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One Saturday midnight in 1997, Walang Tulugan with the Master Showman beamed on free TV instead of the usual sign-off. Part-talk, part-vaudeville, no one quite knew what to make of it; its host, German Moreno was the Sandman sending his audience to an alternate boob-tube dreamland. Back then it was weird programming and looked like it wouldn’t last long. Almost two decades later, Master Showman is still keeping you awake.
THE STAIRS LEAD TO NOWHERE. It abruptly ends thirteen steps up and falls off behind a large LED wall. Just quick-welded metal bars and platforms, you could climb up to it but it doesn’t look like it would hold itself together well; it’s essentially a prop. Together with the wall that works as a stage curtain (and once was one, a real thick one, back in the day), the stairs are a vague nod to an old Hollywood set, or a budget rendering of a Vegas show.
Over the years, the stairs have changed, from grand to modern, but it has always kept its place on one side of the main stage of Walang Tulugan with the Master Showman. It has been there for almost two decades and will most likely never leave. When German “Kuya Germs/Master Showman” Moreno was younger and healthier, he would descend those stairs at show’s midnight opening, but only from about a quarter of the way up, to be safe.
He has not done that in a while, though, and would not even consider it now. On taping day—Walang Tulugan used to air live but now tapes two episodes every other Friday, from 4 p.m. to well into the early hours of the next morning—Kuya Germs arrives at GMA studio 6 on a wheelchair and is sat on the main couch. In January he had a stroke—a mild one, but serious nonetheless to anyone aged 71, as he is—from which he has steadily recovered, although it is apparent that his walking ability has been impaired.
Kuya Germs is wearing a gaudy gold and maroon sequined suit jacket, his signature look, and although he had had that stroke, he doesn’t look like he lost weight and still has his paunch. His facial expressions, though, seem more neutral, not quite like those of the veteran comedian who finds any excuse to get everyone to shout “walang...tulugan!” Still, he still has the Master Showman look intact.
As soon as he is handed a microphone, he says thank you to the studio audience. Mostly they’re college students from Bataan on an educational tour of the GMA Center. “Marinig ko lang ang palakpakan ninyo…,” Kuya Germs says, slow and slightly garbled, showing a little difficulty in his speech.
“Ready, standby!,” the floor director shouts. “Five, four, three, two, one…palakpakan tayo!” Audience responds on cue.
Later, as the students leave, he tells them to tell their bus driver to be careful. In the news that day is a fatal accident in Quezon City involving a bus driver who mows down a concrete marker, peeling off one side of his bus entirely, killing four and injuring twenty. Kuya Germs, despite his condition, has also kept his radio gig at DZBB every afternoon at 3 p.m., breaking entertainment news and the frequent big ones, like the bus mishap.
Girl group Sassy Girls are the first guest to tape. From the couch, Kuya Germs directs the Sassy Girls number by suggesting correct blocking. He asks them to work the stage. In the end, he does what he has done when he appeared in his first movies for Sampaguita pictures in the ‘60s—choreograph the dances in film musicals apart from being the comic sidekick. The Sassy Girls do as their told: they come from behind the LED curtain, sashay across the stage, and end the song in a pose up the stairs. Kuya Germs has drawn from a lifetime of watching, being in, and producing stage shows. Bodabil! Clover Theater!
Kuya Germs will tape all his segments only until 9 p.m., because that’s what his doctor ordered. May tulugan. The most fun he has in the four hours he is in the studio is his unscripted banter with Shalala, where Kuya Germs is barely able to contain his laughs as they exchange private jokes. The rest of the gang are all there: John Nite, Shirley Fuentes, Shermaine Santiago, and about half of the 60—yes, 60—young stars the Master Showman has taken into his fold, kind of like a slideshow That’s Entertainment.
A parade of celebrities with different degrees of fame, too, will come and go for their scheduled performance and interview, among them: up-and-coming singing groups; a 12-year-old Fil-Canadian boy who just won a singing contest in Canada; a comebacking former That’s Entertainment teener, Michelle Ortega, who happens to be the sister of Robert Ortega (another That’s alumnus, once paired with Isabel Granada. Look them up. Great throwback); another comebacking singer, Lloyd Umali, the Michael Bolton of the Philippines; the killer trio of jukebox queens Imelda Papin, Claire dela Fuente, and Eva Eugenio guesting to promote a concert, harking back to the days in the ‘80s when there was no ASAP (to be fair, we will have to include Sunday PinaSaya, although the show is mere months old) and Kuya Germs ruled the Sunday noontime variety show slot with his brand of boob-tube vaudeville on GMA Supershow. The Bellestar Dancers! Birch Tree milk cans to give away!
You Can Even Call It "Original"
At the control room of Studio 6 the production team cannot believe what they just heard. Someone has just killed Ms. Gina Pareño.
