Party Time at the Palace
Editor's note: The following is a recounting of the high life in the Marcoses' Malacañang raging on—as the rest of the Philippines bore the atrocities of the Martial Law regime (which officially began in 1972 and was "lifted" in 1981, with Ferdinand E. Marcos reserving decree-making powers for himself). This article appeared in our October 2015 issue.
In 1978, on her husband’s thirteenth year in office, and while the Malacañan Palace was being rebuilt (officially, to ensure that it was architecturally sound and secure), then First Lady Imelda Marcos, inside the official residence of the President of the Republic, on the third floor of the Main Palace of the highest office of the land, opened a disco.
It was designed in the aesthetic of the era obsessed with glamour: lots of wooden panels and reflective spaces, and clear glass walls by the entrance to afford the guests a stately view of the Pasig river, and towards the end, the other half of the room, walls of glass mirrors. The disco would be the venue for Imelda’s after-parties, where international VIPs—from Doris Duke to the Agnellis of Italy—aristocrats, Hollywood stars, models and designers, and local actors would end up after a very formal dinner at the Heroes Hall, or a Bagong Anyo fashion show at the palace grounds. Cabinet ministers would come partying, and Imelda’s Blue Ladies would show up in full force, staying up as long as their queen—famously an insomniac—was up and about.
Staying up, too, until the very last guest had sipped his last cocktail was George Mercado, or George Boone to those who know him as a radio disc jockey. Mercado, then only in his early 20s, was the disco’s first DJ. He was already working in radio at the age of 15 but it was on-ly after he gave up his priestly dreams (he took up pre-divinity studies at the Ateneo) and started tinkering with his father’s audio equipment at home when he began to fashion a career in music. He started mak-ing mixtapes of disco tunes, which he would rent out to parties and hotels. When he was promoted from DJ to program director at DZXB, he quickly transformed the heretofore easy listening station into a channel exclusively playing disco music. Soon the suppliers behind palace events would get wind of Mercado.
When the disco in the palace opened in 1978, Saturday Night Fever had just exploded worldwide the year before, making disco music even more popular, along with the glamorous lifestyle it came with. The idea of a disco in the most distinguished office of the land may sound shocking to some even now, or a tad impractical to others (Gloria Arroyo during her time in the palace was said to have repurposed the dance hall into a gym) but for Imelda it was but the most natural thing.
“She seemed happiest when she was dancing,” recalls the fashion writer Larry Leviste who was a designer at that time and remembered being invited by his friend Melanie Marquez to the palace disco after a Pitoy Moreno show at the Maharlika Hall. “She loved to dance. She wasn’t that young anymore so the feet wouldn’t move as much, she mostly moved from the waist up, her hands swinging—with full giggle.” She loved dancing so much she had a mirror ball installed in her 5th Avenue apartment in New York and would host dancing parties that lasted ‘til the wee hours in her home in Tacloban. But it was in the palace disco where she would mostly hold court—at least before the parties moved onto the yacht Ang Pangulo, where Mercado also got to deejay. It was in that third floor dance hall, in between a master bedroom downstairs and a helipad on the floor above, where Mrs. Marcos would play her favorite dual role of star and slave to the hilt, basking in everyone’s attention even as she appears deeply concerned about everyone having a fabulous time.
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“I got a call from one of the suppliers of Malacañang, asking me if I want to go to Saipan to be a DJ at the Hotel Intercontinental there, or play music in the palace. I didn’t want to go abroad, so I opened Malacañang disco,” remembers Mercado, a distinguished looking man in his 60s. It was a decision that would open a whole other world.
“The most modern disco [in Manila] that time was Where Else?, which was at the Intercontinental Hotel. When I saw the Malacañang disco I was amazed! It was the first time I saw that kind of equipment. It was called Times Square Computerized Lighting System, and all you had to do was program it and it did everything on its own. Of course I had the turntables and mixers and everything, Altec Lansing amplifiers, Bose reflective speakers,” offers Mercado, whose melodious baritone and manner of speaking betrays his two professions: the radio disc jockey is also a speech instructor at John Robert Powers. He talks of his time in Malacañang with contained pride. “I had my own room there, right beside the booth, a lounge with a sofa and television, and it was showing ARTF—we didn’t have cable that time so I was watching a TV station from Clark Air Base.”
