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Special Features | National

HOBBITUARY | Remembering Jim Turner, founder of Manila's iconic house of big little people

Portrait (inset) of James 'Jim' Turner, the father of Hobbit House in Manila's tourist belt. Photographed by Chad de Guzman, InterAksyon
The online news portal of TV5

MANILA - A sense of loss has descended like a thick blanket on Middle Earth: the "father" of the loveable, hardworking "little people" in Manila's world-famous Hobbit House is gone. And the midgets who were his virtual family for decades are inconsolable.

James Turner, the peace corps volunteer who came to Manila as a handsome, idealistic young man from Iowa and then stayed – for 51 years – passed just before midnight Thursday (Sept.8) after battling a lung ailment.

Jim, as everyone called him, would have turned 78 on October 4 – a date picked by his Hobbit House staff and an impressive array of musicians who had cut their teeth there, to stage a "birthday concert" of sorts. Partly to cheer up Jim, and partly to remind people about going back to Hobbit House, which in recent times has not enjoyed the same level of patronage that once made it THE most "in" place to go to in Manila's tourist belt.

Enter the Hobbit House. Photographed by Chad de Guzman, InterAksyon.

Times are different now, with younger audiences looking for a myriad other forms of entertainment. But, Jim had hoped in a recent chat before he passed, that the young would know that there's a place in Manila where they can meet real little people, beyond fantasizing over the characters in the J.R.R. Tolkien book and the trilogy that has sent imaginations soaring and given filmmakers a fortune.

The "little people" – the planet's tiniest waiters refer to themselves as kaming mga maliliit or just plain unano [midgets] – are certainly very much around, though there are just a little less than two dozen of them now. The night after Jim died, they put on their standard waiter uniform of white shirt and black vest and bow tie for both male and female, and bravely went about their tasks serving people on a Friday night.

One of the most senior, Lorna Francisco, momentarily stood transfixed, in front of the stage after bringing a beer bottle to a nearby table. She seemed hypnotized watching an all-girl band, "Sultry Mix," belt out what must have brought a flood of memories of the only "Tatay [father]" they had known for years. The girls were singing "Dance With My Father."

The girl band would later alternate with Floyd Trinidad, with his awesome set of throwback rock and pop music that Jim Turner's Beatles generation thrived on, and old Hobbit House habitues fondly remember and dance to.

To say that Jim Turner left a legacy to Filipinos is an understatement. This American who stayed on for over half a century nurtured as well – besides the "little people" who were his family – a generation of folk and country musicians, activists and intellectuals who sought sanctuary in his place especially during martial law. Historians, too, and journalists who even invited to Hobbit House and Jim's Remember When? (Remembrances) Bistro and Bar their news sources and certain newsmakers, so they can interview or badger them for scoops.

Those familiar with Jim's former place in Malate (near the church where Jim's fellow Irish Americans and Columban priest-friends were assigned) and now, the Hobbit House on MH del Pilar near another church (Ermita), know it's no ordinary haunt. It's no ordinary bar to enjoy good food, drinks and good music in. It's an experience, a lifestyle, the best version of Tolkien's world you could possibly have.

When a hobbit dies
Several years ago, one of Jim's favorites among the little people, a bubbly midget called Eva, met a nasty accident. She was fixing a clothesline, perched on a wooden stool, when she fell and cracked her skull.

Jim and the hobbits were devastated. And those of us who knew Eva joined them in the painful days she lay unconscious in a ward at Philippine General Hospital. Her husband, also a hobbit, would lovingly massage her feet every so often, reminding us of why Eva often earned the biggest tips at Hobbit House: she would offer to massage the shoulders and necks of customers she knew as soon as they sat down and ordered beer to cap an exhausting day.

When Eva died after a few days in hospital, Jim sobbed with the little people, and I wrote a piece about her in Teddyboy Locsin's TODAY Lifestyle section titled simply, "When a Hobbit Dies."

