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MANILA, Philippines - He was a jolly good fellow, down to his alliterative, sing-song name, to those of us who grew up way before information technology began distracting the world forever.
He was Pepe Pimentel, a lifelong entertainer who sang Spanish songs and acted in several movies but was best known as a television game show host.
Host is so simple a word yet, as embodied by “Tito Pepe,” the work involved was no pedestrian task.
As the main host of “Kwarta o Kahon” (“money or box”), a 1963-2000 precursor to today’s boob-tube game shows and variety programs, Pimentel was concurrent master of ceremonies, ringleader, cash dealer and, most of all, comedian.
“Kwarta” was no high-wire circus act, yet in retrospect, Pimentel was the show’s virtual safety net.
While the show’s common-folk participants were presumably giddy and anxious about being on national television while trying to win big bucks, Pimentel would keep the proceedings in check, defusing the contestants’ tension via his key jokes that often ridiculed his supposed mother-in-law.
Conversely, the very repetitiveness of Tito Pepe’s verbal gags also helped diffuse whatever tension or frustration there ever was in the lives of thousands, if not millions, of people who tuned in to “Kwarta o Kahon” (later on “Family Kwarta o Kahon”).
Whether by design or circumstance, the familiarity of Pimentel’s shtick helped to counter the uncertainty among the average Filipino familia before, during, and even after Martial Law.
From radio newbie to TV pro
As the recollections poured in after the public came to know of his demise at 10am on January 24, off-camera and pre- and post-“Kwarta” details of the late octogenarian man’s life also began resurfacing.
His eventual entertainment career began on AM radio. After he joined the amateur singing contest “Melody Club,” Pimentel went on to become the first ever national champion of the talent search “Tawag ng Tanghalan” (“call of the theater”), itself an iconic radio show of the 1950s to the ’60s.
Here is a video of Tito Pepe singing, posted on YouTube in August 2008:
In the early ’60s, he landed on television as one of the second generation of emcees of “Student Canteen,” a radio show turned TV hit.
As indicated in a detailed blog report by Roman Baldovino, it was during his “Student” stint when Pimentel first became a funny host, realizing a knack for wisecracks that seemed to come naturally while wielding a wired microphone.
This lively skill would serve him well when he began hosting “Kwarta o Kahon,” an offshoot of the quiz show “Mahiwagang Kahon” (“mysterious box”) which Pimentel had hosted and which he spun off into the more family-oriented program that would run for a good 38 years.
While Pimentel had supporting-actor turns in a few movies — including musical or comedic fare such as “Carioca” and “The Jukebox Queen,” the Fernando Poe Jr.-Joseph Estrada action flick “Dos por Dos” (“two by two”) and the multi-comedian caper “I Won, I Won: Ang Swerte Nga Naman” (“…How lucky can you get”) — it was “Kwarta” that made him prominent.
Yet to call him a “star” would not be precise, given how unassuming and even fatherly Pimentel was compared to many of his current predecessors in the celebrity host circuit.
Entertaining and endearing
From where he stood, Pimentel implied that we can all have a good time no matter how tough the times — a mindset that served him well in catering to the nation’s televiewing masses, they who now express sympathies and extend accolades across the Internet after his rather sudden departure.
Majority of the ongoing nostalgia trips on social networks and other online spots have zeroed in on several details involving “Kwarta o Kahon” and its central orchestrator.
These include Pimentel’s physical traits: an obvious toupee, suits that can walk the thin line between salesman and clown, a loud enough voice that annotated his show’s games as if he was at a hippodrome, and a portly build that helped accentuate his approachability.
There are the show’s many parlor game segments, which doubled as unabashed venues for product placement (such as “Yakult Roleta ng Kapalaran,” a “Wheel of Fortune” clone of sorts).
Another best-remembered segment is “Mahiwagang Tunog” (“mystery sound”), where the contestants would hear an audio clip and guess what the sound was (e.g., a telephone ringing, a fridge being opened).
There were wacky races, too, where the non-descript adults and teens had to run backwards while sporting a tire or rush-stack sardine cans among softdrink cases.
Pimentel would also often rib the starting competitors by saying, “Ready… get set… goto goto goto,” and then “Ready… set… Gorio, binabati ko nga pala si Gorio!” (“I wish to greet Gorio!”)
Of course, the mother of all those madcap matches was the show’s eponymous, high-stakes game, where a contestant was made to choose between prize money that Pimentel made temptingly larger and larger versus a potentially bigger prize hidden in a small box — which, many times, yielded not, say, the keys to a car but a used bottle cap or a wilted vegetable.
This cash-or-trash spectacle proved to be such a smash concept that it went on to find latter-day iterations (the “Laban o Bawi” and “Pera o Bayong” segments — “Fight or retreat” and “Money or basket” — of “Eat…Bulaga!” and “Magandang Tanghali, Bayan,” respectively).
True, Pimentel was not above making fun of struggling participants, including jibes to the effect of “Viewers at home, please don’t curse the contestant, okay?” or the classic “Natutulog yata sa pancitan” (“Must be sleeping at the noodle house”).
Yet his jabs are far less insulting than what today’s couch potatoes are used to, and are nothing compared to his exaggerated dissing of his unidentified mom-in-law (to the point of “showing” her to the world by pulling out a photo of an orangutan).
Through it all, Pimentel was simply, gamely aware of the dual objective to keep “Kwarta o Kahon” afloat — make money for the advertisers and make the people laugh.
And he was always up to the task, conscious of the need to instill silly fun at any given moment.
A legacy of laughter and lovability
Maybe he was exhausted from having been in show business for at least 4 decades, or he concluded that his style was too old-school for the 21st century.
Whatever the case, society at large hardly saw or heard about Pimentel since the turn of the millennium, save for accounts of having seen him in places like SM City North Edsa (which had doubled as the studio of “Family Kwarta o Kahon”).
The Philippines’ national uncle might have parlayed his TV popularity into politics, yet his public service foray was very humble in scale: as a barangay captain in Quezon City.
As such, his neighbors bore witness to an even more down-to-earth fellow — one sans wig and quietly keeping his neighborhood clean by sweeping away and taking down electioneering clutter.
Perhaps he was also considerate enough to deem that, just as the nation saw him on TV only once or a few times a week, it was beyond him to impose his presence on the populace as much as, say, a senator would.
And several are the little-known tales of strangers whom Tito Pepe helped out through small but significant acts, such as offering flood-stranded passengers rides to their very homes, or the simple extension of a smile or greeting at being recognized in a crowd.
The pessimist might dismiss such instances as merely the lasting reflexes of a man for the masses.
But with such gestures, Pimentel was simply doing what he had been doing much of his life: extending a lifeline to others, beaming a ray of hope, suggesting that fun, even if for a moment, can be had no matter what.
Such is Pepe Pimentel’s legacy and why his wake would potentially draw thousands of people across generations and walks of life — individuals who have been grateful for Tito Pepe’s comforting affirmation that, in having to pick between kwarta or kahon, we always have the luxury of making a choice. - Rappler.com
(The author thanks Mark Villena, Epjey Pacheco, Hazel De Soto, Carina Talusan, Romy Buen, and other friends for their input for this article.)
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