The Palace disco was modest in size, according to Mercado, enough only for maybe a hundred people. “There were no tables, only bean bags all over the place. The only table there was the presi-dential table, and that’s it. It was a rectangular room on the roof deck of Malacañang and the DJ was at the far end.” True, the entire place may be small compared to the monstrous dance halls of today, but what it lacked in size, it made up for in drama: “Right in front of me was the smoke machine. But it wasn’t the kind of smoke machine that we have now—they would load it up with dry ice. And dry ice stinks so they had to put French perfume on it to make it smell better. We also had a bubble machine. And at the far end, near the presidential table was a lighted dance floor, like the one in Saturday Night Fever.”
As soon as one steps out in the open foyer, there was a bar, and two food stations: one served Filipino staples from Via Mare, the other Japanese fare from Kimpura. “I was always stuffed and had my regular supply of Chivas Regal,” Mercado recalls.
The first party he remembers playing for was held during the International Monetary Fund conven-tion. Many foreign dignitaries were in the crowd, and present, too, were Filipino performers including Kuh Ledesma and the Madrigal Singers. “I was in barong, the guards didn’t know me yet, nobody knew me yet, and it was so funny because I was made to go to the back door—and the disco was at the third floor! I couldn’t go through the stairs because there were guests already so I had to pass through this room, go out the window on a small ledge, with the Pasig River right underneath, to cross to the other side just to get upstairs. It was doubly difficult because I had acro-phobia. I was scared shitless that time but I had to do it—in barong! After that I complained. I said I cannot do this. If I’m gonna do this every time I come here, no way. I pass through the front door, I’m not gonna pass through the back door. What if a guard on the ground saw me and thought I was a thief?”
To hear Mercado say it, the scene at the Malacañang disco was unlike anything he’s seen. “The parties were really parties. Mrs. Marcos was really a gracious host. There were a lot of old people. She’d call in a band, composed of a keyboardist, a singer, and a bass player, and they would play ballroom music, so there was an alternative, if they didn’t want disco music. There was one time she even cooked! She felt like cooking asparagus or something so they brought a stove upstairs and she cooked for the guests, like a performance.”
Mercado’s sets were often intercut with song numbers or some such amusements. “Whenever there’s a foreign group that comes to Manila they always have a party there,” the DJ recalls. “I remember Paul Williams was a guest, and then Mrs. Marcos sang “Gaano Ko Ikaw Kamahal.” The second time they sang it Paul was already singing along with her while playing the piano. I mean it was incredible!” Evenings at the palace were nev-er lacking in entertainment, or opportunities for celebrity-watching. It was there that Mercado first saw Sean Connery, the pianist Van Cliburn, the ac-tor George Hamilton, mingling with our very own superstars: Basil Valdez, Freddie Aguilar, Florante, Celeste Legaspi, a very young Martin Nievera. “You wouldn’t be shocked anymore when you see a famous personality, because it was just a matter of course that everyone’s just gonna be there!” The staff in the disco was required to be in bar-ong, and even the foreign guests were encouraged to come in the traditional Filipino formal costume for men. Normally, these were provided by the palace, in the famous tapered Pierre Cardin style; Cardin during those days still kept a shop in Malate, Manila. The only one allowed in the premises not sporting a barong was Manda Elizalde, the cabinet min-ister who insisted on wearing all-white all the time, top to bottom.
“I have to say the Marcoses are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” Mercado continues. “The only bad memories are of the people around them. They’re the ones who are kind of… I guess you could say power hungry. They tell me, Hey you better play this because Madam wants this. I knew what Mrs. Marcos wanted. She likes swing music, like Voyage’s “Souvenirs.” You’ll know if she likes the music because she will dance. The president I never saw dance. He doesn’t even drink. Not even champagne. He has his own special bottle, which was just filled with water. He seemed very athletic during that time. I never really saw Mrs. Marcos drink, either.” Although Larry Leviste says that if she did, she had a mixture of beer with soda water, or a shandy.
