Hasta la vista, Don!

Don my friend,

Of course you were there, a good smoke on your right hand and a nice red on your left.  You were watching everything with your usual detached coolness.  You wanted to hug your mom, [ Tita ] Millie, although she was as calm and composed as ever.  You marveled at how your siblings Manolet, Ugi, and Mari, and your great friends Danding, Tats, Manny, Joey, Larry, Peque, and several others pulled it off… and how!!!  You wished that Ugi had gotten the living “molave” trees from Tanauan FARM FRESH to the chapel of the Ascension at the VE [ Villa Escudero ], but then, as with so much in Life, one just has to be thankful that they even got there…


I cannot get over what a joke Life has played on you.  OhmyGod.  Was it that quiet, drizzly afternoon just before Christmas 2008 — my traditional pre-Christmas trip to the Villa Escudero to bring the Gonzalez Christmas goodies;  the Christmas gift exchanges between the Escuderos and the Gonzalezes for d-e-c-a-d-e-s — when you and I were discussing Holy Week 2008 in San Pablo and you were complaining about how Tito Ado insists on bringing out the spectacular 1800s Quiogue “calandra” of the “Santo Entierro” [ from Santa Cruz, Manila ] and how pieces of the magnificent “Tampingco-style” carvings literally fall apart during the Good Friday procession, year after year?  You swore, and fully expected, that after he would “pass on” [ well, well, well… !!! ], you would create an exact lookalike “calandra” in resin [ horrors, my dear!!!??? ] that could be used for the San Pablo Good Friday procession without fear of constant damage, constant worry, and constant repair on the family’s part.  You were just being farsighted and practical in caring for your Escudero family’s magnificent treasures.  Everyone thought that you would be Tito Ado’s “heir apparent” in giving life and style to the Villa Escudero [ of course in your own chic, casual style, not Tito Ado’s grand Beistegui fantasies … ], but what now???


All of your friends now know that you were diagnosed with the “Big C” in July 2009, but all I knew at the time was that you were “not well.”  And I’m sure you wanted it that way.  The “Big Bang” came when during a lovely, lovely dinner party at Joe Mari’s sometime March 2010 [ by Jessie of “Le Souffle” ], Patis casually told me and Marivic over the dessert course that you were really sick with the “Big C” and that you were “terminal.”  Marivic and I, wide-eyed, nearly dropped our dessert forks in shock.  What, Patis???!!!  Oh-my-God…  After coffee and mignardises, I sidled over to Tats and discreetly inquired about your real situation.  She was frank but optimistic.  I liked Tats’ optimism and instantly adopted it as my own.  But still…  it didn’t change what was happening to you.


To my horror, and to everyone else’s, we all got that TXT msg about your “going” [ weeks before it actually happened ].  A few hours later, I was at lunch at “Sala Bistro” in Greenbelt III with Tita Nening, Mary, and Marivic.  With my usual “perfect timing,”  I mentioned the TXT msg to them and Marivic was so upset that she closed her eyes because her stomach wrenched in pain.  “OhmyGod… ohmyGod…” she moaned.  I almost ruined our nice lunch with the bad news.  But then, we were exchanging the latest news, good and bad, anyway…


Ugi told me that you were wishing that I would come to the villa and make “chica,” to gab comically about the latest goings-on in the city.  Hah!  As if Toto Gonzalez knows everything [ but does not!!! ] !!!  I always wanted to, Don, but I never knew your schedule between the villa and the hospitals in the city.  After your totally fun 55th birthday party last 30 January 2011, and all of us seeing you look so good, I guess most of us deluded ourselves that your “C” was finally on the way out and that you’d actually be OK!!!  Oh, but how mistaken we were!!!


I came across Ugi after the services and he just had to remind me of his genius of a line:  “We love you for the Tiaong royalty that you are.”  You would have smacked him!


