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Sta. Ana Cabaret, Where Manila’s Rich and Famous Partied ‘Til They Dropped

Sta. Ana Cabaret was the world's largest dance hall.
IMAGE FELICE SANTA MARIA
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Tales of Manila’s opulence and genteel charm as the Paris of Asia is not complete without mentioning the Sta. Ana Cabaret of Santos Street. It was so popular that it made the pages of Life magazine, once a big-time American publication. Meaning, they noticed.

Its colonial-style wooden interiors, twice as massive as a gymnasium, attracted a crowd of the country’s movers and shakers, who at the time were white Americans. But the story of Sta. Ana Cabaret started as a humble bar envisioned by Italian man Giovanni Canzana.

Santa Ana Cabaret, The Largest Cabaret in the World

Photo by Felice Santa Maria.
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A Man with a Plan

The story of Sta. Ana Cabaret would not begin without the story of its proprietor. Giovanni Canzana entered this world a nobody. He was born in 1878 in the municipality of San Polo Matese, Italy, to working-class parents. An intelligent man who followed the beat of his own drum, Canzana was quite the maverick that he plotted a voyage to the United States with one particular goal in mind—to get rich.

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He arrived in Ellis Island by 1903 and found work in the West Virginia mines. This was where Canzana's initial American episode ends, because the following year, the restless Italian found himself in the Philippine Islands, relocating in Pangasinan and marrying a local named Hilaria Sikat. They had a tough marriage but had to wait 18 years to be granted a divorce.

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In the midst of that, Canzana had become a naturalized American citizen and became known to everyone as the much more anglicized John Canson. His determination to distance himself from his impoverished past transformed him into an entrepreneur with an astute business acumen. He divided his time between ventures in both the Philippines and the United States.

Among his earliest endeavors in the Philippines was in 1909, with a bar in Pasig, which turned up a healthy profit. The success encouraged him to roll the dice further. He took on a lease for a sprawling property at a nondescript backroad of Tejeros, then a small barrio of rural Makati. On that property was a small watering hole made of nipa and thatch. Modest, but it pooled in a good number of customers from the American military. That watering hole in question was Sta. Ana Cabaret.

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Named for its border toward Manila's Santa Ana district, this "cabaret" was nowhere near the theatrical cabarets popularized in France. It was more or less akin to a social club where people can drink, unwind, and dance.

Canson took advantage of its proximity to Manila and sought to make it the place for the American community. In 1918, four years into his proprietorship, Canson consulted the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific Company in the renovation of the Cabaret. It took three years to transform the humble hut into the grand center of entertainment from his visions. In 1921, that vision became a reality.

Little did he know that he was about to establish for himself a place in the annals of Philippine history.

Sta. Ana Cabaret’s Days of Wine and Roses

By the 1930s, the Cabaret—at 270 meters wide—was renowned as being the largest dance hall in all of the world. Its edifice, which stretched from width to length, was built with 90-percent wood and ornamented with the finest chandeliers from Europe.

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Sta. Ana Cabaret, Circa 1930s

Photo by Roberto Villar.

Canson spared no expense in making sure the Cabaret was well attended, beautifying the interiors and even hiring the best cooks and the best hostesses. His daring paid off, as the best of everything attracted the best of people. Soon it wasn’t just the personnel of Fort McKinley who was there for a tropical respite, but dignitaries, as well.

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Certainly, the Cabaret may have been on the narrow road of Santos Street, but because it was advertised as a place of class and comfort, such a minor hindrance did not stop the clientele from growing.

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Its premises, a stone’s throw away from the race track, were conveniently adjacent to a streetcar junction; coachmen would wait on the street corner in their small horse-drawn carriages to drive visitors to their destination, the hottest nightspot of Manila.

The Cabaret was two clubs in one separated by a white picket fence: One side was where the military guys and lonely hearts can spend time with “the girls,” for one peso a jitter, while the other side was a place where prominent figures can rub elbows with each other, with tables lined in white linen and the most premium alcohol available in their hands.

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All in all, the Cabaret was a popular place to dance to live swing music as much as it was a place to dine, boasting of its famous spaghetti dinners—perhaps the one link left hinting toward the Italian heritage of its proprietor, one who liked to fashion himself as a man of mystery.

 

Sta. Ana Cabaret’s Famous Patrons

Canson and the Cabaret gained great commendations that a contemporary publication raved, “He never watered his spirits, his girls don't try to entice customers, and nobody has ever been thrown out of the club.”

What Studio 54 was to '70s New York, Sta. Ana Cabaret was to '30s Manila. Both prided in exclusivity. At the time, the Cabaret had an Americans-only policy, restricting the average Filipino to wait by the taxi rings. A few exceptions had been made for the Filipino of influence—tycoons, artists, intellectuals, and politicians.

Manuel Quezon and Aurora Quezon

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Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

President Quezon was a frequent patron, not to mention friends with Canson. On a few nights, he would bring over General MacArthur, who in turn became a regular himself. Through Quezon, by extension, it also became the Nacionalista Party’s favorite place of leisure, so much so that they later held a convention for Manuel Roxas’ presidential candidacy at the Cabaret.

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A well-regarded local composer would scribble down his kundiman on the napkins there—drunk. Mentions have been made of the Cabaret in contemporary novels of Tagalog writers. International personalities also visited. Famed big band leader Benny Goodman even performed at the Cabaret's stage, jamming together with the house band. Indeed the Cabaret’s reputation was global, it was even featured on the cover of Life magazine’s November 1941 issue.

