Freddie Santos, our force, our life coach

Leading artists share stories about the intense creative energy
that became a pillar of Philippine theater

Freddie Santos passed away December 17, director, actor, writer, mentor, a man of faith
Freddie Santos passed away December 17, director, actor, writer, mentor, a man of faith

When news broke out December 17 that theater icon and OPM concert stalwart Freddie Santos had breathed his last, nobody could quite believe it. He was 64. His friends and colleagues in the theater community—his second family actually—knew of his longstanding battle with diabetes and its complications. However, it was still difficult to grasp that his familiar loud, booming voice had been finally stilled, or that that intense creative energy that was always seeking to disrupt tried-and-tested tropes was finally laid to rest.

According to close friend and Trumpets co-founder Audie Gemora,   Santos had penned poetry and a couple of short musicals on what was to become his deathbed.

Perhaps it was fortuitous that he received Philstage’s Natatanging Gawad Buhay for Theatre Award only a month ago, not posthumously. Generations of theater artists whom he had collaborated with and/or mentored happily applauded this recognition even if done only online.  As Gemora described Santos in his introduction at the award presentation: “Witty and wise… outlandish and outspoken…creative and crazy… fun and funny but also downright frightening… arrogant and amiable, gregarious and very nearly egregious, yet incongruously kind and incredibly thoughtful … a know-it-all who most likely does know it all but is never stingy about sharing what he does know…generous and giving to a fault… passionate and punctilious … a force to behold.”

Similar descriptions about his influence have been pouring on social media, and a virtual tribute is being prepared by friends and family (Santos is survived by his 91-year-old father, Sil, and sister Bambi). The had a close chat with some of them about his influence on their lives.

Here in their words are their stories:

JAIME DEL MUNDO, director/actor/playwright. He met Santos in 1977 as a 16-year-old high school theater director who visited Repertory Philippines’ auditions for “The King and I.” Del Mundo ended up auditioning for another play in the theater company’s season, reading opposite Santos.

Freddie swept in making the “actor entrance” I would soon get used to as I got to know him.  I remember he had on shoulder pads and a mane of reddish hair, and he called everybody “darling.” He totally established himself as larger than life in the first few seconds. He was riveting to look at. He was in the company of Repertory founders Zeneida Amador and Baby Barredo—no small change themselves—and was the biggest and loudest in the room. Truly the “artiste.”

Despite the nervousness, I got the role! I played a 13-year-old boy, and he played the role of my imposing father, he was 23.  Since that day he definitely would play the role of “theatre father” to me as we shared the dressing room during that show, and many others. I would have loads of conversations with him.  And it was quite the learning experience.

In A Little Night Music, I had a song with a very high note.  And after every performance as I would exit in the darkness, the professional singers making their entrance for the next scene would whisper their rating of my singing as they passed me by.  They rated me from 1 to 10 so I would get whispers of “6”, “7.5”, “5.5”, etc. That was done for laughs. of course. But one particular night, I totally missed the note by a mile, and as my colleagues passed me on their way to the stage, I was greeted with silence.  Freddie was the last, he gave me an encouraging smile, then said, “You should be shot”—and glided onto the stage without missing a beat.  Of course, you take it with great humor, and I like to think I did.  It still gives me a smile when I think of it.

JEREMY DOMINGO, actor/director/ current instructor/lecturer at Meridian International College – MINT College. He was only 11 years old when he met Santos, who was also his uncle, backstage at the Cultural Center of the Philippines after one “The Wiz” performance in 1982.

Tito Freddie was dismantling himself from his sweat-drenched Cowardly Lion outfit after the entertaining, energetic show. My 11-year-old self was awestruck and mesmerized.

“This is your nephew Jeremy. He wants to be an actor,” my other relative said as I nervously approached to shake Uncle Freddie’s…paw.

He looked me right in the eye, drudgingly mopping off his orange facepaint, raccoon mascara in runny circles around his eyes. “You DON’T wanna be an actor,” he deadpanned in earnest.

Fast-forward 19 years and dozens of productions later, I visit him backstage at the Meralco Theater, preparing for an evening show of Trumpets’ Little Mermaid in a rare onstage appearance. I tell him that story of our first meeting, which he barely remembers. Looking at me with the same deadpan smirk, costumed in an impressively kingly silver-black tunic, he said, “I STILL don’t want you to be an actor.”

