Coco Banana: Where Manila boogied the night awayBy Larry Leviste
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Suddenly couturier Ernest Santiago wrote two words on a blank sheet: Coco Banana.
“Anak, this is what we will call our new discotheque,” Ernest, who was my gay “mother,” told me. The name was inspired by mid-century nightclubs in America, the Copacabana in New York and the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles.
The amalgamation and innovation were purely Ernest. We decided it was only fitting to open on Independence Day that summer of 1977.
I knew Santiago de Manila (his career name) was on to something great. With P25,000 he built what would become Asia’s hottest dance club.
Coco Banana was the fruition of Ernest’s unerring pulse for fashion, society and entertainment—what was new, shocking and entertaining. We were at the threshold of a dream come true.
He was about to rewrite the rules of nightlife in Martial Law Manila by opening a democratic disco meant to rival Studio 54 in New York and Club Sept in Paris. Birdie Palanca, a Philippine Airlines steward who invariably partied abroad, helped bring in the latest dance hits, delivering suitcases filled with the hottest vinyl long-playing records every week.
I was barely 21 when we inaugurated Coco Banana on June 12, 1977. Walking with “Mother Taray” (another of Ernest’s nicknames) was his “entourage”: Ramon San Agustin, Bobby Caballero, Jane Umali, DJ Chubby Soriano and Philip Flores. After dinner at Ernest’s penthouse home at the Embassy Apartments on M. Adriatico, my best friend Don Escudero told me that curfew was being lifted that night.
Originally, Coco was a ’50s-style residence with chuka tiles that proved perfect for doing the hustle or salsa. Soon it became the one and only place for Manila’s bohemian fashion set and café society, frequented by fashionistas, call boys, expatriates, drag queens and even old guard socialites like Chona Kasten, Mary Prieto and Chito Madrigal, who was Ernest’s patroness.
Indeed, it defined the after-6 freedom of the city populace in the peak years of martial rule, and the party would continue until 1987.
From Top 40 disco music to live theatrical performances (Felipe of Village People in “The Rocky Horror Show,” Mickey Tanaka as Diana Ross and Quito Cu-Unjieng as Shirley Bassey were among the memorable showstoppers) to outrageous fashion shows (I showed a collection that had Jun Jun Cambe open as Liza Minnelli), Coco Banana dictated Manila’s nightlife for over a decade.
Forty years later, some of its denizens look back at this legendary club—when Manila danced every night at Coco Banana.
“The word spread like wildfire: Ernest and Coco Banana. From all corners of the city came artists, fashionistas, bohemians and social outcasts. There were theatrical happenings, art installations—all spontaneous, creative and fun. No sponsors, no commercial backing and little money—and all during martial law!”
“Ernest as Mother Taray was always in control. At one June 12th Coco costume party, the theme was ‘The legend of all time.’ I was tightlipped about whom I would portray.
“Marcos was President, the headlines sizzled with the Imee-Tommy scandal and Tommy’s ‘kidnapping,’ though nobody dared talk about it. I dressed as Imelda Marcos complete with terno, peineta, alalay, bejeweled to death. I even had the bodyguard dressed in black pants, polo barong and sunglasses, and carrying my white organza ruffled parasol!
“Advised of ‘Imelda’s’ arrival, Ernest toned down the music and lights, except for the spotlight that was to focus on the guest as soon as she made her entrance. He rushed out to welcome Imelda and nearly passed out when he realized it was me! The whole party broke into whistles and laughter. An hour later, enter the real Imee Marcos to join the party. You could hear mild-mannered Chona Kasten’s soft laughter even hours later.”
“It was New Year’s Eve. Bessie Badilla, Gerry K. and moi checked out Stargazer before heading to Coco Banana. Bessie was in a dress that I made for her—black silk tulle, the torso cut below the belly button, her boobs covered only by cutout hibiscus-shaped velveteen appliqués (the same dress I wore during the Black Cat Party at Manila Hotel). A few meters from the entrance, apir si Taray and, upon seeing us, tumaas ang kilay, tiningnan si Bessie at ako, sabay isang malakas na ‘Hmmmmp!’ By then, alam ko na na pumasa ang damit ko sa kanya! Only Ernest had a way of making you feel good in that manner.
“At the FDAP annual party—I can’t recall the year now—I wore a Betsey Johnson strapless black jumpsuit in cotton knit and a salt-and-pepper cropped jacket in fox by St. Michael, all loaned to me by Becky Zarate! When Mang Ben Farrales saw me, he asked me to come near him, tiningnan ang label ng jacket sabay close ng kanyang lips at tango!”
“One memorable night in Coco I remember was George Sales’ birthday bash. The highlight of the night was a raffle with yummy hunks as prizes! My number got picked, so I won one for the night! But it was just 2 a.m., so we went on with the boozing. The next thing I knew, I was being awakened by a waiter—on the second-floor veranda, the sun shining on me. When I stumbled downstairs, there were still a number of revelers—but there was no sign of my prize!”
