Way back in the fifties, the sleepy little town of Marikina boasted of one movie house: Cine Bayan, located at the eastern foot of the Marikina bridge that traverses the Marikina River which eventually drains into the larger Ilog Pasig. The banks of the local ilog was totally different then than it is now: the convenient water supply and the fertile soil of the river bank was an ideal place to raise crops of everyday greens and vegetables to sell at the local market. Many small-time farmers made their livelihood doing just that, planting letsugas, repolyo, mustasa, kamote on the banks and kangkong on the swampy parts.
It was a very pastoral scene along the riverbanks, and not at all unusual to see women washing clothes, beating them on the rocks along the clean and relatively unspoiled water. Water buffaloes jostle among children cooling themselves on the shallow end of the water, while men of all ages collect water in pails hanging from balagwit balanced on their shoulders to take home for the day’s use.
It was a thriving and lively neighbourhood, and this coupled with the fact that the movie house was situated at the entry point of Marikina proper made it a flourishing business. It was a time of innocence at the movies, when LVN Movies and Sampaguita Pictures still employed their own version of the star-system, grooming local actors for their own exclusive use. And what glorious and glamorous people they were: Jaime dela Rosa made people weep in Biyaya ng Lupa, Pugo and Tugo made them laugh in Kambal Tuko, Delia Razon, Mario Montenegro, Rebecca Gonzales, Nestor de Villa, Charito Solis, Nida Blanca, Norma Blancaflor, Armando Goyena endeared themselves to the masses in dramatic and comedy movies like Mutya ng Pasig, Sampung Libong Pisong Pag-ibig and Anak ni Waray.
It also helped tremendously that immediately west of the movie house also stood one of the very few sabungan, cockfight arenas, where men went to watch the sport and gamble their money away. To the winner goes the spoils, and that may well have included an after-victory trip to the movies for the winner and his friends after eating their fill at one of the karinderya, roadside food stand, that dot the immediate neighbourhood.
A few short years later, another movie house opened right in the centre of town, the Cine Lion, a few blocks away from where we lived. To distinguish itself from the first movie house, Cine Lion specialized in imported Hollywood movies whose titles changed on a weekly basis. I remember gazing at black and white or colour stills posted on the boards in the early mornings on the way to buying pandesal, secretly hoping to be able to go, but of course I was way too young then to be able to do so. But every now and again, when one of my older sisters really wanted to see the current movie playing but had absolutely no one to go with, I was drafted as a companion/chaperone, and this is how I saw the Peter Sellers movie “The Party”. And was totally bored, too young to understand what was going on, or even comprehend the dialogue. But how I longed to see those James Bond movies, so enamoured was I of Sean Connery. (There was a certain twist of irony in this, as many years later after we had moved to Canada, my best friend at the time, of Scottish parents, would tell me stories of how his mother dated Sean Connery before he became famous).
The older lady who sold tickets at Cine Lion in the early days happened to be our next door neighbour, and it helped a lot as my older sisters could often sneak in for free, as money for something as frivolous as the movies was not really within their budgeted allowance.
Movie houses at that time always had three levels: the orchestra, loge and balcony. Orchestra being the cheapest seats in the house was always full, but some who did not want to strain their necks looking up at the screen for hours (and at that time you can pay one entry fee and stay all day if you wanted), opted for the loge seating. The balcony being the priciest was usually relatively empty, and gave convenient way to couples on a date for a more private make out spot. But only the tramps, as everyone knew that nice girls never got into that!
This being the tropics, a movie house was a cheap getaway from the grinding heat especially in the summer. At that time air conditioning would have been quite expensive, but one could at least expect to have huge electric fans running full blast all day, all the more reason to stay put and watch the movies, and there were always two titles running in a double-bill every day. So folks like my uncle’s mother-in-law, Nanay Andeng, who obviously did not have much to do at home would buy her ticket at Cine Bayan as soon as the movie house opened and stayed well into the night, when the playing of the national anthem indicated the end of the day’s showing. Perhaps she watched, perhaps she dozed off, or both, but if she was not at home, she could surely be found at the movies. That is until my family acquired the first television in our neighbourhood, and then our house became her private, and no doubt, much cheaper retreat.
The successes of these two cinemas soon gave way to a couple more movie houses opening in quick succession of each other: the opening of the Cine Mari, billed as the most modern movie house in Marikina was eagerly anticipated, and for a while lived up to expectations. It featured a giant mural of a river bank farmer, and the façade became a welcome fixture in town. It showcased a mixed bag of titles, but the most memorable for me were the local horror thrillers of the period like Maruja, which was the opening movie, and whose star Susan Roces, later Philippine First Lady was supposed to make an appearance but never did, and Ibulong Mo sa Buhangin, a vampire movie that eventually saw international release as a bad example of the vampire genre.
Further away from the centre of town, the Valley Theatre opened shortly thereafter, catering to the bakya crowd: those people who worshipped teen idols of the time in song- and-dance features. Bakya was originally the Tagalog words for the wooden shoes worn by the farming class, cheaper to make and buy than leather shoes or slippers. But because of their humble origins, it was co-opted, perhaps forced onto is the more appropriate word, to describe the followers of teen stars like Nora Aunor, Tirso Cruz III, Vilma Santos and Edgar Mortiz, who made their millions in movies that were eagerly gobbled up by the working classes who expected and got nothing more from their movies than a quick reprieve from everyday humdrum life, and perhaps every now and again, the perfect Cinderella movie of rags-to-riches story. Many years later, detractors (like myself) of these actors, most notably Nora Aunor would be eating our humble pie when she started to branch out and made exceptionally fine movies like the much-praised Himala.
The movie houses were in the business of selling as many tickets as possible, and it was no surprise that the theatres were usually full way beyond safe capacity. I will never forget one Sunday afternoon taking my younger brother and sisters to see the movie “The Love Bug” at Cine Lion: the place was so packed that we ended up squatting on the floor on the side aisle all throughout the movie. The air was so heavy with cigarette smoke, as smoking was allowed inside the auditorium, that I had to continually run to the bathroom, wet a handkerchief and wipe their little faces to give them relief from the oppressive air.
Eventually because of the overabundance of choices, something had to give. Cine Bayan became too rundown and with the Marikina River in its death throes from pollution, people stopped going there altogether that it was only a matter of time before it became nothing more than a very cheap place to see extremely bad, and often, pornographic movies. Too dirty and too dingy, it finally earned the reputation of being Cine Surot, the seats infested with bedbugs, and rats prowling the floor for tidbits until it was permanently shut down.
Cine Lion, which held so much movie memories for me, burned down in a fittingly spectacular cinematic fashion one Sunday morning, major market day in town. Most of the neighbourhood shut down for the duration and had to be evacuated to safety in the middle of the busiest day of the week, and when it was all over nothing was left but remnants of the retaining outside walls and a huge pile of smoking rubble, in a surprisingly small looking spot. Arson was suspected but never really established, and the site sat empty for many years thereafter.
Cine Mari survives, but barely. With the advent of cineplexes in the malls of the now prosperous town, it eventually played nothing more than kung-fu and other martial arts movies still popular with the local crowd. The huge mural in the front looked rundown and forlorn, nothing more than a footnote to the glory days of large cinemas.
© August 2007