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Still regal: Benitez (left) with TV hosts Ariel Ureta and Pepe Pimentel.

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The Queen of Noontime TV with Ureta in earlier days.





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FEATURE
Everybody Loves Leila!

By C.H. Pardo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 07:39:00 08/31/2008

Filed Under: Television, People

MANILA, Philippines ? She reigned at a time when ?Queen? was a title that carried with it an air of regality and sophistication, a gentility and grace not necessarily dependent on pulchritude?and certainly not on brashness or daring.

Leila Benitez was ?Queen of Noontime TV? when the ascent to the throne did not require parading on stage in wisps of clothing and gyrating to a pulsating though mindless beat.

Long before they welcomed the sight of her into their living rooms, radio listeners had already been captivated by her cool husky voice and her choice of classical and pop tunes. She was the voice of ?Student Canteen,? already a popular radio program on the Lopez-owned DZXL-AM, under the company?s Chronicle Broadcasting Network (CBN). When the Lopezes acquired Alto Broadcasting System (ABS) to launch its television network ABS-CBN, ?Student Canteen? went visual?and live. And Leila was a natural for the medium.

Along with Eddie Ilarde and Bobby Ledesma, and with comic relief provided by Pepe Pimentel, Leila pioneered and hosted ?Student Canteen? daily, adlibbing her way on live TV.

?No scripts?I never rehearsed, I never had a script in my whole life,? Leila proudly says today, implying not so much that she was cocky-sure but that she was comfortable in her role and that she was having fun.

Her bosses, she recalls, gave her complete creative control?and she did not disappoint them. ?Student Canteen? was the hit show of the ?60s, featuring early on such foreign guest artists as Harry Belafonte, Vic Damone, Paul Anka and Neil Diamond, and launching the careers of local artists, among them Bert Nievera.

English was the language of the show, as indeed it was the language of the streets as well. ?We spoke either English or Tagalog?never the Taglish of today,? Leila emphasizes.

The proper use of language and etiquette were what Leila brought to the early days of TV. The daughter of the late Congressman Eulogio Beni-tez of Pagsanjan, Laguna, Leila was educated in Washington, DC, attending both Dunbarton College of Holy Cross and Marjorie Webster?s Finishing School. The training gave her the poise and grace that she brought to ?Student Canteen.?

Leila can?t say for sure how long the show would have lasted if martial law hadn?t interfered and knocked all shows off the air. At the time, she was in Europe promoting Philippine tourism, and eventually decided to settle in New York City.

For a while after ?Student Canteen? though, she hosted a late night talk show, ?Leila Benitez Presents.? She recalls: ?I had a living room set-up with a bar. I had politicians from different sides and they loosened up after a few cocktails. We had very spontaneous conversations to say the least.?

She also dabbled for a while in the restaurant business. ? Leila? was a caf hangout long before the coffee crowd became a lucrative demogra-phic. She narrates that when she was working in public relations at the then newly-opened InterCon Hotel, Ayala?s Jaime Zobel asked her to put up a caf nearby. ?Leila? was the place to go for a snack before and after a movie.

Over the past three decades, Leila has lived in the US, taking up quiet residence with her husband of 30 years, Donald McCollum, a US Army photographer who was with Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Carlos P. Romulo during the Leyte landing at the end of World War II. Don met Leila during a random trip to Manila before martial law.

The couple?s Central Park West apartment is just blocks away from The Dakota, where John Lennon lived and died in 1980. Yoko Ono, John?s widow, still lives down the street.

Living in the same building as the McCollums are opera singer Beverly Sills, Alan Funt of ?Candid Camera,? violin virtuoso Isaac Stern and comedian Jerry Seinfeld. And so does tennis legend John McEnroe, whom Leila describes as ?a funny guy off the tennis court.?

The McCollums belong to the Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey, where Leila has made seven holes-in-one. The skills of her friend and golf partner Jack Nicklaus must have rubbed off on her.

?I miss Manila,? Leila admits, ?But when I get homesick, I go to Queens where you can get all the Filipino food you want. Even kalamansi or sitaw!?

In 2007, Leila was recognized as one of the 100 Most Influential Filipina Women in the US in the Innovators & Thought Leaders category. This was presented in Washington, D.C. during the 5th Annual Filipina Summit of the Filipina Women?s Network.

During ABS-CBN?s 50th Anniversary, the network bosses flew Leila in for her work as a pioneer in broadcasting and for making ?Student Canteen? the icon of noon time shows.

But the thrill was hers as well, Leila shares, ?The experience was awesome! The audiences are much nicer and less talkative. It?s all for the better now.?


The Original Celebrity Cafe


BEFORE Mulder and Scully romped on the ?X-files? and Captain James Kirk got beamed up, ?Flying Saucer Sandwiches? were already on the menu of ?Leila? restaurant and coffee shop beside the Rizal Theater on Ayala Avenue. These were round crustless adobo-filled sandwiches sealed in a disc shape.

Food and celebrity proved to be a winning combination for this coffee shop located adjacent to then Rizal Theater, which is now where Shangri-La Hotel in Makati stands.

Leila Benitez?s eldest son Gerry managed ?Leila? for almost half of its two-decade run and watched the famed restaurant double in size. Leila herself made regular appearances at the cafe, and anytime she was there, it was full house.

Everything on the menu was from the cookbook of Leila?s mom, whom Ayala boss Jaime Zobel must have heard about when he offered Leila the space in the mid 1960s. There was never a dull moment at the cafe where families had pizza before a screening. Politicians, generals, and teenagers sat table to table while lovers shared banana splits. The comfort food took the edge off martial law. C.H. Pardo



Copyright 2014 Philippine Daily Inquirer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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