The secret life of Miss Tapia

The infamous Miss Tapia

On Mother’s Day a few years ago, Lani Montreal, who teaches writing at Malcolm X College in Chicago, posted a greeting on Facebook:  “Before there was Prof. Montreal, there was this cool punk professor called Miss Tapia! Here she is on her way to teach her rowdy freshman students! Worst movie. Best Actress. Best Mom. Happy Mother’s Day, Mommy!”

“Mommy” is Miss Tapia, the love-starved,  ill-tempered professor at the fictional Wanbol University on the TV sitcom “Iskul Bukol.” Despite the haughty disclaimer “Miss pa po ako! thrown with a sharp toss of her head, Miss Tapia (Mely Palomo Tagasa in real life) actually has three daughters and one son.

She also “prays longer than the monks of Tibet,” said eldest daughter Gina Marissa Tagasa-Gil, an award-winning writer for movies and television.

Second daughter Montreal, meanwhile, wrote a tribute to her and other mothers in the world through the play, “Night of the Living Moms” that was recently shown in Chicago, Illinois.

But no tribute feels greater for Tagasa than having people still recognize her as the unlovable Miss Tapia of TV-dom.  It always surprises her when they do, she said.

Home for Miss Tapia is a one-story bungalow in Antipolo surrounded by vines and shrubs that ward off the biting sun.  The house was built on her earnings as the horrible Miss Tapia character and as the most prolific TV writer of her time, who could churn out six scripts a week.

Her foray on TV as Miss Tapia was serendipitous, said Tagasa, 82.

AS HERSELF Tagasa at home in Masinag, Antipolo City —RICHARD A. REYES

‘Baltic and Co.’

“I went to audition as a scriptwriter for a new TV series called ‘Baltic and Co.,’  and landed one of the roles. It came at the right time because I was already feeling burned out from writing,” she recalled.

Tagasa, who hails from La Paz, Tarlac, and Nueva Ecija, was 9 when her family moved to Manila following the end of World War II.  She was then already enamored with radio.

Once, she joined some friends and auditioned in a singing contest, which she won.  There was another audition, this time for radio talents. “I auditioned again, at pumasa naman (and passed)” she recalled.

At 17, Tagasa was already playing roles on radio and became so good at it that she set aside her college studies. She got into writing by accident, or rather, because of a joke.

“One time we didn’t have a script and the director kidded us, sino’ng gustong magsulat (who wants to write?) I volunteered and was accepted.  So I started writing on yellow pad, with a ball pen,” Tagasa recalled.

Though Tagasa didn’t want anyone to know she had written the script, veteran actress Gloria Sevilla who was in the cast, was so impressed that she insisted. Thus was launched her career as a radio-TV writer.

The job consumed her.  “I’d wake up at 1 a.m. and start writing. By the time I pull out the last page, it’s 4 p.m.  I’d smoke, drink coffee, and go back to sleep. I’d wake up at 1 a.m., only to repeat the cycle,” she said.  “I was so focused on my writing, I left the children to the care of the maid,” she recalled.

‘Insiang’

One of Tagasa’s stories would later be adopted into a movie by Mario O’Hara, who directed a radio play for “Hatol ng Tadhana.” The movie version would be titled “Insiang.”

When the TV stations were reopened after martial law was declared, Tagasa was told to bring some of her scripts to the agency which was auditioning for a new TV series called “Baltic and Co.,” based on a popular comic strip.  Her script was accepted.

But who would play Miss Tapia, someone asked during the meeting.

Roni Santiago, who wrote the comic series and was at the meeting, pointed to Tagasa, who was wearing eyeglasses and had her long hair pulled into a severe bun, exactly as worn by Miss Tapia in the comic series. “That’s her, if she’d agree,” she recalled Santiago saying.

“I was surprised and protested that I was not an actress but a writer. I asked for clarification: what is the character of Miss Tapia,” she asked.

Love-starved

Santiago’s explanation was short but sweet. “He told me,  ‘Miss Tapia is an old maid, a love-starved repressed woman. She has many likes but masks her desires by being angry most of the time.’ I thought, I like this character,” Tagasa said.

From Miss Tapia at “Baltic and Co.,” Tagasa’s character made a guest appearance at “Iskul Bukol” in 1977, and became a mainstay until the show closed in 1992.

She became so convincing as Miss Tapia that one Manila university would invite her to join its faculty. “Of course, I declined. I don’t have a degree in education, I did not even finish college,” Tagasa said.

People often kid her too about her former students at Wanbol University, particularly Sen. Tito Sotto, who created quite a ruckus with his “naano lang” comment on single mothers. Some netizens even blamed Miss Tapia for not teaching Sotto the proper manners.  She laughs off such comments.

Despite her age, Tagasa continues to work as line producer at Alta Productions, a subsidiary of GMA 7, which produces the Tagalog version of select Koreanovelas. It’s her job to oversee the choice of dubbers and the actual dubbing of the soap for the local audience.

“I’m thankful I still have a job. I’d be sick if I don’t work,” she said.

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