buzz involved such promises as being the biggest dance club in Southeast Asia. Outfitted in red velvet, the club could accommodate 1,000 disco freaks at a time, and would be cooled by no less than 90 tons of air-conditioning.

Actor Eddie Garcia, then fashion show producer Becky Garcia, and Jullie Daza, editor of People Magazine; Menchu Menchaca in Auggie Cordero.

By the time 1978 rolled in, the glass doors of the disco in Malacañang were flung open, and Imelda would invite her Blue Ladies and select guests from her exceedingly formal dinners and waltzes at the Maharlika Hall—then always decked with the freshest flowers, arranged by the famous Ronnie Laing—to come up to the new, mirror-walled, third floor dance hall which had a view of the Pasig River. Sean Connery partied here, along with Madame’s usual cocktail of international VIPs: Doris Duke, Christina Ford, the Agnellis, and Henry Kissinger.


Should a change of pace be in order, she entertained in her seaside hideaway in Olot, her hometown. At one time she flew in a batallion of models and designers from her Bagong Anyo crew for a weekend to provide amusement for her foreign guests via a fashion show. The Olot property was a kingdom in itself: it had a dance hall, a swimming pool, several interlocking pavilions and beautiful bungalow-style guesthouses. It sounds like a perfect venue to entertain, except for that time when Imelda, in her Hanae Mori, espied the lawn and found the grass too dry and not green enough; so she had it spray painted, causing a slimy disaster on the hemlines of the models’ gowns.

Precisely when all these wildness and craziness came to a halt, no one knows for sure. Even Ernest Santiago, when he was still alive, couldn’t quite recall the exact day or month or even year when he decided to close the Coco Banana doors forever. Louie Cruz tells me, if you want to know when a certain era ended, you have to know the plague of its time. Which, for the veteran party observer, was the AIDS scare abroad reaching Philippine shores and throwing the proverbial wet blanket to a decade of spirited bacchanalia.

Tetta Agustin, who was then already modeling for Givenchy and Saint Laurent, with Rusty Lopez who made her dress.

The lifting of Martial Law had nothing to do with its demise. Just like the proclamation of Martial Law altered nothing in the lifestyles of the can-affords. The rich have always been the rich, and therefore moved in a world different from the rabble. Who cares about the dregs of the city that peopled Bernie’s Manila By Night? Who cared about the plantation workers of Behn’s Sakada? Were you at Ernest’s Mad Hatter’s Party at Coco? The guests arrived at 8:30 p.m., only to find out the doors were still locked. They had to wait an hour! “I wanted to hold their anxiety, build up a mob and then open the gates. Drama! Suspense! Like a movie. Anyway I [had] what they came for!”

Mang Ben is off again to another of his pre-gala show sojourns to Hongkong to find inspiration, while Fe Panlilio just arrived from her Roman holiday with news that femininity is back in fashion, and so is the slit. Valentino just launched the video disco! And so now you can watch the Bee Gees and Donna Summer and Chic and Gloria Gaynor perform on the screen while you’re swinging on the dance floor. You have to come armed and ready for the next dinner invitation; they might just play charades—the “in” icebreaker for the “class” set—and you might find yourself battling it out with perennial champs Arturo and Tessie Luz.

Anyway, there will always be some gypsy-type invited among the throng, ready to provide a side amusement of card readings and some such astrological kiyeme. Like Turiya, who in one suburban gathering very gamely dispensed advice on how to attract positive vibes: “Take your shoes off. Sit by the pool. Water is good for the soul... Look up to the sky... Hmmm those stars are divine... Do eat almonds, they’re very good for you. Lettuce is delicious with bagoong. Didn’t you know?” It was a time of camaraderie and of curiosity and exploring possibilities—which should be a lot when you’re affluent and connected to power. As one of the doyennes of the era, Elvira Manahan, she of the extravagant laughter and highly polished style, replied to People Magazine when asked what could she still want the most when she already has everything: “Everything!”


This story was originally published in the September 2015 issue of Esquire Philippines.

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Jerome Gomez for Esquire Philippines
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