Remembering Uncle Bob Stewart
HIGH GROUND By William M. Esposo 2006-04-21
UPON coming home from my Holy Week break in Singapore, I was met by the sad news that Robert “Uncle Bob” Stewart, an icon and a pioneer of Philippine television who founded the Republic Broadcasting System (which is now the industry leader GMA Network Inc. and a parent company of had passed away in Phoenix, Arizona, on April 6, 2006.
To us baby boomers of the 1960s, Bob Stewart was everybody’s “Uncle” who hosted the daytime kiddies show “Uncle Bob’s Lucky 7 Club” over Channel 7. Bob Stewart also brought to local TV screens such foreign hit series as “Combat”, “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and “Mission Impossible.” We’d religiously watch “Combat” at 8:00 p.m. every Friday. There was hardly a kid in school then who could not hum the “Combat” intro tune.

Bob Stewart, a former American war correspondent, opened a static-marred radio station on March 1, 1950 on Escolta, then the prime shopping avenue of the then-capital city Manila. That marked the birth of Republic Broadcasting System (RBS).

Formerly connected with the Mutual Broadcasting Company in the U.S., Bob Stewart was assigned in Manila in 1943 during World War II as a United Press (UP) war correspondent. Uncle Bob fell in love with the country and its people, resigned from UP in 1945 and opted to call the Philippines his home.

A Filipina caught Uncle Bob’s heart. He met in 1948 Loreto Feliciano, a Pampagueña widow with three kids and they got married the year after. It was for Loreto that he put up the DZBB radio station, as a legacy. That was followed by the establishment of DQCC, the first music station in the country and later, in 1957, its sister stations DYSS Cebu and DYOO Iloilo.

A consummate entrepreneur, Uncle Bob started RBS TV operations with a cheap, used transmitter and two old cameras. With a motley group of employees, RBS competed against networks that employed over 200 personnel.

Thousands of children who grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s are all-too familiar with Uncle Bob’s Lucky 7 Club and would watch the show every Saturday morning. And on his late night show, Maestro and Uncle Bob, it was the parents and grandparents who he entertained.

When Diosdado Macapagal became president in 1961, he attempted to persecute Bob Stewart for the alleged support that RBS gave Macapagal’s rival, former president Carlos P. Garcia, in the 1960 presidential election. Threatened with deportation, the thousands of kids who followed Uncle Bob’s Lucky 7 Club and their parents rallied behind Stewart and that forced Macapagal to back down.

We can thus account for the pettiness and vindictiveness of the present Malacañang occupant.

I met Bob Stewart when I was helping promote the shell handicraft products of a man who would eventually become my brother-in-law, Mike Moreno. Bob Stewart had expanded to retail store operations with the opening of Panacraft in 1968 and we approached him in his Channel 7 office to sell him our shell craft products. The experience was like that of two rank, wet-behind-the-ears amateurs taking on the grizzled, eagle-eyed businessman.

We could see that Bob was impressed by our craftsmanship but getting him to buy our products at the prices that we wanted was something else. He used every allowable trick in the book to get his price -- from tantalizing us with the lure of a big order to checking on the phone with an associate what the market price was for what we were selling, all the while making us hear the price that he was willing to pay and not what the associate on the other end of the line was quoting.

During the haggling, Bob said something that I kept in my memory bank. This is the business reality that it is no longer the creation of a fantastic product (as was the case during the Industrial Revolution) that accounts for successful business ventures but the creation of something that will sell. This was the main point that Bob used to try to get us to come closer to the price that he wanted. He did not dispute that we had a superior product. Rather, he raised the point if our product will sell and allow him to make a profit in the process.

In the end, we got a price that was closer to what we wanted. But I sensed that was more the result of Bob’s being impressed by our bravado rather than our ability to haggle for the price that we wanted. In that encounter, I benefited from a first hand demonstration of what a good entrepreneur was like -- fair in his dealings, sharp eyed for closing the best deal that he can get and possessing a solid grasp of market realities so that he knows if what he is buying can be resold with a profit.

Eventually, I got to develop a lifetime friendship with the family of the lady who managed Panacraft for Bob Stewart, Carrie Limjap. Carrie and her late husband Eddie were members of the original dance troupe of Chito Feliciano on the Channel 7 show “Dancetime with Chito.” The friendship with the Limjaps also led to many more close encounters with Bob Stewart.

In December of 1968, Bob decided to hold a children’s party in his Angeles City hotel, Marisol Manor. If Bob was a hard bargainer, Loreto Stewart was even tougher. I found myself agreeing to her proposal to play the role of Santa Claus for the Marisol Manor children’s Christmas Party! Save for the ridiculous red attire and white beard, it was not exactly a bad deal. I was compensated fairly.

Bob and Loreto brought me to Marisol Manor on board their Jet Ranger helicopter. Bob had opened a local distributorship of Jet Ranger helicopters, then the top of the line among rotor blade aircraft. It was the next best thing to arriving via reindeer powered sled. Bob flew the Jet Ranger himself to and fro Marisol Manor but we did not return to Metro Manila until he treated me to the biggest porterhouse steak prepared by his hotel. Bob always knew how to get on your good (weak) side.

From that time on, Bob would call me “Santa” whenever he saw me. A couple of years later, when I was already an advertising professional, we did a commercial over Channel 7 using Bob as our product presenter. Not knowing the background, my clients from Johnson and Johnson were surprised when Bob addressed me as Santa.

Bob Stewart popularized the live presenter-type of commercial which was in fashion during the early days of television in the US. I remember how my father would be enraged every time Bob would cut into a program to do a series of live product presentations because that could take longer than the time provided for the program itself. You may be contracting for just a 30-second commercial with Bob but the commercial could well run into three minutes.

The advertiser of course did not mind the overtime but the viewers hated the long commercial break, especially if it is interrupting a favorite program like “Combat.”

Uncle Bob’s ashes will be brought home on Tuesday, April 25. He will rejoin his beloved Loreto who passed away some years back and whose remains were also brought home for internment here. To me and my baby boomer contemporaries, Uncle Bob will always have a place in our fondest memories of better times in our country.

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