In 1924, a city search was conducted to select the Manila candidate to that year’s Queen of the Manila Carnival quest. A 17 year old petite and talented beauty nearly caused an upset by placing a strong second to the eventual winner Lolita Paterno. She was none other than Catalina de la Cruz, who, as Katy de la Cruz, would go on to greater fame on the world stage as a jazz and torch singer, honed by years of vaudeville experience in the Philippines.
She was born in Intramuros on 13 February 1907, although her roots are in Bulacan. Her father was a concierge at the Ayuntamiento Bldg., earning 30 pesos a week. At age 7, the streetsmart Catalina would go to the ferias around Intramuros and would steal the scene by singing songs while swiveling her hips to the delight of the crowd. People would throw her coins which she used to augment the meager family income.
An American theater owner, Harry Brown , spotted the tyke and arranged to have her sing during intermissions while the movie reels were being rewound for playing at his cine houses. Thus, Katy de la Cruz’s career was launched, at a salary of 1 peso a week. Her father’s objection, however, forced her to go back to school, which she would not finish anyway. The family relented and young Katy was back on track of a new and exciting career.
At 10, she performed at the Savoy, later renamed Clover Theater. At 13, she made the rounds of popular movie houses: Cine Rizal, Cine Amor, Cine Gloria, Lux, Palace, Rivoli. Her raspy, gravelly voice became her trademark, which she learned from slurring the lyrics heard from scratchy Victrola records.
At age 21, to the consternation of her family, Katy eloped with Jose Yoingco, a pianist. Despite parental protests, they stayed together till Jose’s death in 1955. By then, ‘bodabil’ was at its peak and Katy found herself a leading vaudeville star, rivaled only by Diana Toy. Her chorus girls included Patsy, Chichay and Chuchi.
She was still in her teens, when, in 1924, she was nominated to be one of the candidates for Manila’s representative to that year’s search for the Queen of the Manila Carnival. After all, she was quite a looker, and she was described thus by an American fan: “..5 footer, 105 buxom pounds…dark olive skin…hell’s ember eyes”…
Married women then could join the contest and she found herself in friendly competition with such familiar personalities like Vitang Escobar Cowper, protege of John C. Cowper, dean of Philippine variety show. For awhile, it looked like Vitang, a singer-dancer, would be the most serious threat to Katy’s candidacy—she actually led her in the first counting, but Katy overtook her in the 2nd counting. In the final tally, however, votes for the more affluent Lolita Paterno came pouring in—“golpe de Paterno” was how the surge of Paterno votes, over 12 million in all, was described by media men covering the event. Katy wound up in second place with over 11 million votes. Pacita Serra, Marcelina Lerma and Vitang Cowper completed the top 5.
In the national finals, Trinidad Fernandez of Palawan emerged as the 1924 Queen of the Manila Carnival from among contestants like Benita Reyes (Pampanga), Maring Barreto (Zambales) , Victoria Lopez (Iloilo) , Leonor Reyes (Bulacan), Corazon Ruth de Veyra (Leyte), Angela Martinez (Cavite), Amelia Paras (Marinduque), Victoria Ledesma (Negros Occidental) and Consuelo Lazo (Batangas).
But Katy couldn’t possibly care: her career was on an upswing. She found an adoring American audience who took to her and her songs like “Planting Rice”, “Balut”, “St. Louis Blues” and “One of These Days”. She sang at the Elks Club, the University Club, the Army-Navy Club. Her international stints included performances in Honolulu and San Francisco where she was described as a “combination of Sophie Tucker and Carmen Miranda”. She also captivated Las Vegas in 1961, as well as Melbourne, Taiwan, Thailand, Hong Kong and Singapore.
In between all these, Katy made movies and even won a Famas supporting actress award for her role in the 1953 movie, “Inspiration”. She retired in San Francisco with her four children. One daughter, Angie, teamed up with Nikki Ross and, as “Wing Duo” also made a mark in comedy-musicals in the 60s.
In 1989, the Cultural Center of the Philippines honored “Mommy Kate” with the staging of the musical “Katy”, based on her life. Maya Valdez portrayed her in the successful musical revue. She retired in the 1990s and passed away in California on 10 November 2004 at age 97. True, Katy de la Cruz was not fated to win the Queen of the Manila Carnival crown, but she earned a more enduring and iconic title—the Queen of Philippine Vaudeville.