We were witnessing a third birth, intoned the priest. He continued, the first is when one enters the world, the second when one is baptized and admitted into the church, the last is when one begins eternal life.
It was a most elegant farewell to Conrado A. Escudero as he ended a fulfilled life and left for life everlasting. He lay in state surrounded by unparalleled treasures of Philippine art and culture gathered by several generations and in a building that he himself built, its façade a replica in pink—a favorite family color—of Intramuros’ lost San Francisco church. Relatives, all dressed in mourning black, were there. Famous singer Dulce, a friend, sang songs that Escudero himself chose.
Born to a landed family, educated in the best schools, Adò Escudero’s advocacy was the preservation of Philippine cultural heritage and traditions. A gracious man with old world manners, he had friends from the highest social, economic, and political circles to the humblest of his tenants. Beneath the polished exterior was a determined visionary who led in the revival of family fortunes, transformed an ancestral landholding into today’s prime tourist and events destination.
Escudero’s hospitality is legendary, fondly remembered. Every year without fail, guests in the hundreds journeyed to Villa Escudero, two hours plus away from Manila to celebrate the Escudero family’s traditional Ascencion Day celebration and for his birthday party. In recent years, the day began with high mass at the Villa church. Then followed a festive procession led by gigantes to a large pavilion. The fiesta image of Christ arrives by barge, welcomed with incense, music, and ceremonials.
The celebrant’s 80th was the birthday party to end birthday parties. The theme was Kings from all over the world paying homage to the King of Kings. Guests were assigned Kingdoms. I was of Thai royalty and got me a costume straight out of The King and I. As Emperor, the birthday boy arrived by water on a three-level pagoda amid exploding fireworks. Regally descending onto a palanquin, he was borne to the throne set on a high platform. The other Kings and Queens, including me and Queen (Consul Helen M. Ong), mounted stairs up to the throne to make suitable offerings—a bucket of diamonds if memory serves. I stepped on Helen’s train and we almost rolled down the steps.
Another memorable bash was at the old museum. Attire was white tie and tails. The building was full of treasures but was without air conditioning. Dry cleaners reluctantly accepted my frac that had shrunk with gushing perspiration.
The annual Intramuros Grand Marian Procession has become one of Manila’s major cultural and religious events, thanks to Escudero who has chaired the Comité de Festejos throughout the 40 years of its existence. The Good Friday procession at San Pablo City, another spectacular, is also Escudero’s project. These two great events require careful planning, organizing, and directing of complex logistics and diplomatic (or firm) handling of volatile personalities. Escudero has been more than equal to the task.
Escudero helped form Casa Manila Museum in Intramuros that showcases the lifestyle of a mid-19th to early 20th century Manila family. Making it a “living museum” was his brainchild, involving friends like Patis Tesoro and her children play-acting as residents of the house. A first in the Philippines, the museum continues to be a major Manila attraction.
The Villa Escudero Museum is sui generis with one of the very best collections of Philippine religious sculpture, decorative arts, natural science, and international objets d’art and curiosities as well. In the museum are magnificent processional tableaux, unequalled church objects including silver altar frontals and a magnificent 17th century relieve from old Antipolo. His latest project was Casa Consuelo, built from the plans and woodwork of a Pampanga home and fully furnished as a provincial counterpart of Intramuros’ Casa Manila.
Behind the culture and arts personality was a solid businessman. I first visited Villa Escudero in the late 1960s when machine gun nests surrounded the coconut hacienda, a feudal anachronism. Overcoming numerous challenges, Escudero saw to the plantation’s transformation into a tourist destination, saving it from dismemberment, providing additional income to its tenants, and bringing it to the forefront as a prime attraction to locals and foreign visitors. His Cornell University training in the hospitality industry came into good stead, with imaginative attractions such as the Labasin waterfall restaurant, where people enjoy buffets with their feet in a clear running stream to the sight and sound of falling water. It had been merely part of the plantation’s hydroelectric plant. Under his leadership, the Villa also embarked on residential property development that is bound to be a coveted address.
The last time I visited the Villa was a few months ago, to pay my respects to an Escudero sibling who lay in state also at the museum. The coffin was guarded by large silver candelabra and a profusion of flowers. Arriving mid-afternoon, Escudero was seated ceremoniously, alone by the coffin, ready to receive courteously mourners who cared enough to travel the distance.
It is appropriate that at the end of a fulfilled life, Conrado A. Escudero, Don Adò, was being born to a new life in a structure of his own creation; surrounded by jewels of Philippine culture; to music and by an artist of his choosing; in a place that he raised from feudalism to modernity; and with family and friends, many present virtually through the future’s technology.
Notes: (a) Gigantes are men walking on stilts inside giant papier mache figures; and (b) Villa Escudero is in Tiaong, Quezon with entrance just beyond the San Pablo City border.
Comments are cordially invited, addressed to [email protected]