I didn’t miss you because I knew you were there.  I know that you’re still around.  We should discuss the decoration of “Casa Consuelo” sometime.  My, those Gomezes will not recognize their ancestral house!  It has become so big.  Tito Ado, Manolet, and Ugi will have their hands full transferring all the household antiques from the AERA museum to “Casa Consuelo”!  So much for the piece-by-piece inventory you wanted to make, somebody else will have to do it now, perhaps one or two of your nieces and nephews.  And there’s that superproduction Tito Ado has lined up next February 2012 where we will all have to get dressed!  What are you wearing?  I know you’ll be there, alternately approving and disapproving everything as the day goes along…  As for me, I can’t decide whether to wear a “traje de mestiza” ala Maria Clara de los Santos or a “terno” ala Aurora Quezon “just like the good ol’ ‘bohemian’ days” … hahahah!!!

So how’s everything there?  How’s your dad, [ Tito ] Idong?  And your nephew Zack?  Lola Charing, Lolo Sening?  It must be fun to be together again.  It must be a riot to be watching everyone here from the other side.

Hasta la vista, Don!!!  This cancer and death business is a total drag, isn’t it???!!!

your family friend from wwwaaayyy back,

Toto Gonzalez







  1. larry leviste said,

    July 31, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    A fitting finale to a magical life
    By: Larry Leviste
    Philippine Daily Inquirer

    May I call a funeral Mass serene, elegant and so chic?

    This was the overwhelming feeling I got as I entered the Chapel of the Ascension at Villa Escudero in San Pablo, Quezon, for the final Mass of Don Escudero.

    Escudero was a brilliant movie director, multi-awarded Famas and Urian production designer, and my best friend of over 40 years.

    The sun was high and bright, but as soon as you pushed open the heavy dark green curtains (we were La Sallites, thus green) at the entrance, you entered a rarified world.

    What greeted us was an astonishing sight—a golden urn etched with exotic relief in a small pond of carnations, mums, roses, and orchids that seemed to float, a soft pink spotlight on it.

    As you walked up the aisle, tall slim Japanese bamboos stood in terracotta pots. White butterfly orchids cascaded everywhere—floral arrangements by Antonio Garcia of Mabolo.

    To the right of the altar, where the arrangement was, one could see the image of Mama Mary in rich baroque robes, and to the left, the image of the Risen Christ.

    One felt cooled by the quiet air conditioning, the sunlight softened by stained glass windows, giant white candles flickering then like tender murmurs, and the music of Elton John from his early years and other selections from Don’s favorite composers, Sondheim and Puccini, wafting through the air.

    One lingered on the hard wood pews to chat and reminisce, as friends and family came in and out in small numbers. It was mersmerizing; it was fragrant, as if all who sent flowers had been told, only big white wreaths—from Jamby Madrigal, Sen. Bongget Marcos, the Aranetas and many more with old family names.


    Was it snobbish and very classy? Yes and I loved every single detail—understated, lush and cozy. I want exactly this setting for my funeral. So cool, collected, elegant, serene and chic.

    The funeral Mass was amazing, with the most expressive eulogies by Danding Genato, who loved Don from high school; Tats Rejante-Manahan, a beloved muse and confidante; and peer Peque Gallaga.

    His favorite uncle, Ado Escudero, spoke in extemporaneous Tagalog, regretting the loss of an heir apparent, as did his youngest brother Ugi, who Don worked with planning his death, cremation, wake and funeral meticulously.

    Following Don’s wish, his ashes would be kept in the family home for a year, then interred in the Escudero family crypt.

    Beautiful pictures of a magical life, of an artist who helped create masterpieces such as “Oro, Plata, Mata” and “Scorpio Nights,” were flashed in a slide show, as Elton John’s “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters” played.

    Only a genius of a production designer could stage his own funeral Mass, where tears mixed with joy celebrating his love of family and career.

    Don taught me how to live life with zest and honesty. Don showed me the importance of benevolence and manners, protocol and pomp.

    Just before his last birthday in late January, I sent him a video of his favorite American composer Stephen Sondheim, telling him the song “Being Alive” from the musical “Company” should be the theme of his big birthday bash at the Coconut Pavillion of Villa Escudero.

    He replied immediately. “Thank you Larry for the idea, it will be the invitation tag line, celebrate my ‘Being Alive at 55.’”

    It is a song where the birthday boy, at the end of his party, realizes he must let love of family and friends define his life. To let love in was to be alive, to survive being alive; love was the only destiny.

    I will think of you every day, Don, for the rest of my life.

