Tuesday, November 25, 2008

ROMNICK SARMENTA, Child Actor Nonpareil

Gulong ng Palad was serialized over radio station DZRH (1949-1956). Written by Lina Flor, it was one of the most successful radio dramas (if not the most) in the history of Philippine radio. Luisa, the leading character, was played by Loida Viriña. Twenty years or so later, Loida proposed the idea to Marcial Sanson (who was the programming head honcho that time of Channel 2), to revive the soap opera. In the mid-70s, the second serialization of GULONG NG PALAD was launched by BBC-Channel 2. Loida, who used to play Luisa, now was the writer of the series. She was Lina Flor’s Sister in law – she was married to Lina’s brother: Virgilio “Beer” Flores who was a comedy writer. He was the scriptwriter of Tang-Tarang-Tang starring Pugo, Bentot, Rosa Aguirre, Sylvia la Torre and Leroy Salvador; He also wrote Sebya, Mahal Kita, with Sylvia la Torre, Eddie San Jose, Pugo & Bentot. When Beer Flores died quite untimely in his late-30s, Loida, his widow, became the writer of comedy series that starred Pugo and Bentot, and one of them was Si Tatang Kasi.

Marcial and Loida didn’t really think that a remake of an old radio soap opera would still appeal to televiewers. The TV network went ahead with it, anyway, and they started auditioning for the cast. The role of the mother was given to Caridad Sanches; the Father to Augusto Victa; Luisa was Marianne de la Riva; Carding was Ronald Corveau. When the character of Peping, the youngest son in the family, was searched, one child won the audition hands down, 4-year old ROMNICK SARMENTA.

The telenovela became an instant hit. In fact, all the competing telenovelas were dragged deep down into the gutter of oblivion and no other TV stations dared to compete its time slot. Together with the series, Romnick Sarmenta became a very hot child actor as well. Then, the network thought that it was time the tot had better had his own show. And that’s when I was assigned to write for a spin-off from the character of Peping.

The show was called: Peping, Ang Munting Anghel. The network thought that maybe we should write the series quite along the same storyline with Gulong ng Palad. I argued, however, that it would fizzle if we did that. I suggested that we will only use the title because it carries an easy recall. But the series should be a drama anthology rather than a telenovela. This is the only way we can keep its own integrity. When the drama anthology aired, it also became an instant hit that the televiewers were clamouring for more of the child actor. Romnick then was still “no read no write”, so we had to dictate to him the dialogs before the take. Despite this handicap, the kid delivered his lines brilliantly and acted so naturally that you believe in everything he did in a scene. Soon, another show was assigned to me with Romnick as the lead: BATA. It has a wider scope since it involved the stories of children. When the CHARITO SOLIS STORY was shelved due to threats of a class action lawsuit being filed by characters involved in the life story of the actress, the network decided to do another Romnick starrer, this time, two more TV dramas: True Story and Señor Santo Niño. And yet, apart from his own shows, we also used Romnick as guest child actor for Alindog, Alma Moreno’s weekly drama anthology, and Ulila, Rosa Rosal’s weekly Drama Anthology.

In the 70s, Romnick, no doubt, was the most talented Filipino male child actor alive (the other one was Darling Postigo, a.k.a. Julie Vega ­- who died at a very young age). It was amazing how a child as young as Romnick – was able to give life to a role despite the fact that he wasn’t even capable of reading the lines. We didn’t have to explain to him what kind of role he was going to play, we just dictated to him the lines during rehearsals, and even this was truly incredible, for we didn’t even have to repeat the lines for him! He remembered every dialog during the actual take. He was such an intuitive and creative actor. He listened to the dialogs of his co-stars and he has an instant understanding of what the scene was all about and he performed like a real pro: with conviction, precision, and right direction where the character is supposed to be going.

In an episode of Señor Santo Niño, Anita Linda played the role of a mother who paid more attention to her business than her own son. The son got involved in a life of crime and was eventually killed in a shoot-out. After the mayhem and the realization, we see her walking in a park, ruing the decisions she had made and its sad outcome in the end. That's when she looked in the eyes of a child (Romnick) and without opening his mouth, she heard him say: "Whatever you do the least of my brethren, you do unto me." Romnick's stare sent goose bumps to the crew while we were filming this and the final outcome when it was aired had the same impact to the audience.

