By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
Up the circular staircase leading to the hall climbs a young Catholic priest. His black suit with clerical front and white collar seem oddly out of place among the sport coats and cocktail dresses. Yet if he's apprehensive, it doesn't show. The fresh-faced clergyman's blue eyes gleam with enthusiasm, and his face is animated and lively. Of medium build and average height, he's quick with a quip and a laugh. Immediately he begins to work the room. He greets people, shaking hands, and saluting acquaintances who seem to be everywhere. The priest is impossible to miss, and most here hope not to.
His name is Albert Cutié, and at 30 years old he is one of the star attractions tonight. Starting September 27, for an hour each afternoon, five days a week, the young cleric is scheduled to host a talk show on Telemundo. He will be seen coast to coast from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m. His producers pledge to deliver a show unlike any other on television. Cutié says he aspires to be Father Oprah. Most of all, Telemundo hopes the priest's brand of advice and guidance will excite Hispanic America and lead the troubled network to the ratings promised land.
In TV lingo this gathering, on May 25, is called an "upfront," where a network presents its upcoming season to buyers of bulk advertising time, media analysts, and reporters. The occasion is all about selling a rosy future. The idea is to create a buzz for the new shows. And the Hialeah-based network needs all the hype it can get.
Telemundo has slogged through twelve tumultuous years, leaving sagging ratings and a trail of discarded executives in its wake. Optimism soared in November of 1998 when deep-pocketed partners Sony Pictures Entertainment and Liberty Media purchased the network. Finally Telemundo was positioned to compete in its lopsided battle with rival Univision, which captures more than 90 percent of the Spanish-language television market in the United States. Yet the new leadership's first foray into programming bombed. They debuted with embarrassing remakes of formulaic English-language low-budget hits from the '70s and '80s, such as Charlie's Angels and Starsky and Hutch. According to the Nielsen ratings, Telemundo's market share last season plummeted 50 percent, from eighteen to nine percent of Hispanic households. Now, after their first full year of development, they are unveiling a new-fashioned lineup.
After two upfronts in New York and Los Angeles, the Telemundo team made its final stop in Miami. Tonight the mood seems more anticipatory than celebratory. The priest excuses himself and the crowd enters the ballroom. Seats are arrayed before a stage and screen for the presentations. After a few speeches by network salesmen, Nely Galán, president of entertainment for Telemundo, strides to the podium. The 35-year-old Galán, a Cuban from New Jersey, exudes the self-confidence and enthusiasm that has helped make her one of the most successful Hispanic executives in television. More than anyone, she is responsible for Cutié's presence here.
"This is a show I am deeply passionate about," she tells the audience.
A quick montage of Cutié's program flashes across the screen that shows the laughing clergyman entertaining guests. "He is our greatest confidant who can bring out the best in us," an announcer intones. Then the young priest bounds onto the stage. He remarks that many of his parishioners from St. Patrick's Church on Miami Beach are in the audience. They know he always begins his sermons with a joke; tonight will be no different.
The joke starts with a priest who is a social-science teacher, and it goes like this:
The teacher offers to give five dollars to the student in his class who names the most important person in history.
The first child raises his hand and answers, "George Washington, the founder of the greatest country on Earth."
The priest rejects the answer.
A second boy raises his hand and guesses, "Abraham Lincoln ."
The teacher dismisses this answer as well.
Finally a third boy raises his hand and gives the correct answer: "Jesus Christ."
"Very good," the priest/teacher tells the student. "What is your name?"
From the podium Cutié reads the name from a business card given to him earlier by a reporter out in the hallway.
"My name is Jacob Bernstein," says the fictitious boy in the joke.
"Bernstein!" exclaims the teacher. "Isn't that a Jewish name? Why didn't you say Moses or Abraham?"
'The boy responds: "Business is business. Five dollars is five dollars."
The joke is not a huge hit, but more than a few in the audience laugh.