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For soldiers and sailors, the Cabaret was on their bucket list of places to visit once they were docked in Manila. For John Canson, a man who came from nothing, the Cabaret was his place, his domain where can he lord over very important people, even if it were just for a few hours. For once in his life, he too felt important. For once in his life, he was a somebody. His hard work and strong will led him to where he was, looking proudly over the foyer at what he had achieved. This was his Xanadu. This was his American Dream.

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Sta. Ana Cabaret’s Music Stops

It was December 7th, 1941. The patrons of Sta. Ana Cabaret were going about with the festivities, drinking and laughing in merriment, dancing away in their foxtrot cotillion. None of them would have suspected that this would be the last night of halcyon.

The following day, World War II officially arrived on Philippine shores, and so did the Axis. The Axis powers—by way of their Eastern emissary, the Japanese armymade their presence known via an air raid on Clark Air Base, a mere 10 hours after they had on Pearl Harbor. But it was only a warning.

The Only Available Photo of the Cabaret's Exterior, As Seen During its Last Days.

Photo by Roberto Villar.
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The Japanese assimilated Lingayen Gulf by December 22nd, working their way through Manila. On a gloomy Christmas, MacArthur declared Manila an open city and moved the Commonwealth Government to Corregidor. A week later, on January 2nd of 1942, the Japanese occupied Manila.

MacArthur fled for Australia on March 11th. President Quezon proceeded his move to the United States in order to operate his government-in-exile there. Not before long, he instructed Jose Laurel to take charge as the liaison between the Japanese and the Filipino people, hoping this will lessen the sting of occupation.

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Quezon never returned, succumbing to tuberculosis. President Jose Laurel ushered in a critical era in the Philippines, as the nation morphed into the puppet state of Japan. As the new set of colonizers proceeded to strengthen their hold, citizens—Filipino and American alike—were captured and imprisoned. Among them was Canson, who was ejected from his throne and whisked away to a concentration camp in Los Baños.

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In Canson’s absence, the Cabaret's wide space became a garment factory for the Japanese army. The consequences of the War would gravely affect the already strenuous social divisions of the country, with the Philippine elite—some of whom Canson had remembered celebrating their best years at the Cabaret—collaborating with the Japanese.

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MacArthur returned in the tail-end of 1944.  Beginning on January 9th, his troops arrived on Lingayen Gulf and gradually took hold of Luzon. It took most of February to reclaim Manila, but once they did, POWs were liberated. Among them was a grateful Canson, who generously offered the Cabaret as a makeshift hospital for the wounded.

Life After Peacetime

Peacetime came and the Cabaret resumed operations. While on the surface, the effects of the War were not seen, its specter continued to be felt. A few years into his reinstated tenure, Old Man Canson realized it was time to retire. He turned the property over to his son, John Jr., in 1953.

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The younger Canson decided to extinguish the Cabaret's stigma of being an elitist establishment. Hence, he allowed the Cabaret to open its doors to working-class Filipino men seeking to dance their woes away. He devised a protocol where patrons could pay a few centavos for a ticket, which bought a few hours of dancing, dining, and being in the company of guest relations officers or G.R.O., a euphemism for hookers. 

An Ad for Sta. Ana Cabaret in the 1950s

Photo by Roberto Villar.
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While the Cabaret did thrive after the war, it was never the same. The boom of more accessible establishments, as well as the neighborhood's deterioration, contributed to its rapid decline in terms of popularity and quality. Its wood furnishes had suffered dilapidation since the War. Testimonies of its latter-day operations describe the Cabaret as a “dark” and “trashy” place where the “dancers looked dismal,” a “far cry” from the high-class establishment relished by their fathers and uncles.

John Canson died in 1960, his legacy to Philippine society now a shade of its once-lustrous self. The issue of the joint being a “cabaret” resurfaced and would this time provide its commercial undoing, as the term now carried a negative connotation of sex and sin. It was a taboo of a morally repressed nation smothered predominantly on a tight Catholic upbringing.

A Bittersweet End for Sta. Ana Cabaret

In the first quarter of 1970, there were talks of the Makati government purchasing the property with the intention of putting up a public high school in its place.

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Apparently this did not push through, and later that year, in November, the Cabaret became one casualty of a flood caused by Typhoon Patsy (Yoling). Ironic how it withstood the carpet bombings of the War but couldn't stand a chance against the forces of Mother Nature. By then, its ruins resembled an abandoned haunted house. The neighboring residents utilized its vast tracts of land as a place to plant their homegrown crops.

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This would be referred to as the "Garden." The young children made the Garden their playground and their favorite spot was the large tree near where the Cansons' abode once stood. At the turn of the decade, President Marcos enacted the BLISS (Bagong Lipunan Improvement of Sites and Services) housing project and converted the property into one of many developments for low-income families to reside.

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Today, the Tejeros Garden BLISS apartment complex stands in its place. Its tattered roofs and withered walls tell the song of Sta. Ana Cabaret. From its days as a small social club to its revamp as the dance hall of the century, from the shackles of War to the twilight years of obscurity, it was a chronicle of Manila’s brief ascent as a nacreous premier city recognized beyond the Pearl of the Orient.

Through it all, this was the story of John Canson. Of his good times and his bad. The faint strains from the popular song “I Don’t Why” fits the Cabaret’s perennial tune and continue to loom the stifling evening air. We don’t know why, either. Sometimes, parties have to end.

Tejeros Garden BLISS Where Sta. Ana Cabaret Used to Stand

Photo by Roberto Villar.
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