While he would often play hits by Donna Summer, or the group Chic, he always had a Sinatra somewhere or a Henry Mancini. He needed to be ready for anything. “Sometimes someone would come to me with a record, ‘yun pala from Mrs. Marcos’s library downstairs.” Deejaying for the Marcoses wasn’t all glamour; it was a real job. On many occasions, it was also sacrifice. “When you’re working there, you’re on call. No matter what you’re doing you better drop everything to go there,” Mercado says. “There was one time I went out on a date to Silangan Restaurant, which was at the third floor of the Cultural Center. It was just the two of us, and there were only two tables. It was one of the best restaurants I’ve been in, until now. Beautiful. Romantic. Spot on. So we had a nice dinner. We talked about what we were gonna do after. We decided, let’s just hang out in one of the bars in the hotels. All the hotels were new that time. We ended up in Silahis Interna-tional Hotel in Roxas Bouelvard. When we entered the lobby, there was this public address system saying, ‘Paging Mr. George Mercado.’ So I went to the phone, and it was Malacañang. There was an event and I had to go. I had to cut short my date.” How did the Palace track 2015him down? “Apparently, they called the house, and my mom told them that I went to Silangan Restaurant—which was government-owned. So they called Silangan. Apparently, the head waiter had heard that we were going to a hotel, so they called all the hotels and they were able to track me. It was crazy. But I was getting paid well so what the heck.
“When I went to Malacañang that night only three people were there, the President and two cabinet ministers. They were just having a meet-ing. So I was there hanging out, drinking my scotch, and eating—because every time they open the disco I have to be there—in case they ask for music. They can’t use the disco without me, because I’m the one who switches everything on.”
And the Palace never took no for an answer. “There was a time I was already home and asleep when the maid knocked on my door. ‘Sir, Malacañang daw.’
“‘Sabihin mo tulog na ‘ko.’
“She went back to the phone and then returned to my door. ‘Sir, in 20 minutes daw nandito yung kotse susunduin kayo.’ I couldn’t do anything. Anong kotse? ‘Metrocom.’”
It was occasions like these that eventually convinced him to give up deejaying for the Marcoses. “There was no way I could lead a normal life. I was on RT and they’d call and I had to drop my show while in the middle of it,” recalls Mercado.
He would eventually become a big shot in the recording industry. But his time in the Palace, that’s an experience he will most likely keep telling his grandchildren about. Like the time he first saw Mrs. Marcos devoid of her usual coiffure and pyrotechnics, during the daytime and in a daster, carrying the youngest child, Aimee, showing the kid around the disco.
Or the time the US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger was among the guests and there was a brownout. “Can you imagine Malacañang nag-brownout?! My immediate reaction was to go out and check the power.” Just when he was about to leave his booth, a huge guy stopped him. “Don’t move,” said the voice, which turned out to be that of a Secret Service officer.
Even the rather mundane routine of coming in and out of the palace is cause to wax nostalgic. “The presidential guards were so nice! I used to enter Gate 6, near the rotonda, and I used to bring a huge suitcase filled with records. Wala na inspeksyon yun, they knew me na. I was tell-ing myself, If I wanted to bomb Malacañang, ang dali pala eh. Because I never even passed thru the metal detectors anymore.”
For all the opportunities to rub elbows with the powerful, however, or mingle with Hollywood stars, Mercado chose to keep to his booth, satisfied in being a quiet witness to the glamour and bacchanalia. He never joined the party, no matter the invitations. He was happy play-ing his music, having his foie gras and caviar and Chivas. These were the perks he enjoyed. And the compliments from guests, of course. The most memorable of which came from some white guy some ran-dom evening. “Studio 54 was big at that time,” Mercado recalls. “I remember this American guest who approached me saying, ‘Hell, this is Studio 54, man!”