“No angst, no inhibitions, no pretensions—those were the Coco days. I was so young, still struggling, employed as a designer in some dress shops along West Avenue, QC. With friends, I discovered nightlife at Coco Banana, where I loved to see fashionistas in all-white outfits, or the different looks of socialite Cristina Valdez. There was my dear mentor, former couturier Robert Castañeda, and, of course, the iconic Ernest Santiago wearing his fab biggy shirts, drawstring pants and signature salt-and-pepper hair! I had cropped hair and sometimes sported super mini-skirts. Oh, those were the days. ‘I love the nightlife, I love to boogie…’”
“Ernest was the perfect host of the perfect place for the perfect mix of talented, lighthearted, unpretentious individuals. The effervescent spirit he created for Coco will never be duplicated. He was the giant master of the best disco in town—where one could ‘dance to death’ to superb music and join the giddy exuberance of friends who gave me the best natural high.
“I felt safe going to Coco alone. I would park my car (so easy then), pass the burly doorman and go straight to the dance floor. Ernest knew I never paid the entrance fee. We would dance and he’d always say, ‘Talyada ka!’
“I remember that for the ‘Coco Goes to Hollywood’ anniversary party, I came as Doña Sisang of LVN Studios upon the advice of Larry Leviste, my best salsa and swing partner. The baro’t saya was my lola’s. She wore it to the swearing-in of my lolo as governor of Marinduque eons ago. Of course, it was a hit; I won second prize. (I think Pando won first prize as Barbra Streisand.)
“My greatly missed friend, Don Escudero, gave me a term of endearment. One night, as I passed him at the bar, he declared: Cora Relova, O.S.B. (Oh, So Beautiful). Of course, I was delighted and started using such on my calling card, stationery. Friends called me OSB. Then I found out that OSB also stood for Order of Saint Benedict. My aunt was a Scholastican nun, and I saw the letters on her tombstone. I think she was greatly amused.”
“Coco Banana was the place to be if you were famous and you wanted to be ignored. At least that was how it was for me back in 1978. I was one of the original Jazzie Signature Models. At that time, young college girls without experience didn’t make it to the top overnight. I did. That was why I adored going there, where everybody was somebody—even those who were nobodies. You just needed to be gay—I meant one who knew how to have fun—to fit in.
“The music was the best you could get in those days. As for the dancing, it didn’t really matter how you moved or who you were doing it with. Most times, you could just dance away in front of a mirrored wall and nobody really cared.
“Everybody always seemed to be in good spirits. Positive vibes, lots of laughter, music, smiling, grooving. And the weekend parades. I remember going up to the open bar on the second floor to check out the crowd, a climb that normally took seconds. But it took me 20 minutes, because Coco Banana was always full house on weekends.
“And the Cocoquettes! They were my first glimpse of the world of Filipino transvestites and transexuals. I loved them so! The shows they did were a combination of the famous Parisienne Crazy Horse and Swan Lake.
“The most interesting part for me was, I got booked for shows and photo shoots, and met photographers and designers, right there at Coco. Modeling agencies didn’t exist back then.
“And ‘Mother Ernest’ was the most intimidating yet friendly human being I had ever met. He could give you that sideways look with an arched eyebrow that could mean anything from ‘Who do you think you are?’ to ‘Ang ganda mo, bruha ka!”’
“Ernest Santiago’s Coco Banana was the palace where everyone could become ‘one singular sensation.’ It was that time in Old Manila.”
“I was working as assistant producer in an ad agency when Bernardo Ayson, our preferred stylist, dragged me to Coco Banana after a grueling shoot. I had never seen anything like it!
“I was transported to this surreal, cool place. The music was great and there was such a mix of fun, fashionable, hedonistic, bohemian characters.
“I became a regular with my BFF, Chick-chick Mejia-Bruton. We were there every night such that my brothers penned a song inspired by my Coco nights (yes, I am Annie Batungbakal!)
“We planned our wardrobe carefully, as everyone who went there was a walking fashion statement. Ernest was so amused with us that he even lent us clothes from his collection!
“We met all our mentors there: Maning Obregon, Ruben Nazareth, Petusa Lopez, Denni Tan.
“I remember Helena Carratalà came to one Coco anniversary party as Chio-Chio San in a geisha outfit made of cellophane. There was also Maning Obregon striking a pose (well before vogueing!) and, of course, Joan Fang who, one night, in a jealous rage over her girlfriend, started punching the hanging colored bulbs one by one.
“I also remember Nestor ‘Fifi’ Tumang in his Pierre Cardin hotpants dancing in the bleachers section. And Marissa, Annabelle and Celia, the resident trannies, being mistaken as women by every foreigner who set foot there.
“I cannot recall now how Chick-chick and I were seconded to the Department of Tourism PR office and had to babysit all these celebrities who arrived for the Marbella Club opening.
“Night after night we took them to all these somewhat boring functions. One night, we decided to take matters into our own hands and brought them to Coco after another sleep-inducing affair. We warned Ernest beforehand, of course.
“But the group we were looking after was so happy to be at Coco, telling us it reminded them of the clubs in Europe and NYC. They were all there—Sean Connery, the Duchess of Sevilla, the Prince of Liechtenstein, the Shah of Sharjah, the Duchess of Cadiz. Coco Banana was the highlight of their visit. It was a wonderful, magical evening and none of them wanted to go home! I remember that the next day, the finance minister of Morocco wanted to go back. Hmmm, he must have fancied someone, I thought. Those Coco days can never be replicated!”