When queried months later about the appropriateness of an ethnic joke told in mixed company at an industry gathering, Cutié acts surprised. He doesn't really understand the implications of what he said. Then again, maybe he does. It's hard to discern because his sentences often end in punch lines.
"Is that a racist joke? What!!!" he cries, maybe in mock horror. "I didn't mean it to be racist. I mean, it is a Miami joke, I think. Here we are so used to diversity that we learn to laugh at our diversity. The Cubans laugh at the Nicaraguans for the way they drive. The Nicaraguans laugh at the Haitians because they drive worse."
He seems to catch himself and pauses briefly.
"I mean, whatever," he concludes. "Everybody just kind of laughs at each other."
As proof that he intends no malice, he names as an acquaintance a Rabbi Shlickstein of the Jewish Federation of Greater Miami, whom he says has appeared on WAMI-TV (Channel 69) with him. The man's name is in fact Rabbi Solomon Schiff, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. Schiff says he has had no contact with the young priest aside from their one-time twenty-minute program. "The only reason I remember the name is because it sounds like 'cute,'" he says.
Cutié insists he doesn't believe there is any racial tension in Miami. It is an astounding assertion, and suggests the road to national stardom for this product of insular Cuban Miami could be a bumpy one.
St. Patrick's Church on Miami Beach represents an affluent, bilingual community. In addition to the timeworn collection plate, parishioners can give to the church with Visa and MasterCard. This is Cutié's parish; he generally delivers two Spanish Masses every Sunday and normally preaches to a standing-room-only crowd. It's not hard to understand why: He makes Mass entertaining and sprinkles his sermons with moral uplift. Rather than using a numbing drone, he sings his prayers in a chant style. His sermons are usually funny and thought provoking. He greets individual parishioners effusively both before and after the service, and they respond warmly to him. One recent Sunday, besides the ritual joke at the beginning, his homily includes a dramatic enactment of two pivotal scenes from the movie Titanic, with him playing both leads. "I won't let go," he says, echoing Leonardo DiCaprio. He also mentions a recent senseless killing by a deranged man. The lessons of the sermon seem to be: Don't rush to judgment and have faith that Jesus Christ will never abandon you.
It is Cutié's first Mass since he began taping the Padre Alberto show. At the end of it, he urges parishioners to sign up to be part of the studio audience and to pray for him. He brings up the story of a fellow priest and friend who recently was accused by another man of having exposed himself. Channel 7 (WSVN-TV) broke the story. Using an anonymous complaint the press has emotionally destroyed a priest, Cutié says. "We need to do something positive to counteract this and God has given me the opportunity."
The topic of the thirteenth episode of Padre Alberto is "how to confront sexual harassment." About 100 people file into a studio in west Miami-Dade where almost 70 workers labor to make the show a reality. The show's producers have tried to find an audience different from the group of Cuban viejos who regularly attend the other Spanish-language talk shows made in Miami. Word has gone out to churches in the area, encouraging Spanish-speaking parishioners to support their own. Today about 85 percent of the audience is elderly. Many identify themselves as from the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Hialeah. Included in the crowd is Cutié's mother.
Much thought has gone into the set design. The colors are muted earth tones of green and beige. Cutié occupies a light-brown leather chair in the middle of a raised stage. On one side of him is a wooden chair, on the other a couch. Behind the host's chair is a television screen camouflaged in jade green, which will show videos of the priest on location. Cutié strides out to the stage and thanks the audience for coming. He appears a little nervous but once he makes contact with the crowd, the anxiety seems to dissipate. He explains that this will not be a religious show. "This is a human program," he says. "If you want to pray please come to my Mass. This is a secular network."
Nonetheless he leads the audience in prayer before the show begins. In his invocation he asks God to look out for the producers and to ensure the program delivers a message of hope. Before the camera rolls, a make-up woman daubs the priest's face with foundation and the crowd laughs at his obvious discomfort. "I never thought this would be me," Cutié jokes before heading into the wings to wait for his cue.