Well, not really. In the segment Celebrity Talk, the interview part of the show where Kuya Germs is helped by showbiz reporters led by Aster Amoyo, one of the movie scribes positioned at the audience gallery asked Ms. Pareño about other actors she has yet to work with, to this effect: “Sino pa ang gusto mong makasama bago pa mangyari ang lahat?”
Bago pa mangyari ang lahat, meaning, before she carks it?
Everyone in the team breaks into incredulous laughter, especially the director, Bam Salvani, because he was the one who suggested the question, but not the part where Ms. Pareño’s mortality was rushed. Starting out as a writer for the show in 2008, he has an ear for these things.
Ms. Pareño and Kuya Germs inevitably dwell on their memories of Sampaguita Pictures’ Stars ‘66, the launch pad of their showbiz careers, together with the likes of Rosemarie Sonora and Ricky Belmonte (Sheryl Cruz’s mom and dad. Again, Google them. Super throwback). Then the comparisons between then and now, a favorite pastime of old folks. If Kuya Germs had his speech in good form, he would have as surely gone back to his favorite memory, his days as a janitor and curtain raiser at Clover Theater, something he always found a reason to remember.
Together with Ms. Pareño is her daughter, Racquel, a theater actress in her own right. For some reason, the interview became some sort of a job hunt—Racquel, incidentally, could act and have not had any TV projects of late, so if a producer out there is interested, and hasn’t GMA been producing a lot of soaps lately...
It’s these quirks, as well as the general anachronistic vibe of the show, that has kept audiences wondering exactly what Master Showman is about. Nineteen years is a long time to keep wondering, and an even longer time for any TV show to be around. In a way, you could even say that the show is original compared with what’s on TV these days. The show is not a blocktimer but a product of GMA Network. They have been running it for two decades on the midnight time slot with practically no commercial breaks. You’d really have to ask: What is the value of the show to the network that it has continued to support it 19 years on?
“Walang Tulugan delivers an average of 1.2 percent NUTAM rating (Nationwide Urban Television Audience Measurement, conducted by AGB Nielsen) in its time slot and consistently beats competition—The Bottomline with Boy Abunda and O Shopping (both on ABS-CBN)," says Darling De Jesus, the network’s assistant vice president for Entertainment TV.
"But more than that, the programs airs during prime hours in various GMA Pinoy TV channels across the globe and delivers the viewership level the network needs. The program is very effective in most, if not all, of the network’s channels worldwide and that is considered as one of the most important contribution of the show. It is also an avenue for the network to discover and hone new talents.”
So that’s the secret: Pinoys abroad watching. Everyone on the staff of Walang Tulugan, from the director to the producer and the hosts, say with pride that they are more popular abroad than at home. Still, what is the show, really?
“This show started out with the concept of being a talk show. Parang David Letterman, mga ganon. Kaya lang, ang nangyari, Kuya Germs wanted a show that would showcase the talents of Filipinos, lalo na yung mga newcomers. So ang ending, bumalik siya sa pagiging musical variety show and dun na siya nakilala talaga,” says Salvani. “Then, since maraming mga bata ang lumalapit sa kanya, asking for help to get exposure in showbiz, Hindi niya matanggihan, wine-welcome niya palagi hanggang dumami nang dumami, tulad nung ganito—I think there are 60 of them now.”
At some points in the taping, Salvani asks a member of his team to pick out a better LED display to match the numbers of certain performers. It’s a pretty simple, neat, and modern trick that does the job whether the performer is a hip-hop act or Imelda Papin singing “Isang Linggong Pag-Ibig.” You would not even notice the disconnect between the digital wall and the stairs because, if you’d been stuck watching Walang Tulugan having nothing else to do on a Saturday night, you’d be used to it.
Which brings us to an explanation of the stairs, by now as important as the Master Showman himself.
“Hindi niya pinapatanggal yan. Para sa kanya, it’s very important kasi it means being grand—you know naman sa mga old movies ‘pag may hagdanan, it’s grand. Kapag may curtain it’s entertainment [referring to theater drapes]. To them [referring to old people like Kuya Germs] ganon yun. Ako, I just try to meet him halfway pagdating sa creative aspect ng show. If you watch Walang Tulugan noon, and then yung ngayon, you can really see the difference. Like dati, yung mga bata nakakalat lang diyan, ngayon they have their own places,” Salvani says, in effect saying that the show is actually more contemporary now than when it began.
The Teen Machine
There is no way we can know every one of the 60 kids in the Walang Tulugan talent pool. Even they themselves don’t know each and every one among them that well. That’s Entertainment was manageable—each day of the week got a set of teeners, and then they all swarm the stage for the grand productions on Saturday Entertainment. Walang Tulugan only gets a day.
