IT CAME as a bit of a letdown that search engines totally overlooked the one project that I got to do with Nestor U. Torre, certified multi-hyphenate. It’s as if the country’s longest-running dinner theater revue on record didn’t happen. On the bright side, this means only I may get to narrate this.
Nestor passed on last April 6. Reactions to the news from media colleagues and celebrity friends were swift and emotional.
Singer-actress-movie and theater producer Celeste Legaspi declared his death “the end of an important era, when shows, performances and concerts were many and outstanding; when new performers were to be discovered almost every month.”
“Feels like I lost a father all over again,” wrote song artist Bo Cerrudo on his FB wall.
Au Cobarrubias—producer of Close Encounters with the Third Sex, which Nestor wrote, cast and directed—was his friend for over 50 years. She told TheDiarist.ph: “Nestor did not live to please others. I loved that most of all about him. He was as authentic as he was brilliant. We clashed at work, but our friendship was solid as a rock. You know, he showed me the seedy side of Manila. That’s pretty hard to beat.”
Were we not in the thick of extended COVID season, there would doubtless be a series of funeral sosyalan. I would certainly go at least once, although I really cannot say that we were friends. Many others who could more rightfully make that claim, like Cobarrubias, would be slighted. And for good reason.
The making of Close Encounters was the only time counting past and subsequent decades that Nes and I spent more than two hours across a table. True, that period is longer than some famous whirlwind courtships (and he would bark at me for this comparison—yes, “bark”), but neither of us two Taureans (at least we got that far) was disposed toward brisk bonding.
Casting took four months in 1978, with thrice weekly auditions in one of the function rooms of Hotel Mirador (now Manila Prince Hotel) on San Marcelino Street. The revue would be staged at the hotel’s formal dining restaurant, El Pueblo.
There was no way of telling where they came from, those chattering boys in drag who either stared down anyone who looked for longer than five seconds or looped them into their impromptu acts right there in the hallway.
Inside the function room, one of them would be sweating like steak on a grill in 24°C temperature, waiting for Nestor to look up and lift his pen from a pad of ruled yellow paper. Oh, those precious notes on which a job, maybe a whole future, depended! I got near enough once, only once, and saw not notes but doodles.
Nestor doodled! …. but more than 20 years later, when we became colleagues at the Philippine Daily Inquirer, I would see that he was still at it
Nestor doodled! Not to say that it was all he did with pen and paper, but more than 20 years later, when we became colleagues at the Philippine Daily Inquirer, I would see that he was still at it. Most vividly, I remember paisley patterns that started from any corner of the paper, languidly inching their way to the center.
For the auditionee, it was like the proverbial appearance of a white elephant with six tusks if Nestor did look up after three seconds and the pen stopped moving. Heaven’s very gate swung open when he laughed with that boisterous “Eureka!” roar known to every performer he ever directed. When he merely said, “Thank you,” well, it could go any of two ways, one of them spelling devastation. But even that was better than a shoe flying past one’s right ear (he was a leftie).
Before any of these signs manifested, however, no one could tell. He would simply be awfully quiet, deep in thought, his face flushed. And doodling.
Cobarrubias’ concept and subsequent deal with Nes was to cast unknowns in a loose narrative that would paint a more respectable picture—better than as parloristas, beauty conteseras, or altogether aimless misfits— of the Filipino gay man’s life and struggles, but in a form that would be the opposite of a tearjerker. The audience should be laughing and tapping their feet under tables to the beat of famous songs, maybe even singing out loud, why not!
Thus, the grueling tryouts. Thus the shoe flying past some ears. Thus, water spilled from pitchers shoved off the auditioner’s table at least once a day.
Olive Owel was almost grotesquely skinny, a cartoon character in the flesh and unapologetically gay
Out of the brazen dozen who made the grade, Nestor found a star and named him “Olive Owel.”
Olive Owel was almost grotesquely skinny, a cartoon character in the flesh and unapologetically gay. “Lipsynching” was the coveted skill of the times and he had that in spades. OO, as we soon started calling him offstage, brought the house down really early on every performance night, exactly three numbers into the show. Maybe This Time, from Cabaret, was never the same again for Liza Minnelli diehards across all known gender assignments. I could have become president of a national fag hag association owing to, if nothing else, my position of proximity to this production.