But, like any other child, there were moments when he could get really moody, especially when he lacked sleep or too tired from his taping schedules. And when he was in these once in a blue moon demeanor, Marcial Sanson, the director, would scold him in-front of everyone. That’s when the boy would remain quiet and standing in one corner like a sad sack. Several times before, when it happened, I would come to him and try to cheer him up. Little did I know that Marcial was observing this all the time. Then the next time it happed, I was about to approach the child when Martial stood right in front of my path, saying: “Don’t even go there, Joemari. I want him to learn his lesson.”

So, there we were, just like one big happy family. I was a teenager, Romnick was my younger brother, and Marcial Sanson was our strict father, and Romnick and I were the sons who were both being disciplined by their father.

But, as what Shakespeare had said: “All’s well that ends well,” and we all lived happily ever after. Marcial, despite his strictness, was truly generous. People went in and out of his house and everyone was welcome. He has passed on a few years ago.

Going back to Romnick, I still have to see another Filipino child actor who could at least match his intuitiveness and brilliance. Reminiscing his wonderful performance as a child actor is a true delight.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

An Old Photograph

Visiting my sister, a Catholic nun in Montreal, brought back a lot of memories. I haven’t seen her for a while and seeing her again led us to reminisce the past, especially things involving our family.

She also showed me old photos. It was rather touching to see people and places captured by the camera many, many years ago. It is fascinating to imagine how a particular fleeting moment somewhere in time - was captured and immortalized. Looking at that particular moment when time stood still forever, can render a person awestruck.

One particular photo was that of my mother. It was snapped in 1948 in Escolta, Manila.

The city was ravaged by the Second World War that ended in 1946. This photo was taken two years after the war and Manila was still being restored to make it look like the way it was before the Japanese Imperial Army ruined the whole city. As can be seen here, the sidewalks crossing the estero is made of a temporary wooden bridge. My mom went to church in Quiapo, and after the mass she went to Escolta to go shopping. She was carrying here my older sister who was born in 1948. Following behind her was Rosita, one of the maids who was really good with children, and the guy behind Rosita was a guy named Inocentes, the driver.

I was baffled when my sister told me that the photographer was a total stranger. She explained to me that in the old days, photographers in Manila where everywhere. They take pictures of people passing by – without asking for permission. Then, these photogs would develop the photos and when they were ready, they would go back to their hang-out and wait for the people that they had photographed, hoping to see them pass by again. When they do, they would approach the subject of the photograph and showed them the photos and if they want to buy them they are more than welcome. This photo was one of those taken by a sidewalk photographer. And knowing my mother who would never let anyone down, I’m pretty positive that she must have paid him more than what he asked for.

Little did anyone know that in just a matter of few years after this photo was taken, Escolta became the financial district of the Philippines. It was also the glitziest part of Manila, something akin to LA’s Rodeo Drive or Vancouver’s Robson Street. There were shopping malls, specialty stores, boutiques, excellent restaurants, first class movie houses and what-not.

Photographs. Snap-shots of the past. Reminders of long lost memories. Harbingers of color swatch of emotions. They could bring happy or sad memories. No matter what emotions they evoke, it leaves you, the viewer, wistful, sometimes with feeling of loss.

What happened to the four people captured forever in this photograph?

My mother passed away almost five years ago. My sister became a nun and she lives in Montreal. Inocentes, the diver, when he got married, he asked my parents to be his God-parents and my parents gladly accepted, therefore he became our God-brother. As a wedding gift, my father gave him 10 hectares of land in Bicol and that’s where he settled with his wife. Rosita, the young maid who genuinely liked taking care of children, was given by my father with a bigger land when she got married, nearly 20 hectares, and just like Inocentes, she also became our God-sister. But, despite the distance, previous maids, drivers, cooks – that worked with our family – would always come back to visit us. Then, one by one, as I grew older, they began to disappear. When one disappeared, we knew the answer. He or she have passed on.

Then, you can only see them again in old photographs, photographs that are linked, so to speak, to the past. And then, the color swatch of emotions will once again engulf you.