For this reason, TV exposure is valuable opportunity. There are frontliners, meaning those who get more camera time, and at times a spot at performing; and there are the numbers, kids who fill the stage and grab every chance of a camera panning their way to flash a smile or a sign or bust a dance move, especially at closing credits, and who hope that soon they could become frontliners too.
The frontliners are handpicked by the producers for a few minutes of FHM talk. On the roll call: Jack Robredo, 21 and Sanya Lopez, 18, siblings (Sanya is a strong contender for FHM babe status); Hiro Peralta, 21; Ken Chan, 20; Ian Rances, 20, FHM babe Jenny Miller’s brother. The most famous among them, Jake Vargas, 23, is a GMA regular in teleseryes and sitcoms. He is also a singer.
Every one of them more or less have similar stories: They were spotted by a talent scout and were brought to Kuya Germs’s attention, knowing well that, as direk Salvani put it, he couldn’t say no to kids who wanted a break in show business. Or they were spotted by Kuya Germs himself.
All declare loyalty to Walang Tulugan. “Hindi namin iniiwan ‘tong Walang Tulugan,” says Jake, who started out his career in the show six years ago.
“We all know how Tatay Germs is a star-builder. We learn how to host, dance, and act here, mahalaga yun,” says Jack Robredo.
There is another thing they should be thanking their Tatay Germs for.
Kuya Germs pays for the talent fees of all the 60 young wannabes in his fold. It doesn’t make sense—he probably doesn’t even know some of them by their names, or even by their faces—but he does it.
Walang Tulugan, being a network production, gets a set budget from the bosses. All other expenses—and by this, it means the allowances of all the kids appearing in the show—are not included. And as the Master Showman can’t say no to the kids asking for his help, and he has a medical condition to consider, which costs money, it fell on the producers to work out a compromise.
They manage the cost of production by splitting the kids into two teams. Each team gets to alternate in the limelight per episode. “Do we know each other on a first-name basis? No,” says Hiro Peralta, who was last seen in Pari Koy. “I know some of them, but not all of them. I just know them by their faces. ‘Hey!’, ‘hi!’, gano'n lang.”
The very first lesson on how to thrive in show business they all must have learned: Look the part and be friends with everyone. Each and every kid on the show look thrilled to be on the limelight and are having the time of their lives. They also look like they all know each other by their first names.
Long May You Run
“Quiet lang, quiet lang!”
From the main couch, Kuya Germs is telling everyone in the studio to hush. He cannot be heard of course; the studio is huge and the production team is busy setting up for the next number, apart from the new batch of audience, mostly young fan girls, who are screaming the names of their favorite teen star.
This is the second time FHM is interviewing Kuya Germs. The first time, it was a surprise to find that he was game for just about any question we had thrown his way, he even had someone buy a new shirt right then and there, just for our shoot. Despite the stroke, it’s good to see that he still enjoys doing interviews.
“Alam mo ang experience ko sa telebisyon, lahat ng show ko bumilang ng taon. Yung GMA Supershow [the precursor of the Sunday noontime variety show format], 19 years. That’s Entertainment, 10 years. Yung Negosyete [a weekday livelihood show on GMA in the ‘90s], 8 years. And then yung Superstar namin ni Nora Aunor [a Sunday primetime musical variety show that began in the late ‘70s], 22 years.”
He is right. It hadn’t even occurred to us to count but it appears that he has never left our TV screens since 1970—imagine that, from picture tubes to smart TV, he’s been beamed in all. And to him, it’s all just entertainment.
“Ang mahalaga, yung mga taong ine-entertain natin, yung mga viewers natin, lalo na ngayon all over the world na.”
Eighty-two years old. Sixty years in show business. A solid track record on TV. Of course, only human.
So who is Kuya Germs’s heir apparent? Things seem to point to John Nite, Kuya Germs’ nephew.
“Am I the heir apparent? Hindi naman ako ang magsasabi no’n. I think the people from the network and those watching the show will be the ones to say that. Sumusunod ako sa yapak niya, pero hindi ko sinasabi na ako ang susunod sa kanya. I have the traits of Kuya Germs, but in a more objective way. Si Kuya Germs kasi puro puso.”
When Kuya Germs suffered a stroke in January, Nite says he was captain of the ship. The older showman has, in fact, relinquished some duties to his nephew. Both share a predilection for overstated glitter and glamour and have no qualms if their brand of entertainment is “bakya” [a ‘70s term for cheap] or “masa” as long as it does its job of entertaining people.
“Sino ba ang nanonood? Yung common tao di ba? Yung hindi masa wala namang time yun. Our track record will show for it. Whether we’re baduy or trying hard or flamboyant, ang masasabi ko lang, going on 20 years na kami,” says Nite.
Last song syndrome as they tape the closing credits to the show:
Kasama si...Master Showman!
In memory of the Master Showman. Time to sleep, Kuya Germs.
Photography Paul Mondok; This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of FHM
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