Little did I know he would become the most influential person in my life

CATHY AZANZA-DY, actor, first heard Santos before meeting him in the flesh, when his booming voice did the announcements for the Gawad Buhay Festival in 1998.

That bass, that rumble with just a touch of vocal fry—absolutely individual and unmistakable.

Four years later, I was finally able to meet and work with him on the second run of Trumpets’ The Little Mermaid. Probably every young actor who meets tito Freddie is at first alternately intimidated by and in awe of him. I certainly was. Tito Freddie, like his voice, was an imposing presence. But as we began to work together, I grew to appreciate how he would harness his fire, becoming a gentle light for many people exactly when they needed it.

I will always admire Tito Freddie for his endless curiosity, his desire to explore the new, and his ability to inspire people to dream — and dream big.

AUDIE GEMORA, actor/director/co-founder of Trumpets and Philstage/currently entertainment director of Solaire Resort and Casino. He also first met Santos in 1979 while rehearsing for his first Rep production, “A Chorus Line.”

This tall flashy man approached me and from a distance said in a booming voice, “You’re Audie Gemora!” He had his hand extended as he walked towards me. It was limp so I didn’t know whether I should shake it, make “mano po,” or kiss his ring. My thought bubble was: “I know who I am, but who are you?”  Little did I know he would become the most influential person in my life.

Looking back on his vast body of works, I realized I was practically in all his musicals. If Zeneida Amador had Baby Barredo and Rolando Tino had Ella Luansing, I think I was Freddie’s “muse.”

Freddie was bigger than life. He was always “on,” performing to impress. But we had many quiet moments when he was vulnerable and real. He was not only my mentor, he was a life coach.

JOAQUIN PEDRO VALDES was introduced to Santos as part of the original cast of Trumpet’s “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” in 1997. The actor is based in the UK.

My most memorable production by him was a musical called Widows, Orphans and Wildebeests. Sadly I never saw it other than on video—Freddie was also a renowned TV director so he made sure his musicals had proper TV coverage. The show was about broken homes, separation, and the children. It was a family drama done with concert-style staging and musical arrangement. It had a massive video wall, with live and pre-recorded elements done in a concert venue. This was back in the early ‘90s. Nobody was doing that anywhere in the world. Nowadays, you can’t count how many shows are like that on Broadway and on the West End.

My very first art class was also with tito Freddie, and he had given me a blank Moleskin style sketchbook to draw on. Like a journal. His only rule was to not use anything man-made. He wanted me to use objects that had been picked out straight from the earth because “God is the first and last Artist.” So I was sketching using wet soil, twigs and leaves.

LUNA GRINO-INOCIAN, playwright, first encountered Santos during the auditions of Rep’s “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1978.

He was a mentor for actors.  He really taught them. He was also very good at one-on-ones, personal relationships, very thoughtful and generous.

What I learned from him: To push one’s limits because there really aren’t any. I learned by watching him and his processes. I was doing largely admin work for Trumpets and didn’t do much writing unless you count corporate correspondence and PR stuff. Until Jaime del Mundo and I started writing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—then Freddie started to sit up and notice. Then he was fully supportive.

MENCHU LAUCHENGCO-YULO, actor/director/co-artistic director of Resort World Manila’s Full House. She first played opposite Freddie Santos as his daughter in Rep’s 1978 musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”

My favorite memory of him is something that happened during tech rehearsals of Trumpets’ Little Mermaid at Meralco Theater where he played the father of the title character. His costume was all silver. Because the scene was supposed to be happening underwater, they had flying machines which made the mermaids look like they were floating. Freddie was being lifted and midway the machine got stuck! And because he had no control, he started to turn around! And because he was all in silver when the light hit him, he looked like a mirror ball casting light all over the theater. We just all fell off our seats in laughter!

Freddie was instrumental in my development as a theater actress. I would run to him every time I struggled with a role. He would be the one I would cry to when I got frustrated and he always made me feel like I could do anything if I just worked hard. He was the wind beneath my wings.

Freddie Santos – acceptance speech of his Natatanging Gawad Buhay award on YouTube

About author


The author has been covering the Philippine theater scene for more than 30 years. Away from the stage, she does content strategy, digital marketing, and public relations.

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