It has been called “the game of a thousand thrills.” Being a bit familiar with the sport, it boggles why the game of jai alai as been dubbed as such when other sports like basketball or football can also lay claim to that tag. Nevertheless, Filipinos seem to have such an understated love affair with this game, overshadowed as it is these days due to the popularity of the aforementioned sports.
Being a sport of Basque origin, (jai alai means “happy feast” in the Basque language) it was fitting that the Basques, or at least Hispanics with Basque heritage, would introduce this sport in the country. Some accounts relate that jai alai made its way into the country in 1899 courtesy of the prominent Elizalde family, themselves having Basque lineage, who many today would know as the ones behind one the country’s prominent broadcasters that is the Manila Broadcasting Company.
Over the years, the jai alai sport has become popular not only among the elite but among the common folk as well. Soon, Spanish (mostly Basque) players were being imported to play jai alai in the country. Its popularity began to outgrow the confines of the small fronton in Casino Español, and a new, larger venue was needed.
That was the situation when an American architect named Welton Becket came into the picture. Originally, he was in the country as a consultant for the Philippine Commonwealth government’s low-cost housing projects. Eventually though in 1939, he was tapped to construct the new jai alai fronton.
The result was the opening in 1940 of one of the most stunning architectural buildings of its time to rise in Manila, and perhaps, in the east as a whole. With its elegant Art Deco design and the iconic cylindrical glass facade, this four-storey structure was the toast of the town with its facilities that boasted 4 restaurants, 4 bars, and a roof garden…not to mention being entertained by Spanish and Filipino entertainers. The most prominent venue in the building is the 4th floor dining area called the Sky Room. Back in the day, it was THE place to be not only for dining but for social gatherings and functions especially by the city’s elite. The construction of this new Jai Alai Building ensured further popularity of the sport. It also helped further the career of its architect Welton Beckett who went on to design homes for various Hollywood celebrities and also more prominent landmarks in the US such as the Capitol Records Building and the old Los Angeles Airport.
While it may have been primarily an entertainment venue, the Jai Alai Building has served various functions over the years. When the Japanese first started their attacks in the city, the building became a makeshift hospital and morgue. When the Japanese took hold of Manila, it was converted to become the headquarters of the dreaded secret police known as the Kempeitai. It suffered significant damage during the Battle of Manila in 1945 but thanks to the help of the US Army who partly footed the reconstruction bill, it became the first building to be restored after the war to its original state. By that time though, it was temporarily used as a Red Cross service center (said to be the largest in the world at that time) called The Roosevelt Club, offering first class facilities and entertainment for thousands of military personnel stationed in the city that time.
Jai alai games resumed in the area thereafter but it was headed for a slow decline. both for the building and the game itself. The jai alai game soon became known as a game marred by fixing and gambling which led to crimes being committed in the building itself. Eventually in 1986, the government decreed the banning of jai alai due to these game-fixing issues. This also spelled the doom of the Jai Alai Building as well which was beginning to suffer the throes of decay.
The death knells began to ring in 2000 as then Manila Mayor Lito Atienza announced the plan to demolish the decaying Jai Alai Building to give way for the construction of a new Hall of Justice. Despite pleas from various groups to save at least the façade of the building and preserve Manila’s architectural heritage, these calls were of no avail and the Jai Alai disappeared from Manila’s landscape on July 15 of that year.
Meanwhile, plans have been made since 1986 to revive the sport of jai alai. The first attempt was made in the late 1990s with the opening of a new, albeit small-scale fronton near the Harrison Plaza mall by the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation. (PAGCOR) But the same problems of game-fixing and illegal gambling hounded this venture that it had to shut down in 2000, coincidentally in the same year as the demolition of the old Jai Alai building.
The most recent, and so far successful, revival came in 2010 as jai alai was being played again, this time up north in the Cagayan Economic Zone Area, where the game enjoys somewhat looser restrictions as far as gaming regulations are concerned.
Years have passed and the proposed Hall of Justice never went past the drawing board, till it was recently announced that the Hall of Justice will be built instead in the old GSIS Building near City Hall, which was first raised as a possible venue for the Hall of Justice during the talks back in 2000. This just aroused more indignation regarding the “senseless” destruction of a heritage landmark for nothing. Eventually, the Hall Currently, there are plans to build a high condominium in the premises or near it (reports seem to vary) which itself is controversial as it will “ruin” the landscape of the area of Rizal monument and the park as a whole. But that is another story.
© The Urban Roamer