DORAL, FLA. — An electric excitement surges through the crowd gathered in the Univision studios in this city just west of Miami. As Mario “Don Francisco” Kreutzberger steps out of the wings, the fans in the bleachers who’ve traveled here from Guatemala and Chile, California and Kansas City and beyond erupt in cheers and wild applause.
These lucky folks are experiencing history: They’re the last members of the general public to be the studio audience of “Sábado Gigante” (“Giant Saturday”), the hugely popular — and longest-running — variety show that has dominated Spanish-language television for more than half a century.
And like audiences before them for the past 53 years, they’re eating up the corny antics of Kreutzberger, the show’s creator and only host for its entire run. They laugh as he mugs in a variety of goofy hats during the signature talent competition, “El Chacal de la Trompeta” (“The Trumpet Jackal”) and howl at the sexual-innuendo-laden comedy sketches. When the first comedian’s mike gives off a static buzz, Kreutzberger hands him his own. “Since the show’s ending,” he deadpans to laughter, “they only give us half as many working microphones.”
Yes, sadly, the glitzy, zany hodgepodge that is “Sábado Gigante” — part game show, part talent show, part comedy show, part musical entertainment and, often enough, serious interview show with newsmakers and world leaders — ends Saturday, leaving mourning viewers in its wake.
“It’s a tragedy,” says Marta Aldana Cabrera, 73, of Guatemala City, who has joined about 200 others on the studio’s three banks of bleachers, surrounded by so many swirling graphics and brightly glowing lights in purple and red and blue that it looks like the inside of a Las Vegas casino. “I don’t know what I’m going to do on Saturday nights anymore.”
To this audience, and millions of others, “Sábado Gigante” has been more than a TV show. It has been a rallying point, a unifying force and a cornerstone of identity for Spanish-speaking communities around the globe.
“I started watching it when I was living in Germany, when I was 7 years old,” says Cuba-born Gretter Lara, now 26 and living in Miami. Selected as one of the final contestants in the Trumpet Jackal segment, she hopes to sing well enough to keep the ghoulish “jackal” from blowing his horn, signaling her ejection.
“This,” she says, “is like a dream come true.” Just under the wire.
With its unique blend of heart-warming family reunions, comic sketches, music acts and talent contests — along with shapely, product-pitching models in skintight mini-dresses – “Sábado Gigante” harks to a bygone era. But its formula clicked, and has kept clicking, decade after decade.
“There’s something for everybody,” says the show’s announcer and pitchman, Javier Romero. “Even if you didn’t like what you were watching right now, or it didn’t interest you, you knew that in seven or nine minutes there’d be something else that might.”
In creating a show that reached out to everyone, Kreutzberger also did something that hadn’t been done in the United States before.
“I think he was able to imagine Mexican communities having something in common with Puerto Rican communities, which then had something in common with Cubans and Dominicans and Hondurans and Panamanians,” says Bridget Kevane, a professor of Spanish and coordinator of Latin American and Latino studies at Montana State University. “He saw the whole community here as one large community.”
“Sábado Gigante” also helped the “Latino community imagine itself as one great family with common ties, common histories, common stories of immigration, common family values,” Kevane says.
Which was exactly what Kreutzberger was after.
“We started with an idea that, in the end, was adopted by the public,” he says. “It was a tagline: ‘Separated by the distance; united by a common language.’ ”
In many ways, “Sábado Gigante” has been what its name suggests — a giant. It set a Guinness record for longevity, airing every week, nonstop, since 1962, for a total of more than 2,760 episodes. And in all that time, the only episode Kreutzberger, now 74, missed was when his mother died in 1974.
Indeed, “Sábado Gigante” was born of Kreutzberger’s determination and has succeeded, those who work with him say, because of his relentless drive.
The son of German Jews who fled to Chile to escape the Nazis, Kreutzberger moved to New York in the late 1950s to study clothing design. He practiced English by watching television, a medium that didn’t yet exist in Chile.
When he returned home, Chile was launching its first station. He asked for a job, telling the director: “I know more about television than any of you. I’ve been watching for two years.”
He was sent away but kept coming back until he got a show. In the meantime, he’d started doing stand-up comedy at a local Jewish club, revolving around a heavily accented immigrant character he called “Don Francisco.” When the TV show launched, he dropped the accent but kept the name.
From the outset, “Sábados Gigantes,” as it was known in Chile, involved a mix of everything Kreutzberger liked from the shows hosted by Jack Paar, Ed Sullivan, Art Linkletter and Bob Barker that he’d watched in the United States.
And it worked. At its peak, the show drew 80 percent of the country’s viewers. “When it was on on Saturdays, traffic stopped,” says Maria Teresa Rogers, 65, who was making her 10th visit to the show from her home in Chile. “The streets were empty.”
Then, in 1986, Kreutzberger brought the show to the United States. It started at a local Miami station — and almost died there, canceled after the eighth episode.
That same week, however, Kreutzberger persuaded the models on the show to, effectively, shake their booties for the cameras. He called their dance “las colitas” (the tails). Ratings doubled, and the show was renewed. It went nationwide a year later, when the newly formed Univision network took over the Miami station. From the United States, it went into Mexico, spread across the continent and eventually to more than 40 countries.
Along the way, it became a powerhouse, driving ratings and launching careers. Shakira, Enrique Iglesias and Cristina Saralegui, the woman known as “the Spanish Oprah,” all gained international exposure on the show.
As its reach spread, so did its influence. Presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore sat down for interviews, as did President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.
Kreutzberger became so well known that Stephen Colbert parodied him on “The Colbert Report” with “Colberto Reporto Gigante.”
Kreutzberger even got the star treatment from other stars.
Lili Estefan, one of the show’s first models, who went on to co-host one of Univision’s best-known entertainment news shows, remembers being with Kreutzberger at a birthday party when they bumped into Madonna.
“Oh, my God!” the singer gushed. “Don Francisco! I know you. My daughter Lourdes watches you with her nanny.”
When Madonna walked away, Kreutzberger turned to Estefan and, she says, asked: “Who was that? Her face is very familiar.”
He may not have known the “Material Girl” singer, but the moment showcased the way “Sábado Gigante” brought Hispanics everywhere together.
That’s why 27-year-old Luis Saenz has brought his parents from Kansas City, Kansas, to this Sept. 5 taping.
“I grew up watching ‘Sábado Gigante’ with them. For as long as I can remember,” he says. “This was their dream, and I wanted them to have it.”
Times, however, have changed. The show’s audience has dwindled from a reported 3.2 million viewers weekly in 2004 to half that in August, and the sought-after 18-to-34-year-old segment is only a small fraction of that total.
“Television on Saturdays is feeling an impact. There are many young people watching other things,” says Alberto Ciurana, Univision’s programming and content president, who adds that the network thinks “that we have to change and make other programs.”
Univision, which filed for an initial public offering in July, may also be looking to trim expenses by canceling the costly show.
Though Kreutzberger, who’s already busy developing a travel show, will continue to be involved with the network, the end of “Sábado Gigante” is leaving many a fan feeling more than a little wistful.
“It is,” says Lili Estefan, “like losing a member of your family.”
Harrison is a freelance writer.
“Sábado Gigante’s” run, compared with other current shows of note (in years):
“Meet the Press”
“Saturday Night Live”