For 53 Years, Hispanic Audiences Left Their Hearts With Don Francisco

Mario Kreutzberger still remembers his first encounter with a TV set. It was in a Manhattan hotel room in 1959, and Kreutzberger, fresh off the plane from his native Chile, mistook the bulky box for a radio. The 19-year-old had come to New York to study clothing design at the urging of his father, a tailor who wanted his son to build the family business. But Kreutzberger had a weakness for entertaining—including doing standup bits featuring a character named Don Francisco Ziziguen González. When he turned on that box, it was love at first sight.

“You could see and listen at the same time,” Kreutzberger recalls. “At that moment, I said to myself that my father is wrong. This is the future.”

As predictions go, it wasn’t far off. Soon after returning to Chile, Kreutzberger created Sábado Gigante, a variety show hosted by his stage alter ego, the tireless motormouth Don Francisco. A program without peer, Sábado Gigante (“Gigantic Saturday”) has aired for 53 uninterrupted years, making it the longest-running variety show in television history, and making Don Francisco the zany king of Spanishspeaking Saturday-night TV.

As hard as it is for his 80 million worldwide viewers to accept, that long reign will end on Sept. 19, when Don Francisco, now 74, hosts the final episode of Sábado Gigante on Univision. Kreutzberger, the child of Jewish parents who fled Nazi Germany for Chile, has become a cultural fixture throughout Latin America and among Hispanic families across the U.S. who have gathered together on Saturday nights to tune in Don Francisco. Kreutzberger was inducted into the B&C Hall of Fame in 2004.

“There is no one you can compare Mario to,” said Alberto Ciurana, president of programming and content for Univision, who met Kreutzberger when the host moved his show from Chile to Miami and to Univision in 1986. “He’s unique in the history of television.”

Running for more than 2,800 consecutive weeks, Sábado Gigante unleashes on viewers a frenetic mix of games, interviews, sketches, beauty contests, family reunions and musical performances. With a three-hour running time, Sábado Gigante offers up a kitchen sink of campy entertainments, with something for everyone in the family. The show’s enduring segments have included “El Chacal de la Trompeta,” in which contestants sing a song until they are “gonged” by a death-like character blowing a trumpet, and “El Detector de Mentiras,” in which cheating spouses are given lie detector tests by a gringo polygraph expert (whose poor Spanish is mocked by Don Francisco).

Above all, the show is fueled by Don Francisco’s prancing spirit, backed up by a parade of underdressed beauties, performances by top Latino music stars and—of course—advertising dollars to promote brands whose praises Don Francisco sings in jingles along with his studio audience. Behind Kreutzberger’s often buffoonish act is an accomplished interviewer—his guests have included Latin American presidents and Barack Obama—with an unfailing eye for talent. Over the years, Sábado Gigante has helped launch the careers of Ricky Martin, Shakira, Enrique Iglesias and Jenni Rivera, to name a few.

Don Francisco has earned his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But Sábado Gigante remains unknown to many non-Spanish-speaking viewers, other than through parodies on Saturday Night Live and by Stephen Colbert, who occasionally donned a fake moustache, pastel-colored suit and cooed “Donde están mis chicas?” (Where are my girls?) on the Reporto Colberto Gigante.

Among Hispanic audiences in the U.S., the show still consistently ranks at the top among adults aged 18-49. But Sábado Gigante’s hold on viewers has been steadily slipping. Don Francisco’s audience has averaged about 2 million weekly viewers so far this season—down more than a million viewers from the end of the 2000s. Even since April, when Sábado Gigante’s cancellation was announced, the audience has flagged somewhat, with fewer than 1.6 million viewers tuning in for the show on Aug. 29.

The backdrop for the decline in Sábado Gigante’s audience in recent years includes a proliferation of new Spanish-language entertainment options, a switch to online viewing and, at least in the U.S., a younger generation of Hispanic viewers who increasingly want to watch television programming in English.

“The market has changed. That’s a reality. We can’t hide it, “ said Ciurana. “Everywhere we’ve seen top shows ending.”

Some argue that Sábado Gigante’s cultural moment has passed, including critics who fault Don Francisco for, among other things, objectifying women in segments such as the beauty contest parody, “Miss Colita,” which, loosely translated, means Miss Ass.

“The new century caught up with him,” said Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, who added that the “jokes about young girls with beautiful bodies” turned some younger people off—though older fans (including his mother, Nogales said) remain unfazed. Despite the show’s flaws, Nogales said that Don Francisco is an entertainer who, in distracting generations of viewers from their daily struggles, has “earned a place in the hearts of Latinos.”

Faced with market changes and shrinking budgets, Kreutzberger began talking three years ago with Univision about wrapping up his long run. In 53 years, he has performed with pneumonia and during hurricanes, missing only one show—when his mother died in 1974. Beyond Sábado Gigante, Kreutzberger’s busy career has included the telethons he created years ago that raise tens of millions of dollars annually for disabled children in Chile and internationally, and the documentary he made in 2005 about his family’s experiences during the Holocaust.

Before he escaped to Chile, Kreutzberger’s father was interned in a Nazi camp. Erick Kreutzberger never spoke to his son about the experience, except once, late in life, and only briefly.

Growing up, Kreutzberger said he was beaten up because he was different—a child of Jewish immigrants in a conservative Catholic country. Then one day he fought back. He had been a shy kid, but, Kreutzberger says, “I changed my personality. I became president of my grade.” 

After discovering TV in Manhattan, Kreutzberger started watching it constantly and eventually convinced Chile’s Channel 13 to put him on the air. Then called by the plural, Sábados Gigante, the show grew up during a time of increasing political unrest in Chile, culminating in the 1973 coup of General Augusto Pinochet. That Kreutzberger managed to achieve his highest ratings under Pinochet’s long and brutal rule—80 percent of the population reportedly tuned in on Saturday nights during those years—is a case study in how to succeed under a dictatorship. 

Kreutzberger says that he never “accepted what was going on” under Pinochet, but the dictator “respected” him. “They gave me some room,” explained Kreutzberger, who also claims to have helped some leftist friends escape Chile from Pinochet’s repressive regieme.

Once Sábado Gigante concludes, Kreutzberger may relax more, but he does not intend to vanish. The host plans to develop projects with Univision, and is thinking about other possibilities, both small and immodest—like building a network that caters to viewers over 50. Looking ahead to the next show runs in his blood. And, as a deeply superstitious man, Kreutzberger lives by the credo that a good entertainer should never exit the stage from the same door that he came in.