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Ano na, Johnny “Baby Pogi” Villaranda!

It was from Ernie Verdadero that I first heard of the death of Johnny Villaranda. Then I had to ask the code familiar to his generation: “si Pogi Villaranda?” I had to check and double-check, looking at online posts to verify the truth or the rumor.

You see, I belong to that generation where the most loving prank friends and acquaintances can play on you was to announce someone’s death casually. Imagine this scenario: it is 1975, and you are walking along Plaza Rizal and you encounter a friend who asks about another friend.

“Padi, kumusta na? Si Johnny palan, dai mo lamang naheheling?”

“Si Johnny?”

“Iyo, si Pogi Villaranda baga.”

“Dai mo aram, gadan na baga.”

Like his contemporaries, Johnny, without his knowing it, has been “killed” many times over in the past to the amusement of his friends. And, to the amusement of Johnny himself.

It was the 70s. The early part. Theater was alive in Naga City. Theater of the rabid kind was also vibrant on the streets, over the radio, at public places. Debates over the nature of Christ were raging in Plaza Rizal. The radio had comentaristas whose choice of words were only limited by dictionaries and fear of God. The city therefore was alive. Free.

A play rocked the city. It was Pororopot. Father O’Brien, who had been away for quite a while after having been transferred to Ateneo de Manila, returned to campaign for it before Ateneo de Naga students at the Assembly Hall. The play was in Bikol language and the dialogues were peppered by the usual obscenities that were common in the regular conversation on the street. The crowd went wild.

When the play opened at the gym, the place was filled to the rafters. This was the people’s play.

The cast was stellar. Mon Lee was the lead. Loud, boisterous. The wisecracking big guy of the village. Then there was Jorge or George Caudilla. Underrated. A great actor. Where Mon Lee was the active speaker, he was sort of the passive, underpaid, unrecognized, lowlife. But they were a team - Mon and George or Jorge. Their repartee echoed the timing and risque qualities of the banter between the comedians of the old vaudeville stage.

King Pasilaban, the little man with the huge voice, was a scene stealer. He would be given solo scenes playing the Judge in a local court who, while presiding over the petty cases in the village, would be interrupted by his wife calling at any given time. Once, he was about to hand down a death sentence when the phone rang. It was his wife again, asking if he was coming home for lunch. To this question, he tried to charm his wife into not waiting for him anymore, after all, “mayo man baka sako an kaldero!”

Where would Johnny be in this spectacle? He was the Everyman. The quiet one who walked through a scene and looked at the crowd, his face, emotionless, breaking deadly the fourth wall. And eliciting a good laugh or a quiet embarrassed giggle from the crowd. For precisely, Johnny Villaranda never tried to be funny on stage. He only walked across the empty space and that was all it was needed to produce humor.

There was one time an extravaganza held in the Ateneo de Naga. It was the season of Intramurals. Beauty pageants then were not really appreciated locally and in that school, beauty queens were unnecessary. The coeds, as we called them, were not interested in joining beauty contests. Some students decided to have their own search for the Miss Intrams (such a name). But instead of real women, real men ( this is a practice that has become irrelevant and humorless already) played the role of beauty contestants. The farce did not end there: the contestants bravely decided to assume the personality of some characters from the school - from the Rector (!) to the Deans to more Deans to some Profs.

Johnny, who did not join the contest, who was not seen parading on the ramp, was called from somewhere because “she” was the winner. She was so serious walking around the stage as the Queen that “she” brought the house down - the face expressionless and the eyes were those of a little boy lost in this world.

But Johnny’s glittering moment would not happen in a comedy but in a real honest-to-goodness serious play. It was the Annual Play and Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real was the chosen play. And, Johnny was in it. The production was sterling, with balustrades extending from stage left to stage right. I do not remember what scene it was but when the lights went on, there was this man, pale-faced, sitting on the ledge. He was ready to speak his lines but no words were coming out. We could hear the words, “Each night…” but he would stop again. He began again: “Each night…” but instead of taking a pause, this time, he continued “I sit by my window. Imagining the night I was with you.” By this time, some people in the audience recognized two things: That’s Johnny Pogi there! And he was not mouthing the lines from the play; he was reciting the lines from Eddie Peregrina’s maudlin “Mardy.” Hell broke loose as people laughed.

The next day, the gym was filled to the rafters again. People had spread the news: Johnny Baby Pogi Villaranda was back on stage in a comedy, singing Eddie Peregrina’s classic song.

Thanks for the memories and the fun, Johnny!


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