MANILA, October 21, 2003  (MALAYA) by ETHEL RAMOS - VISITING former TV talk host Leila Benitez willingly answered questions thrown at her by a few members of the press who had the privilege to interview her at the coffee shop of the Shangrila-Makati last Monday. But questions about her age, she simply refused to answer.

Her husband of 27 years, an American, even joked: "I don't know her age myself."

A talk program host non-pareil, Leila was known as the dean of "Student Canteen," a noontime variety show which started airing in the early '60s. She stopped hosting the show when Martial Law was declared.

At that time, Leila explained, she was in the US and was adviced not to return.

When she married her husband, she asked her three children, all boys, to join her and her husband in America.

In "Student Canteen," she had for co-hosts Eddie Ilarde, Pepe Pimentel and the late Bobby Ledesma. It's her great wish to meet with Eddie and Pepe before she leaves for the US.

This is not Leila's first visit to Manila in 30 years. Five years ago, she came home for personal reasons.

This particular visit of hers, though, is meaningful in the sense that ABS-CBN, which produced "Student Canteen," had invited her to their 50th anniversary celebration, which included a grand extravaganza at the Philippine International Convention Center. She was requested to deliver a short speech at the PICC event.

In her short stay here, Leila observed a great difference in today's way of TV hosting compared to how it was back when she was still active. Then, Leila would always talk in straight English or Tagalog. No "in between," she stressed. Some of today's hosts, though, speak in Tagalog and then switch to English mid-sentence.

One thing Leila remembered most about "Student Canteen" was the impact the program had on its viewers, especially on students. Because they were glued to their TV sets at noontime, they didn't get involved in mischiefs.

Leila took pride in saying that several of the winners in their Talent Search are still active. One of them is Bert Nievera, who was then known as the "Johnny Mathis of the Philippines."

Leila related that no less than Johnny Mathis himself agreed that Bert sang like him.

"I am a ninang of Bert's son, Martin (Nievera, yes, the singer)," she shared.

"Student Canteen" became a big hit even among personnel in the US Embassy, so much so, they would request for visiting Hollywood artists to guest in the show. Leila had the privilege of interviewing Neil Sedaka, Paul Anka, Ann Margaret, Harry Belafonte, Vic Damone and others. She hopes the new generation of viewers are familiar with them.

She doesn't remember having been involved in any controversy. Nor can she remember having received a beating from media. She had good relations even with those covering the print media.

She confessed she misses TV hosting. It would be great, she said, if she gets the chance to interview on TV the likes of Kris Aquino. She read an article in People Asia about her while she and her husband were on the PAL flight to Manila.

She's not aware of the controversy involving Kris and Parañaque City Mayor Joey Marquez. And no one among the members of the press present wanted to give her details about it.

Leila and her husband will be leaving Manila in a few days. When she's coming back again for a visit, she doesn't know.

Well, Leila, it was nice talking to you.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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