  2. July 16, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    From top director Jose “Joey” Javier Reyes’ blog:


    The rains were relentless last Saturday. But that did not hinder the friends to gather around his bedside at Medical City. He checked in the day before and was supposed to leave Sunday to go back to the Villa but the doctors asked him to remain for another day for more procedures.

    The friends have made arrangements to proceed to the hospital in the early afternoon. And we all came, somewhat surprised to find other pals there to share the visiting hours with our ailing buddy.

    We were warned by those who saw him earlier that his looks revealed his sad condition. We were told to brace ourselves because his features were so different now. The sickness had practically drained him of his life.

    We were also told by another friend, his cousin, that the doctors have already stated that there was nothing more humanly possible that can be done. It was only a matter of time. And that was why we all gathered in that hospital room that rainy Saturday afternoon.

    We were aware that our time together with him was coming to an end. We wanted to be there to assure him that we were all there for him.

    So it was not surprising that we suddenly filled the room with so much chatter and laughter. We all agreed that this was going to be a happy occasion … a get-together that so resembled the many we have had in the past under better circumstances. Tears were not allowed. Not in front of him.

    He looked at us from his bed and tried his best to give his reactions and join the conversation. But for most of the time he was listening … and watching … and looking at us … and smiling. He was staring at each and every one of us, as if trying to recollect all the memories shared through years together.

    Yes, he lost so much weight. Yes, he complained about the helplessness that accompanies such a fatal ailment so much so that it has been called “the emperor of maladies.” And yes, he was weak … when he spoke, his voice was much softer … and not the booming sound that he usually made whenever he wanted to emphasize a point. But there was still much life in him: ever so sharp, so attentive and in control. For that was him. That was all of him.

    Don Escudero has always been the biggest man in any room. He is the giant of my life.

    The first time I met him was when I transferred to De la Salle College and landed in Section 5-C. Don was also in that class. By the time he was in the Fifth Grade, he must have been about five feet eight inches tall. La Salle had a policy that time that we all had to wear khaki shorts until we reached Grade Seven. That was the only time we were allowed to wear long pants. So Don was this giant among us in short pants.

    But even then he was the gentlest of all the kids I have met.

    Whereas everybody was obsessed reading comic books, Don was already discussing Tolkien. Yes, even before Frodo and the Hobbits became fashionable, Don was already devouring such literary works with great gusto. He was into CS Lewis, he was into history. He was into music … he was into anthropology. He came from a family that did not only cherish but breathed refinement and culture. And Don was the inevitable heir apparent.

    Despite his size, Don never took advantage of anybody. He never considered his social station, intellectual or even physical prowess as a reason to belittle others or assert what he wanted. He was, indeed, the Gentle Giant.

    He held a big birthday party some time around the last week of January of this year. He called the event Alive at 55. At that time, we were not certain about the state of his health although some friends whispered that the cancer had actually undergone metathesis.

    It was almost two years since we heard the news that he was diagnosed with that most dreaded ailment. The friends gathered around him at that time giving him moral support and encouraging him to give a good fight. His family had always rallied behind him — so we were sure he was going to go to the battle with head up high and immeasurable determination. He could draw strength from so many sources.

    For a while we believed that the cancer went into remission.

    We were jubilant. We have known people who have also been diagnosed with the sickness and have survived. We were certain he was going to be one of them. We could not imagine how his life could be so shortened whereas there were still so many things he wanted to do … and more he had yet to do.

    Even when he opted to leave the entertainment industry behind to take care of the business of running the villa and resort, he already boasted of achievements that are still unmatched and would find great difficulty to equal until today.

    For how can the history of Filipino cinema be discussed without his brilliant production design of Oro, Plata, Mata or Scorpio Nights or Once Upon a Time? With Peque Gallaga as director, his visual genius outshone all the others in his field because his was intelligence, scholarship and inherent taste that could not be acquired through workshops or mere posturing.

    We were friends all throughout high school and found ourselves together for most of the time in college.

    We were both members of the De la Salle Dramatics Guild: I remember Don in a Michel de Ghelderode play, Pantagleize where I was supposed to be a member of the cast but had to back out. We were more bonded together because of the ComArts program together with Manny Castaneda: I was about to graduate when the program opened in La Salle with Clodualdo del Mundo Jr. I remember finishing all my remaining electives in ComArts courses where we were also joined by the first batch of coeds including Benggot Pe Benito.