If Nes was trying not to play favorites, he super-failed. OO was his pride and joy. Some nights, even before the unlikely diva opened that impressive mouth, the director would start shaking in his chair somewhere in the back near the lights and sound system, and finally explode in laughter, on cue, with “… it’s gonna happennnn, happen some tiiiiime… maaaaybe this time…” Olive would be a disheveled wreck by then, but nonetheless reveling in the applause and wild hooting prompted by Nes’ reaction.
For the boys, that was an unmistakable stamp of approval worth aspiring to with every performance. To be fair, a few others succeeded now and then. There was Lito, the statuesque one and best-looking woman of the lot, another crowd favorite with Big Spender, which he killed each time on six-inch heels; and George, who dished out a mean Monroe with Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.
The show was such a huge hit, El Pueblo was turning away people at the door just 10 weeks in.
Close Encounters ran for almost a year, three times weekly. Nes mandated almost daily rehearsals, so the boys were assigned one large hotel room to share. It was fun at first.
Then stuff started disappearing and the atmosphere clouded over. No more girlie chitchats and, intermittently, there was open animosity. I was not part of the room share; I knew these only because my contributions to the production as a hotel exec included checking on them and attending to their needs, making sure their demands were reasonable. This entailed regular drop-ins and brief hi’s/ how-are-you-today’s. Soon enough, I was deep into a crash course on Parallel (Gay) Lives.
Lost support hose, deodorant sticks and surgical tape rolls triggered the most bitter word wars in a language that I quickly had to learn. And why was surgical tape so vital to their existence? I learned that before I learned the language, and I understood, absolutely. They had to wear very tight-fitting costumes and their front sides had to be perfect planes. Accidents involving a specific part of the male anatomy were verboten.
That one called out to Nes above the din…: “Motheeeer!” Nes reportedly stood up…. and thundered, ‘I AM NOT YOUR MOTHER!’
Nes would not be bothered by any of that. At lunch with the hotel owners one day, I brought it up very gingerly (and now I understand that “dedma” was belatedly coined for and about him). I got not a single word out of the stern principal!
And yet, things gradually changed. I could only assume that Nes actually did something about the situation, if quietly. The bickering stopped and new friendships were sealed. In subsequent chats with the boys, I learned that they had likewise been instructed on decorum even outside the hotel premises.
“Instructed” is probably the wrong word. Expectedly, Nes did it his way. During a rare night out in a popular bar, a few of the boys got drunk—one of them drunker than everyone else. That one called out to Nes above the din from about four tables away: “Motheeeer!” Nes reportedly stood up, exceedingly annoyed, and thundered, “I AM NOT YOUR MOTHER!”
I myself soon recognized a new order of things. I needed an escort to a concert on a dayoff for the cast. Where I might have directly asked the quite-dashing-when-out-of-character George “Monroe,” I thought best to ask Nes’ permission. George would later tell me about the instructions that he had to swear by: No screaming at any point in the concert, no batting of his gorgeous eyelashes at anyone, and no unnecessary speaking. Whatever he had to tell me, he had to whisper. I was too scared of Nes to verify this.
What I got to verify, sort of, was a nagging suspicion about the fabulous Big Spender gal, Lito. I mentioned to Nes that Lito tended to make a 180-degree turn after three beers and became a man with wayward hands. Nes replied with an amused three-second gaze, a half smile, and a guffaw (yes, that one). Thus, he drew the lines of responsibility for me: “You deal with that.”
In any case, everything he did apparently worked. The boys idolized and feared him in equal parts and, half a year later, we started getting inquiries from foreign promoters. Nes looked content, the topmost high that he characteristically allowed to show.
Last she heard, Cobarrubias said, Olive, George, plus Rene, our Limber Cheetah and Bobby, our College Boy Cutie, had passed on.
I left Hotel Mirador soon after the last Close Encounters performance. I didn’t see Nes for 22 years.
In 2005, when I became entertainment section editor of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Nes, now widely known as “NUT” (his initials), had for years been boss of the weekly Saturday Special pages and writing his acclaimed Viewfinder column. Some well-meaning colleagues said that NUT might mind my appointment. They didn’t know him, I guessed, and they obviously hadn’t heard of Close Encounters. I had to tell them that the first message of good wishes I received about the job was from Nes.
He remained a friend of our section and, when we started the annual Inquirer Indie Bravo citation night for local independent filmmakers, I could always count on his support. Nes was present in every program/party, and was consistently happy to take a part in the proceedings. The filmmakers were just as glad to see him.
Best of all, Nes and I never had to make small (or big) talk before, during, or after the day. Some things never changed.