Madame Coco.A page from Metro Society shows Ernest Santiago standing guard by the entrance of his legendary club.
In light of the news that the two remaining bastions of Malate's bohemian nightlife, Penguin and Oarhouse, has announced its last calls--forever--we look back at the club that defined Manila nightlife in the '70s, Coco Banana, whose createur Ernest Santiago died two years ago this month.
To hear its devotees describe it, the look of the place fails to evoke the fabled long nights and decadent parties that made it a legend. The vignettes its habitués remember comprise an old house rustic in appearance, Machuka tile flooring retained from the original structure, bleachers made of wooden planks surrounding the dance floor, the bar at the right, and the metal and glass door entrance.
How these become by nighttime Coco Banana, the most fabulous club in the history of Manila nightlife, is a transformation born out of the virtuoso hand of Manila’s Steve Rubell, Ernest Santiago, and the cast of characters he assembles every night. “You can’t be too straight or square if you want to be at Coco. Even society people—they have to be a little mad to dare enter,” remembers a former Malate club owner. But the people alone didn’t account for each evening’s high spirits: there were the music, the drinks and the drugs.
The club was born in the era of disco and Donna Summer and, cliché as it may sound, the days of sex, drugs and rock and roll. “It was the first openly gay club in Asia,” says Louie Cruz who can’t remember if he was already wearing his off-the-shoulder blouses then. “But it was not just a gay ghetto,” offers Ricky Toledo, who started frequenting Coco as a student in Ateneo. It was the club to see and be seen, and during the Martial Law years, everyone’s fun, glamorous jailhouse of choice if you want to avoid the PC.
The place never announced its exact address. “The world knows where we are,” its tagline said. And it seemed, in its twelve-year run (it opened June 12, 1976), Manila’s nocturnal creatures knew exactly where to go when they wanted to party like it’s 1979: that old house-turned-hedonist mecca along Remedios Street, three houses from the corner where the atelier of designer Mike dela Rosa now stands. One would think the owner could have printed its location on the souvenir matchstick pads scattered at the bar. Those pads, it turned out, proved handy and popular for jotting down the name and number of one’s catch for the night.
The club was created by Santiago, a designer by day who, bored by the dreary Manila nightlife and with P25,000 to spare, decided to open Coco “para may mapuntahan naman ang mga bakla.” He was a lean butch-looking fella with jet-black shoulder-length hair who could be wearing something fabulous of his own creation (a white denim trench coat perhaps, sprinkled with rhinestones) or something that enhances his gym bunny reputation (military pants with a metal-studded belt, a cut-off shirt and a pair of leather boots).
'You can’t be too straight or square if you want to be at Coco. Even society people—they have to be a little mad to dare enter'
Then in his 30s, Santiago was the club’s proprietor, creative director, Mother Superior, and door bitch. By 9pm at the entrance, he would look members of the queue head to toe and decide if one would be let in or be told to go home and dress up (most of those declined actually go home and dress up; those who don’t follow a party’s costume theme is ‘quarantined’ for an hour and a half at the holding area before they could join the party). Those whose "vibes" he simply didn’t like were told the place was full. He wasn’t called ‘tarurit’ (or mataray) for nothing. “He was a force to reckon with,” says Chito Vijandre, who once won a trip to Paris for showing up as the lion in The Wiz. “He had the most piercing eyes,” he says of Santiago.
Weeding out the undesirables at the entrance allows Ernest to create the potent cocktail of a party crowd the club was famous for: a mix of artists, drag queens, diplomats, journalists, show biz celebrities and members of Manila’s 400. For Santiago, it is always about the mix—and the liberating feeling of being in a huge crowd packed in a small place, with the collision of everyone’s breath, sweat, perfume and smoke just adding to the dizzying effect of one’s tall drink or downer of preference.
The dance hall itself was a dimly lit place, with only a few pin lights landing on guests’s faces, “so that everyone gravitates to the dance floor like an enigma,” Santiago says with theatrical hands. A spotlight quickly locates a new guest’s arrival each time the door opens “so that everyone feels like a star.” On special evenings, a significant portion of Remedios will be closed and a red carpet rolled out for Coco’s guests—velvet ropes, spotlights and all.
Whenever a foreign celebrity arrived in town, there was a big chance he or she will be at Coco. At any given night, one can meet a royalty from Europe, a baron, a vicomte (if one is lucky, even get to go back with said royalty to his hotel). It was a melting pot of nationalities. For young men like Toledo, Coco was “a lesson in international relations. What they don’t teach you in school, you learn at Coco.”
During the Marcos years, Santiago’s flair for entertaining was so renown Malacanang would often call on his services to take care of its VIP guests. Champagne, needless to say, flowed like water in the club on those occasions. Once, he got a call from Francis Ford Coppola asking if he could accommodate cast members of the Apocalypse which was then filming in the Philippines. Celebrities from Sean Connery to the Village People have partied at Coco. Felipe Rose, that American-Indian-attired Villager, loved Coco so much he stayed on in Manila after the rest of his group had left. He even found himself a boyfriend. When Linda Carter, Wonder Woman, landed on the cover of Time Magazine, she wore a Coco Banana shirt bought from the club’s souvenir shop.
You want a tablet of Q, Louie Cruz will gladly put one on your tongue--but he wants to see you swallow it. 'Because he might want to take it in his own time, but you’re there to get high sabay.'