    Oh, yes, there was a cross-enrolled student from Saint Paul’s College who was beautiful, prim, proper and exceptionally quiet. She sat right behind us in Del Mundo’s classes: her name was Charo Santos.

    So it was not surprising that after college, we all ended up in the “Industry.”

    I got my break to write the screenplay of Oro, Plata, Mata because of Don Escudero. It was he who brought me to Peque Gallaga so that I can flesh out this beautiful story that Gallaga had as an outline. If it were not for Don, my professional reputation as a screenwriter would not have been sealed. It was through this friend of mine that I gained the momentum to launch my career as a screenwriter.

    Manny Castaneda and I left the hospital at about 5:30 PM. There were still other friends who remained in the room to keep him company. Tats Manahan and Manuel Genato practically gave all their available hours to be with him since he took a turn for the worse.

    As I was about to leave, I gave him that usual wave and said, “You take care!” He was supposed to go back to the Villa the following day.

    Just last Sunday I sent him a text message: I apologized for all that noise in his hospital room. I said that we were a bit too rowdy for comfort. But he replied: “Loved every second of it.” I also told him that if he going back to the hospital this week that I would visit him again. He said he would like that.

    I knew he was so happy that his friends were with him and filled that room with such beautiful cacophony.

    Don was with me in Berlin to attend the screening of Toro (Live Show) for the Berlinale. Being part of our production company, Available Light, Don took care of the subtitling of the movie in Amsterdam before proceeding to Germany to join me and the other members of the delegation for the showing of our movie.

    That was perhaps one of the happiest times of our lives. Don and I rode the limousine to go to Pottsdamer Platz to attend the premiere screening of the movie. I was not myself, practically dazed out of my wits with what was happening to us. When we boarded the limousine provided by the festival to go to the venue, Don said, “Do you know we are riding the most expensive Mercedes Benz car there is?” I looked at Don and said, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah, really.” And we both laughed.

    Don Escudero was also beside me when we marched down Mendiola condemning the Arroyo administration’s banning of Live Show. He was by my side, together with other directors from the Directors Guild of the Philippines, who chose to come to my defense.

    Don never left my side … from moments in heaven … down to the challenges of hell. How many of us can boast of having friends like that?

    Last Monday evening I received word that he was not allowed to leave the hospital to go home to the Villa. He took a turn for the worse. No, it was the worst. In so many words, my friend was dying.

    It was much too soon, much too fast. We were back at the hospital. We knew that it was only a matter of hours. And we all said our prayers and our goodbyes.

    We could not explain why the deterioration was so fast. It was only two days ago that he was still laughing with us. That afternoon, he was still entertaining friends and — yes, talking about one of his favorite songs, “Shiver Me Timbers” as interpreted by Bette Midler. He was still in control, making decisions as to what kind of respiratory aid he wanted.

    Tats Manahan said this was an answer to all our prayers. We did not want him to suffer. We did not want him to go through what we heard are the horrors that cancer victims undergo during the last leg of the battle. And God answered our prayers: He took him home with much less pain than we all feared he would encounter.

    When he left, he was surrounded by the family who adored him and who he loved so much … and the friends who loved him so greatly.

    Tomorrow, we shall say our final goodbyes to our friend.

    It hurts. It hurts to say goodbye to someone who has become so much a part of your life … who was there in each and every step of growing up, becoming who you are … and eventually settling for the terms of what is called life.

    It hurts when you think that he is no longer a phone call … or a text message away. It hurts when you suddenly feel this gap, this space in your life. It is like having a tooth extracted … and suddenly there is this hole in your gums. You know one day the pain will go away but the gap will remain … and nothing real can ever fill it again.

    But then … we all must let go … not to forget but to remember. Remember Don’s life in celebration, remember him for all that he was to us.

    As I always said … before Google, there was Don Escudero, who knew everything.

    Don has always been the biggest man in any room. And his bigness has got nothing to do with his physical size. It has everything to do with his mind … but more so, his heart. That is why many will miss him … and he will always be remembered as the Giant who taught us how to be gentle … and genteel.

    Goodbye, Don.

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