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In 2002 I interviewed Dolphy for Flip magazine. I had hoped to have a long talk with the man who had been a fixture in my consciousness since childhood, when I saw Silveria (the talking horse), The Cabinet of Dr. Kagaw (a spoof of the German Expressionist classic, which may have been an episode in a movie omnibus), and Barilan Sa Baboy Kural on TV while pretending to be having my afternoon siesta. But Dolphy was doing a weekly TV show, making movies, and already dealing with health issues, and with all the scheduling constraints I ended up chatting with him while he was having his make-up done for the photo shoot. He remembered his early days in show business in sharp detail. If anyone out there has a copy of The Cabinet of Dr. Kagaw, please let me know.
1944 or 45, the world is at war, but the show goes on. A skinny young man with very nimble feet meets a man called Benny Mag (short for Magsalida), a producer of stage shows. “How well can you dance?” Benny Mag asks.
“I can dance,” says Rodolfo Vera Quizon.
“Show me,” says Benny Mag.
The young man, not yet 20, gives a small demonstration of his hoofing prowess. Never had a dance lesson in his life, but he’s seen Hollywood musicals. Benny Mag chomps thoughtfully on his unlit cigar. We’re not sure he had a cigar, or even if he smoked, but in these movies the impresario always has a cigar and a faintly dyspeptic air.
Well. The kid can dance. There’s also something about him—not exactly handsome, kind of mestizo, nose too big, bones about to burst out of the thin face—but something. He’ll never be a matinee idol, but he’s got potential.
Benny Mag takes the cigar stump out of his mouth. “You’re hired. You start next week.”
The young man joins the chorus line at the Avenue Theatre. He’s a quick study. Graceful, and the audience likes him. Before long he’s getting solo numbers. He gets offers from other theatres, the Alegria, the Apollo. At the Apollo he works with another aspiring entertainer named Leopoldo Salcedo—what a profile, there’s a matinee idol. At the Alegria he meets Nanding—Fernando Poe, Sr—who becomes his mentor.
No one’s making movies, but live stage shows keep the performers alive. At least they’re working. Rodolfo is doing three shows a day. The king of the dancers is Bayani Casimiro, the fleetest feet in town. He’s playing at the Lotus. He spots Rodolfo, offers to teach him to tap-dance. Says he’s opening a new theatre at the Orient. Rodolfo says, “Sure.” He wants to learn tap from the master.
1946, the war is over, Manila peeking out of the rubble of Liberation.
He’s doing three shows daily, and every day the routines change. They rehearse on Sunday until the wee hours, then open on Monday. Then they practice the new steps until dawn for the show on Tuesday.
One day Rodolfo gets picked out of the chorus for a small part in a court scene. He plays a little Chinese guy. The audience roars with approval. See, they really like him. The girls especially—who would’ve suspected, a scraggly-looking boy like that?
From then on he’s cast regularly in comedy skits. Even gets his own weekly sketch, making funny faces, tossing out lines, doing exquisite double takes. He’s a dancer after all, and everything is about choreography. The young man is on his way. They give him his own tiny dressing room.
The next step is the movies. A director named Tor Villano gives Rodolfo a small role in They Die to Live. He’s always playing Chinese characters; now he plays a Japanese soldier. They shoot for six months in the jungles of Tiaong, Quezon. Not a pleasant experience: the prewar vintage film equipment the producers had salvaged is crying for the junkyard.
Even before shooting wraps Rodolfo returns to Manila. His 12-year-old brother Junior is with him. They have no money. When the bus conductor comes over to collect their fares Rodolfo says, “I’ll pay you when we get to Manila.” The bus conductor takes pity on them—they’re just a couple of kids.
When they get to Quiapo, Rodolfo leaves his brother at the bus terminal as collateral, then goes out to raise money to “redeem” him. Turns up at the movie producer’s office, sees the bodyguard. “Do you know who I am?” Rodolfo asks him. “I’m the tough guy (siga) around here. That’s why I’m coming to you. I pawned my brother at the bus station, and I need to collect him.” The bodyguard gives him 20 pesos. At the time it’s a large amount. His first talent fee in films.
They Die to Live opens in Manila. The young man proudly takes his father to the cinema.
The reel jumps, the sound goes kaput, the macho leading man sounds like Alvin from The Chipmunks. And Rodolfo is nowhere to be seen. “Where exactly are you?” his father says, squinting at the screen. “Over there,” he says. “See that rifle with the bayonet? I’m the one holding it.” His first screen role and he’s not even visible.
“You shoot for six months, and all I see of you is the end of your rifle,” his father marvels. In the theatre the people yell at the screen and throw things. His film debut. Rodolfo shrugs. “The title’s wrong, he laughs. “It’s not They Die to Live, just They Die.”
The next movie is much better. Another war picture—having just barely lived through such horrors, the audience needs to see them on the screen. It stars Fernando Poe, Sr, and in it Rodolfo plays a Japanese interpreter. He doesn’t speak a word of Japanese, but that’s not a problem. He can improvise, produce noises that sound vaguely Japanese. This time he makes it to the final cut. There he is, a flickering image on a sheet on the wall, the first of many, many images.
There really is something about this kid. He’s a natural: it’s like he’s not even trying. Even in the most frenetic routines there’s a stillness about him. He knows exactly what’s going on, and he’s too clever to let on that he does. Every twitch and gesture seems perfectly spontaneous, unrehearsed. Nothing is wasted; the choreography is seamless. Some people just have rhythm. And this boy has the gift for making the audience love him. They adore him, period.
The movie industry shakes off the debris of war and moves towards its Golden Age. “Hey kid, the name needs a little work. What if we call you Dolphy…”