Oscar Obligacion, the master showman
Once upon a time, when boys greased their hair with the brilliantine called Tancho, and housewives everywhere used lard named Purico in frying, the country’s most popular TV show was “Oras ng Ligaya.”
The year was 1962, and six times a week, most of the country’s 29 million population ogled each noon to the antics of the show’s headliner, the most recognizable impresario in teeveelandia, Oscar Obligacion.
Initially, his star image was anchored on his comic portrayal of Japanese soldiers in bakbakan films. As he honed his craft, he evolved into an all-around showman whose clean humor earned him the tag as “Bob Hope of the Philippines”.
Obligacion isn’t your ordinary comedian. At one point in his career, a powerful TV honcho offered to raise his talent fee, not twice nor thrice but a whooping twenty times in order to get his services. The record-breaking deal remains unmatched by any celebrity to date.
He belonged to that rare breed of performers who succeed in all areas of the arts — from stage to radio and then, film. But his star shone the brightest on his TV career.
While born in Manila, Obligacion’s origin was Camalig, Albay. He is the fifth in a brood of twelve.
Raising a dozen kids didn’t pose a problem for his father, who was a successful executive at Standard Vacum, a big oil company. “Noon, iilan lang silang may kotse at hatid-sundo pa sila sa school,” says Oscar’s wife, former LVN star Myrna Quizon.
However, his fairy-tale beginning was not without drama. When he was nine years old, his father had left them for another woman. The young Oscar, who was so used to pampering had to learn to shine shoes to help in the family expenditures. In between school classes, he would shine shoes for passing strangers in exchange for a few cents. One fateful day, after servicing one customer, he looked up to him to ask for his modest fee. Imagine his torment when he found out that his customer was his own father.
But Oscar harbored no ill feelings towards his dad. “Ewan ko kung bakit,” he now says. Some say his reaction was a manifestation of a son’s unconditional love to a father.
“Siguro, dahil alam kong minahal din niya kami”, says Oscar. “It’s unfortunate na hindi na sila nagkasundo ng mother ko. But he was a good man. When he left us, our family survived dahil nakatapos na yung iba kong kapatid.” He also gives credit to his Kuya Benjamin, the eldest, who served as their guardian.
During the Japanese Occupation, the only form of entertainment was the stage show. Performances featuring top celebrities ran three times a day to full packed crowds. It was at the stage where Oscar started his star journey at the age of fourteen, when he auditioned in the Juan Silaya extravaganza, “Sa Sariling Lupa” in Metropolitan theater.
“I was with my friend Cris de Vera,” Oscar recalls. “We were asked to perform a comedy act. Hindi pa ‘ko tapos, sinabi nung nag-audition, ’You’re hired”. Later on, he was invited by Narciso Pimentel to join his stage shows in Plaza Lawton. “Nag-click ako sa tao. Sabi nila, ‘small but terrible.’ I appeared in Clover, Bataan theater, and Metropolitan”.
A year after his stage debut, Donya Sisang de Leon of LVN Pictures made him the studio’s premier comedy actor. Earlier, the legendary starbuilder heard of Oscar’s impressive talent and was intrigued enough to go to the theater herself to watch him. Obviously, she was impressed by what she’d seen.
As an actor, Oscar’s better films included “Capas” (1949), “Parola” (1949), his solo starrer “Tasyo”, and “Dolfinger meets Pantarorong” that pitted him opposite Dolphy.
He also gained equal success on radio. In 1960, his DZRH program “Tuloy ang Ligaya” with Lita Guttierez and Sylvia la Torre was a phenomenal hit. Its success prompted Manila Broadcasting Company’s big boss Federico Elizalde to transform it into a television show. And that was how “The Big Show” was born on MBC’s Channel 11 in 1961. It featured Oscar with Cris de Vera and La Torre, under the direction of Ading Fernando.
“Dahil hindi mapatumba ng kahit anong program ang “The Big Show”, kinontak silang tatlo ni Geny Lopez of ABS CBN,” relates Myrna. “In order to get their services, tinaasan ng 20 times ang talent fee nila.” Soon, the top-rating “Oras ng Ligaya” debuted on Channel 2. The variety program lasted for fifteen years.”
“Doon, we have no scripts,” says Oscar. “We were just given an outline, at bahala na kaming mag-improvise ng dialogue. The fact that it was being performed on a live television made the task doubly daunting but very rewarding”.
His academic background complimented his natural wit. He’s one of the few actors of his generation who could speak English fluently. Credit goes to his fine mentors, which included no less than Ferdie’s mom, the late Josefa Edralin Marcos, his elementary teacher.
His gift of gab came handy when he became the country’s ambassador of goodwill to Korea and the U.S. He was sent by the government twice to Korea to entertain the troops during the war. In 1973 and 1974, he was also chosen by former President Ferdinand Marcos as envoy of goodwill to the U.S. for his Balikbayan program.
“Lahat ng presidente, from Quirino to Masaysay to Marcos, kinuha siya to do stand-up comedies in Malacanang,” relates Myrna.
On the homefront, Oscar is also blessed. His marriage to Myrna is 53 years old. They have four children: Emily, an architect; Susan, an executive secretary; Neville, a businessman; and Glenn, a doctor.
“As a father, he is the spoiler while I’m the disciplinarian,” says Myrna. “He’s a faithful husband and a good provider. He is also humble and very generous. Pinag-aral niya yung dalawa niyang kapatid.”
He retired from the entertainment business just two years ago. In the U.S, where he stayed temporarily, he busied himself doing concerts with old-time pal, Sylvia la Torre.
At present, Oscar, who will turn 83 this coming January, is enjoying la dolce vita with his loving wife, ten apos and six great grandchildren. His is a good life, and he has proven that while fate gives us the hand, we certainly play the cards. He played his cards really well. (For comments, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org)