There Goes an Institution
By Joan Orendain
THE LITTLE folks’ chief was not a little man.
James Turner, who stood 5’8”, the Hobbit House guru-owner and a Philippine institution since 1973, has departed, leaving his “little people,” as he called them, totally bereft.
A Notre Dame graduate from Iowa, Jim arrived in Manila in October 1961 with the very first group of John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps Volunteers farmed out to far-flung barrios to teach English (which Jim did), science, and health and nutrition, among other fields helpful to hinterland communities.
A brief teaching post at Ateneo followed, then the management of a television station, when suddenly martial law’s closure of media outlets had him casting about for gainful work that would keep him in Manila.
Fortuitously, Indios Bravos and the Indigo Gallery at their prime location on Mabini closed to its denizens’ sorrow: poets, writers, artists, beer-guzzling intellectuals left with no place to go, briefly.
Jim leased the space, found two midgets to welcome guests, and the Hobbit House, so named by its Tolkien adherent, was born. Before Jim knew it, other little folks ran to his place, with a gaggle of them creating a sensation.
The food was good. Freddie Aguilar was on certain nights of the week (he got his start there and grew to international fame). The beer was always cold, the live music entertaining, and the service, with hobbits on the run double-time, was excellent.
Juan Antonio Lanuza of PhilRealty, among so many curious businessmen from high places came to see what all the fuss was about, complained after 15 minutes: “The service is slow here. No waiter yet!”
“Here, sir,” said a midget, a foot lower than his table.
“Oh!” All of 300 pounds or so heaved with surprise. Juan became a regular, out-of-town friends in tow, to regard “Manila’s top tourist spot.”
The girl who first took Juan there almost broke her arm boogieing with Pidoy Fetalino, who kept over-undering her under his arm, held up less than three feet high. He rose to become general manager of the Hobbit House.
Jim housed all the little people in a warren of extended porches and walkways above Hobbit House.
Irish priests at Malate Church next door hung out at American-Irish Jim’s place not just on St. Patrick’s Day—a very big deal there. Fathers Brian Gore and Niall O’ Brian of the Negros Nine priests and sugar farm workers clapped in jail by Ferdinand Marcos, were regulars after their release, whenever they were in town.
The political science graduate sprung to action when Ninoy Aquino was killed in 1983. Jim prowled around at demonstrations and held “Yellow Nights” at the Hobbit House. He even hung a giant portrait of Cory Aquino on a wall.
There abounded CIA types, important and not-so-important politicians, movie stars, tourists, and writers—Stanley Karnow, Sandra Burton, Lewis Simons, and Bernie Weidman, among the more prominent f–kups (foreign correspondents)—small wonder no midget was trampled upon in the overflow.
Of the “Yellow Nights,” Richard Jacobson, a retired US government official says that the events “prompted some embassies to caution their diplomats to avoid” them, but “many diplomats ignored the guidance.”
Television editor Lourdes Molina-Fernandez, a regular at Remember When, which was next to the main House where the local press hang out, wrote in her BusinessWorld/InterAksyon obituary that they invit- ed “their news sources and certain newsmakers there, so they could interview or badger them for scoops,” because it was a quieter place, its décor reminiscent of Old Manila.
“Midnight kalesa rides down Roxas Boulevard with Jim at the helm were an adventurous bonus for those lucky souls who were invited to join. On occasion, the rides morphed into Ben Hurlike races down the boulevard. Jim was proud of the fact that he was the only known foreigner to actually have a kalesa driver’s license,” Jacobson recalls.
Obits have poured in from elsewhere. Hank Hendrickson, US Philippine Society executive director, describes Jim as “a truly unique bridge” between both countries. He “left an indelible mark as a counselor, compadre, and impresario extraordinaire.”
John McBeth of the defunct Far Eastern Economic Review, writing from parts unknown, confirms that Jim “surely was one of a kind.”
William Branigin of the Los Angeles Times headlined his piece “In the Philippines, Jim Turner’s heartbroken ‘ hobbits’ mourn the loss of their patron.”
He wrote that the Hobbit House was “one of the few places… where dwarfs could earn a decent living and not be shunned as outcasts….” citing Fetalino, who started out as a cashier, ending up as general manager.
Jim “relinquished ownership” years ago, he reported, “turning it over to his employees” as a cooperative.
The little folks had planned a “birthday concert” on Oct. 4 for their hero, but he passed away at 77 on Sept. 8, “after battling a lung ailment,” Fernandez reported, adding that “his siblings are in town.” His brothers will host a memorial tribute to him at 7 p.m. today at the Hobbit House, 1212 M. H. del Pilar corner Arquiza Street in Ermita, where they moved in 2007.
Fifty-one years in the country he loved and who loved him back: There goes an institution, leaving his beloved “little people” orphaned.