The popularity of Coco was such that it was immortalized in a popular Hotdogs song which became a Nora Aunor movie (Annie Batungbakal). The same song made a household name of hairstylist Budji Layug, more famous then as Budjiwara or Budji for short (“Buhok mo’y Budji, talampaka’y Gucci”), one of a batch of fabulous young men—which included Louie Cruz, Ron Gomez and Ruben Nazareth—who made Coco their second home, fresh from their training under Vidal Sassoon in London.
There was a lot to love about Coco. For the entrance fee that began at five pesos (which reached P150 before it closed), one is assured of an elaborate visual treat beginning with Santiago’s lighting effects and a show featuring gay performers. James Cooper as Diana Ross was a star and so was a group called Coquettes who performed musical reviews. The club’s excellent production of West Side Story ran for eight weeks, prompting the CCP to write a review in its gazette. Then there was the dance music—the latest from underground cult clubs in New York. The swing was at its peak. Gloria Gaynor. Alicia Bridges. Yvonne Elliman. “People really get up and dance like it was a show,” recalls Vijandre.
And everyone brought their baon because Santiago prohibited any drug-dealing in the club. The drugs of choices were Quaaludes (called “Q”) or Mandrax (then “ekis), and the occasional cocaine. You want a tablet of Q, Louie Cruz will gladly put one on your tongue--but he wants to see you swallow it. “Because he might want to take it in his own time, but you’re there to get high sabay.”
Drugs were so commonplace that an accidental dropping of a tablet will cause a mild commotion—everyone will start searching the floor to snatch it. Otherwise, Cruz jests, it was a welcome idea to vacuum-lick the floor.
The ekis action would reach its peak at The Rocky Horror Picture Show productions. Santiago played Mr. Frank-N-Furter, the mad scientist slash transvestite at the center of the ‘70s musical on sexual confusion and ambiguous morality. “Everyone was already drugged when the show starts,” says Vijandre. “And that’s the only way one would understand that show!”
Most nights, guests would pass out wasted on the cushioned bleachers, from which they will be carted off by their drivers who would knock on Coco’s doors come four in the morning ready to retrieve their senyoras.
“Walang away-away no’n,” Santiago recalls, “Everyone was kalmado, parang nakatingin lang sa langit lahat.”
Although there were mild catfights here and there, the one memorable eksena took place one Saturday night between a pair of very prominent, very rich lesbian lovers—and a Bvlgari necklace. As soon as lesbian#1 found out lesbian#2 was at Coco with a date, #1 approached #2, and dragged her out of the club by her Bvlgari. And because #1 refused to contain her rage, she slammed one of Coco’s lights with the necklace. The scene lasted a whole ten minutes--afterwhich everyone went about dancing again as if nothing happened--but Manila society talked about the Bvlgari incident for weeks.
And then there will be another Santiago gimmick to talk about: an Orientalia party, a L’Uomo Vogue-inspired night of all white and mirrors all over. “Parang Midsummer Night’s Dream araw-araw,” describes a regular. From nowhere, muscled men were carrying a Cleopatra-wannabe to the dance hall. One time, Santiago rented the little people from neighbor Hobbit House so that he entered the party escorted by a throng of elves. Once there were mannequins everywhere painted with street graffiti, or an ukay-ukay theme, with vintage clothes that hung from a number of suspended copper wires. A favorite of the gay men were the horses at the Carousel-themed parties. “They will sit on the horses holding their drinks. It was a great place for vogue-ing. And cruising,” says Toledo, who once appeared at Coco wearing a Roman toga and sandals, holding a party mask with its replica painted on his face.
“Everything was done in good taste,” says Santiago, “wild but in good taste.” Not surprising since it was the favorite hangout of the style and fashion set, from designers like Inno Sotto, Rusty Lopez and Romulo Estrada, to top models like Anna Bayle, and fashion patrons like Chito Madrigal. One could watch Chona Kasten or Mary Prieto all night just being themselves, keeping their poise no matter the number of drinks. Once, socialite Cristina Valdez showed up in Eliza Doolitle’s Ascot garb complete with parasol. Designer Larry Leviste walked in as a bum-revealing net-stockinged showgirl. Joe Salazar won a prize for his stylized Ibong Adarna costume: a bodysuit with feathers, sequins and mirror chips. Helena Guerrero of Azabache fame stole one evening when she came in full geisha regalia.
Much as there was always someone to look at, there was always something to turn one’s gaze above eye level—-a huge jar with an outrageous, larger-than-life flower arrangement perhaps. Santiago has a reason for this: when the eyes are looking up, they are strained to become bigger. And big spotlight eyes were all the rage in those days.
At one point in the evening, just when everyone is in the highest spirits, say when Diana Ross is on the last notes of “I’m Coming Out,” a wave of Santiago’s hand would bring the music to a halt and a collective “Awwwww” and whistles will be heard from the crowd. Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer’s “No More Tears” would come in past 4am, a signal from Santiago that says, ‘no more partying, enough is enough.” Most nights, guests would pass out wasted on the cushioned bleachers, from which they will be carted off by their drivers who would knock on Coco’s doors come four in the morning ready to retrieve their senyoras.
But nobody it seemed wanted to leave Coco Banana. At six in the morning, one could still hear glasses tinkling inside.
Even in the last days of disco, the club’s loyalists continued to want more.
In 1988, however, Santiago thought the club has had its time. Vijandre recalls the tears during that last big party. And everyone made sure they partied and got wasted as if doomsday was but a few hours away. Nobody remembers what exactly happened the night of the last big Coco shebang--and with the club's reputation, that's totally understandable. In fact, Santiago recalls no such party. In his mind, he gave no announcement of Coco’s closing. If his memory serves, he got up one morning and locked the place forever.
This story appeared in the May 2007 issue of Metro Society.