rene villanueva – before batibot, there was sesame

i met rene villanueva in march 1983 under not very easy circumstances for either of us. he was already a two-time palanca awardee and (if memory serves) teaching literature in u.p. while i, i was a u.p. psych-major drop-out writing a showbiz column notes of a tv junkie for a weekly magazine. yet i ended up headwriter of the philippine sesame street project, and rene was just one of my writers.

ang totoo niyan, january pa lang nabalitaan ko na that imee marcos was negotiating for a philippine version of sesame street. i had been looking forward to reviewing the show, not writing for it, so i almost fell of my seat when june keithley and then her friend project director lyca benitez-brown called, asking me to take on the job. i hardly felt qualified. my only experience writing for tv was for keithley’s late-night talkshow for adults, and my only experience writing in tagalog was a couple of adaptations of broadway hits staged by leo martinez and susan calo-medina, also for adults. besides, i told lyca, i wasn’t hot to be part of a marcos project. why not tap tv gagwriters instead or creativewriters from academe?

lyca begged me not to think of it as a marcos project, rather as one heaven-sent for filipino children, then gave me a sob-story about how professional gagwriters had too many bad habits, like resorting to slapstick and put-downs and other no-no’s to get a laugh, while the academics who went all the way to new york for orientation still had to get the hang of writing for tv in a tagalog that was light and simple. besides i was a mom with two kids and grounded in psychology, so she was convinced I could do it, learn the ropes and teach it to six new writers.

i still didn’t want to do it, i wasn’t sure i was up to the task, and i didn’t want a full-time job, no matter how great it paid. but my kids, ages 9 and 6 then, were so disappointed I changed my mind, dropped my column, and plunged in.

as it turned out i had to play catch-up with my pool of writers who had been through workshops and chosen on the basis of scripts they turned out after. rene was easily the best of them, the best of us.

as headwriter i was expected to produce scripts for a season’s 90 shows, to start airing in october, just six months away (akala nila ganoong kadali). each show required scripts for 10 segments of varying duration – from 15 seconds to 3 minutes – at least 3 segments to be written for two puppets, pong pagong (as huge as big bird) and kiko matsing (as grouchy as oscar) and the 6 adult characters they lived with in a sesame-like street; the other 7 segments to be written for other formats, such as light-action film, limbo, and animation. given the notoriously short attention-span of 3- to 5-year olds, every single script had to be funny, complete with a “tag” or punchline (!), and it had to be visually appealing and constantly moving on in surprising ways (like cartoons and tv commercials) even if we couldn’t count on help from special effects (pinoy tv was so low-tech then). writers also had to hew to a set of values that did not allow props or toys or accessories that would “raise material needs” or slapstick routines that would show disrespect of others. the 10 scripts per show were each pre-assigned a specific “goal” by the research team so that in every show, the whole person of the child was addressed—the physical, the intellectual, the emotional, the social, and the child’s relationship to home, neighborhood, and environment.

i lived and breathed sesame, no time for anything else. scripts went through rigorous review and comment by the executive producer (vivian recio), the research team (of psychologists and educators headed by feny de los angeles-bautista), the art department (headed by rodel cruz), the studio directors (kokoy jimenez & bernardo bernardo), the laf directors (noel anonuevo & herky del mundo), and last but certainly not the least, the ctw co-producer tippi fortune, a big egay who didn’t speak a word of tagalog. i learned (with great difficulty and humility) to take criticism without batting an eyelash (!!!) and to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite until everyone (as in every one) was happy.

i was just getting the hang of it when exile ninoy aquino came home in august to lead the opposition against marcos. i was heartbroken when he was assassinated at the tarmac in broad daylight. and when my car with its yellow ribbon was refused entry in sesame‘s studio grounds in imelda’s university of life, i knew it was time to go. contracts were being extended/renewed all around. i asked only for another month, time enough to finish writing 45 of the 90 shows, put together a guidebook for the writers, and prime rene to take over when my time was up.

it was painful, tearing myself away, not so much from the job and responsibility, but from the friends i had made, people i had worked and struggled and created with for seven months. maybe i would even have stayed if not for rene, if i weren’t convinced that i was leaving the writing in good hands. a year later when sesame morphed into batibot, i knew i had done the right thing. ang galing talaga ni rene.