Jim framed that TODAY Lifestyle page with my Eva the hobbit article, and hung it on the corridor of his Remember When bistro, alongside framed newspaper and magazine pages of some of the biggest events of the century – John F. Kennedy's election win, the EDSA breakaway, some of those iconic Esmeraldo Izon cartoons on martial law in the Philippines Free Press, and Cory Aquino's snap elections campaign.

As a political science grad, Jim followed political history keenly, and witnessed it up close in his adopted country. The day after coming home to Hobbit House on his second-to-the last hospitalization, we were watching TV in his room and he kept shaking his head as Donald Trump spoke. Jim was a lifelong Democrat. And then I asked what he recalled most about martial law in Manila, and he said it was the curfew in the early years. Some activists and progressive artists, or students, would take sanctuary in Hobbit House when they felt they won't have time to get home before curfew, and then stay the night till 5 a.m. On several occasions, police or the Metrocom, presumably, would knock hard on Jim's by-then-battened-down place, and "we would all just ignore them and keep quiet. Why should we open up for them?" he chuckled.

'Never allow yourselves to be ridiculed'

Of Eva, the hobbit who died, I recall most that Sunday morning scene where I saw her walking with her husband on the sidewalk, on their way to Malate Church. She was smiling and animatedly talking, her arm swinging as she held his hand, she doing a skip-and-hop while he simply walked. The happiest hobbit in town was going to mass.

I remember calling Eva "God's silent rebuke to the rest of Creation," a reminder of how she and the little people in Jim Turner's place had found a way to be happy, living dignified lives, while many other better-endowed humans chose to be miserable.

A second-generation Hobbit House staff, Meanne, whose parents both worked and got married as waiters in Jim's place, eloquently expressed what Jim meant to them. She said he always had one compelling exhortation: You are not different so you can be made fun of or abused; you are different only because you are special.

Pidoy Fetalino, one of the originals hired by Jim in the early seventies, weighed in: Jim reached out to as many of the midgets as he could when he planned Hobbit House, tracking them down in those places in Escolta where they would hang around waiting for bit roles in movies, or for gigs in fiestas and peryahan. "Most of us lived off the streets then, and were resigned to being made fun of always. But Sir Jim changed all that," recalled Pidoy. "He gave us jobs for a lifetime, but he also gave us hope and dignity."

That life of dignity was briefly lost to several hobbits many years ago when a foreigner betrayed Jim and his staff. The man pretended to be a regular customer, but was quietly pirating the staff. Before Jim knew it, the scumbag had set off with several hobbits, promising to double their pay for work in a pricey resort. Several months later, the prodigal hobbits were back, mostly bruised and chastened. They were turned into "human duckpins" at a rowdy bar for ugly foreigners with a cruel sense of "fun."

Pidoy recalled that unfortunate episode that befell some of his co-workers, and just shakes his head. Like several original staff who have either retired, or had the good fortune to work abroad, Pidoy said he would never have had it any other way. Even though he has children based abroad who sustain him, Pidoy opted to return to Hobbit as Jim's consultant to help run the place when the latter's health started to fail.

"Ito ang pangarap ni Sir Jim. Na palagi kaming merong matuluyan. Kaya dapat tuloy pa rin ang Hobbit House," Pidoy told InterAksyon.

Indeed, entering Hobbit House's circular door where a little doorman announces one's arrival by ringing a big bell, one is transported, not just to a classic's make-believe place-come-true, but to a rich world of music, food, history (Jim's books occupy entire walls of shelves), and above all, love. This is the Fellowship of the Ring, as the young Jim Turner – fresh from college and a short stint in JFK's White House, and deployment as Peace Corps volunteer turned college professor – must have envisioned it then. His best interpretation of his idol Tolkien's mind.

Today, the Fellowship of the Ring mural on one side of the entrance to the new Ermita site (since 2007) quickly establishes the place. The dimly lit world beyond the circular door – with the little people padding about and chatting with customers, and a midget from behind the bar, tiptoes to plant a cold beer bottle on the counter – reinforces that Middle Earth ambience.

Life goes on in Hobbit House after Jim Turner's passing, but for the little people whom he loved with a passion and who vow to love him always, it will never be the same again.