IT STARTED as a simple reunion of a small group of ex-Manila Hilton Hotel staff of the 1980s. But the excitement was amplified when someone came up with a suggestion: Why not invite those who worked at the Hilton from its inception (1967/1968) until the management contract expired in 1988?
Whoa! You’re talking of assembling manpower from over a period of 20 years.
Edna Reyes-Windisch in Hamburg, Carms Galicia-Feinerman in California, and Carey Abeleda in Manila scorched the Internet to map out the logistics and handle the Herculean task of convincing as many old-timers as possible for a homecoming after 30, 40 or 50 years.
These pioneers witnessed and experienced many firsts that happened or were launched at the Hilton that became benchmarks in the hospitality industry.
What to expect from a reunion? The unexpected.
The pageboys came. They were a novelty of lovable rascals who saluted and greeted guests alighting from the hotel limousine.
I remembered that classic 1950s Philip Morris cigarette ad of a pageboy in his cap and brass-buttoned jacket. Ours were cuter.
Not this pageboy, however. He was potbellied and laughed raucously, recalling that “guests used to tip me a crisp P20 bill and it bought me a movie ticket, a soda pop, a bag of kropek that tasted and smelled like cooking gas, plus enough pamasahe to my dormitory near San Andres Market.”
Elixir of youth
The laundry manager must have stumbled upon the elixir of youth (or was Dorian Gray resurrected?) because his hair was as black as Maleficent and his face, creaseless.
“Wow! You didn’t age at all,” I exclaimed. He winked back, “Shhh, it’s a secret that I’ll never tell or share.”
As for the tall and svelte receptionists who greeted hotel guests with a fetching smile—some aged well, but the others shrank.
“You won’t catch me dead in stilettos,” one cried. She pointed to her open-toe sapatilya flats. “My comfort staples now,” she giggled.
The public relations bunch never shirked nor threw a tantrum before the media. One had lost a front tooth but still wore a warm, winsome grin. The other was attractively dusky, like a Moorish princess; another sported a Tahitian tan, exuberant to be a funky and groovy lola.
Another looked frail but grateful to have survived the big C, the tempest that she licked.
And of course, the PR doyenne, who transformed several Eliza Doolittles without the acerbic tongue of Professor Higgins. A typical Ilongga, therefore malambing (loving and affectionate), she still enthralls both young and old readers with her illustrated books on folk tales, art, history and culture.
The food and beverage (F&B) and service brigade held fast to memories of kitchen drama and banquet fantasies. They served trailblazing cuisine with ease and poise, like a well-orchestrated production. I gazed down at their nametags, an awkward moment, really, but the wild uproar of finally recognizing each other compensated for the uncomfortable pause.
The sales team wore out their shoes as they walked up and down commercial buildings, booking rooms for the hotel.
One is now a full-fledged member of the academe, while another keeps her boutique products literally jumping off the shelves.
Another sales go-getter recalled, “Do you remember when I was forced to block the private bedroom of the general manager because of overbooking?” The GM stayed cool and unruffled despite losing his bed for the night.
The innkeepers and general managers held the proverbial key that unlocked the unrivaled world of hospitality and its mainstays: a cozy room, a hot meal to soothe the hungry growl, unobtrusive service, and practical amenities to clinch a memorable stay and return.
They came from Switzerland, the Canary Islands, and Australia, while the other top executives arrived from Canada, Germany, and other far and distant places.
Although now gainfully retired, they stayed true to the profile of chivalry and civility.
One GM shared his musings. “I used to welcome the powerful president to the hotel by standing next to him. A hotel security consultant warned me, “Don’t you realize that the head of state is the favorite target of an assassin’s bullet?” I balked.
“The next time the president came to the Hilton, I stood five paces behind.” A lesson learned quickly.
The great romancers met in the hotel and eventually sealed their union with the famed Manila sunset in the background.
Love prevailed, with some raising the next generation of chefs and hoteliers. One widow quoted from Mitch Albom: “Sharing tales of those we’ve lost is how we keep from really losing them.”
The hotel patrons frequented the hotel, especially the 96-year-old matriarch of the original owning family.
Did things change much?
“I did,” she chuckled. “But it’s heartwarming to be in a room filled with people who gave me such beautiful memories.”
And speaking of having gone full circle, there was the tale of this young hotel management trainee who now sits as the chairperson of the new owning company. He rolled out the red carpet to his fellow balik-Hiltonians.
Meanwhile, a white T-shirt was put on display for retirees to scribble a note to the first opening general manager of the hotel, Mr. Colgate Holmes. He once described the Manila Hilton as “the Camelot of my dreams,” his and ours.