  1. julie parian

    Hello angie,
    I raked my brains trying to remember who Angie Stuart-Santiago is; now I remembered. I am one of the researchers of Sesame as artist’ Rodel de la Cruz described; one of the virginal, non-adventurous researcher of Feny. And I remember you. That’s all, I just bumped into Rene’s spot and sure did bump into your site. Just saying Hi..and have a good day and days..

  2. hi julie, of course, i remember the virginal researcher. you also wrote a song once, di ba, lyrics? if i’m not mistaken you were the only one of feny’s girls to try her hand at writing. you, too, have a good new year!

  3. harold

    I am one of the Batibot babies. Educated by a turtle who eats kangkong and a monkey with a husky voice. So sad… the school that my generation knew was long gone.

    But I am very lucky. Before this school close the gate of knowledge to us I became a part of it.

    Working in Saint John St. Cubao, Q.C. is a chance of a lifetime that I will never forget. Being hired as a production assistant then later tasked as a contributor writer by a Rene O. Villanueva is a great privilege.

    Those are the days that I will never forget. Living with Rene at the back of Batibot office and inhaling his life, his passion, his calling, his madness and above all having him as a friend.

    I will never forget the incident when he shouted at me one time. I provided a sketch of filipiniana costumes for a taping instead of the actual costumes. River flows in my eyes. Shivering, Ma’am Feny helped me to look for the actual pictures in the library.

    Now I realize the value of the incident. Rene wanted me to be a real writer not just a sketch.

    I will never forget him saying “Magsulat ka hindi dahil sa pera, magsulat ka dahil gusto mo.”
    My first episode in Batibot is entitled “Bakit Kumakahol ang aso?”. I was voiceless then, nobody understands me. Like a dog, I have a message for you… just read between the lines.

  4. Batibot will be aired again and this time its new home is in TV5. I hope that brings joy and happiness to all batibot lovers and batibot kids of my generation! =)

    Sir Stuart, thank you very much for writing this. I had the privilege of getting to know deeper the show that I really loved and grew up watching. This article of yours made me feel like I’m now more worthy to say that I am a batibot kid because I now knew a bit of its history on and off cam. I became a preschool teacher and I find the format of the show & the scripts very effective. I intend to somehow adapt them and use it as I teach my kids.
    Thank you very much!

  5. Back in 1997 I was part of Batibot too, nakakamis talaga ang Batibot. I was one of the Video editors, it was really very rewarding experience for me to have been a part of this children program. And Mr. Villanueva was generous enough to share his life with us. He will always be remembered.

    I can’t imagine back when I was still a little boy that I will be part of Batibot. I used to watch it in a sari sari store near our house back then, and it’s been a part of my childhood.

    I’m still proud that Batibot shaped me from early childhood to adulthood years .

  6. hi, i was one of the kids in sesame and i’ve been trying to look for videos from the internet but i couldn’t find one. If you happen to have copies pls. email them to me. I was able to get just 1 photo, the one where pong pagong was dancing tinikling. thanks!

  7. Faye Dana Alberto

    hi i’m one of the Batibot kids under boss Rene Villanueva Ate Feny, Ate Naricor my Talent coordinator then who discovered me accidentally in their office in St. John St. I was with my mom at that time trying to sign up as a member of the Batibot club but ended up being signed up as a cast member. I still have some of scripts with me in an album.

    I’ve been looking for old videos i had with me narrating a story with Manang Bola, with Kuya Bodjie, Ate Eugene, etc. I hope i can find one. I started in Batibot when i was too young to be able to read hahaha. I learned a lot from the show. I hope someone can read this to help me. All the staff were so nice and i had fond memories with them.