Finally it is time. On the couch sits a young Peruvian woman named Monica Medina. Later in the show it's revealed that she is one of only a handful of women who have publicly denounced workplace sexual harassment in her native country. The priest walks onstage and begins to read from the teleprompter. "Today we have a superdelicate topic," he says. But he stumbles on the next sentence. "From the top," a lineman yells. Cutié walks out and starts again. After two more takes he manages to get through the introduction.
The next segment begins with Cutié in the chair. "When did you first realize this was happening?" he asks Medina. As the young woman tells her story, the priest tries to guide it by asking for more details or clarification. Producers are trying to teach Cutié to be more inquisitive in his interviews. "He listens too much," complains Telemundo's Nely Galán. "He needs to talk more." Although Galán lives in Los Angeles, she is spending much of her time in Miami these days overseeing the development of the show. In between breaks she comes out to whisper advice in the priest's ear. At one point she urges him to delve deeper into this emotional subject.
"This has something to do with power doesn't it?" Cutié asks his guests on a couple of occasions, but fails to go into detail. By the end he gives the segment a positive spin by celebrating Medina's willingness to come forward about the harassment. After teasing out Medina's story and hearing from panelists seated in the audience, the first half of the show is in the can.
In a control room down the hall from the set sits executive producer Rafael Bello. The veteran producer has worked on Telemundo's Sevcec and one of the highest rated shows on U.S. Spanish-language television, Cristina, on Univision. (Cristina will be Cutié's competition.) "In the beginning everybody, and I mean everybody, told me it is very risky and you shouldn't do [Padre Alberto]," he relates. "Now it is a double challenge for me because I believe in the project and [I want] to prove it is one of the greatest ideas I have ever heard in my life."
Bello is also a parishioner at St. Patrick's Church. When Galán presented the idea of a priest talk show he immediately asked to produce the pilot. Unaware the network was considering Cutié, he suggested his priest for the part. The synchronicity simply added to the belief of many on the staff that they are on a mission from God.
"God won't let Father Albert fail," Galán remembers telling her bosses, only half in jest.
When Bello selected his staff, one of the prerequisites was a certain spirituality, he says. The approach extended to formatting of the program. Initially the idea was simply to have a regular talk show. But Galán, Cutié, Bello, and a few others went on a daylong spiritual retreat at the Juan Pablo II Retreat Center off Biscayne Boulevard to brainstorm.
Out of the experience came the idea for a show that would be half daytime talk show, à la Oprah, half Politically Incorrect. Each episode would center on an issue such as "women who want to leave their husbands." Future topics for Father Albert to delve into include "victims of racism," "what to do when in an unhappy marriage," and "is one born gay?" Cutié will do an in-depth, therapy/confessionlike interview with a person who is wrestling with the show's topic. In the front row of the audience others in similar situations will offer their brief testimonies. The requisite experts -- the lawyers and psychologists -- will also be on hand to answer questions.
Star power comes in the second half, which features a four-person roundtable, one of whom will be a celebrity. Big-name actors Jorge Rivero, Maria Conchita Alonso, and singer Lucia Mendez have all signed on. "I wanted to show something Latinos hadn't seen before, which is members of your community talking about an issue," explains Galán.
Bello says the producers have received two very different responses from the celebrities they have approached. Some like the idea of confiding in a priest but others are afraid. "There are a lot of people who feel wounded by the church and don't want to explain their problems to a priest because they feel like they will be judged," he says. Bello believes once people see how lighthearted and easygoing Cutié is, they will be more willing to appear.
During the break Cutié convinces the audience to stand and dance the hokey-pokey and el pollito to get their blood flowing. It's a curious sight, the elderly audience and the young priest twirling around, shaking their arms and legs in the air. Although this exercise is standard on the show, during another episode about missing children, Cutié decided it wasn't appropriate to do the jigs at intermission.
For the roundtable portion of this show, producers have assembled two actresses, a psychologist, and a radio host. The main celebrity is the buxom Mexican telenovela star Lorena Herrera. She confesses she was sexually harassed twice at the beginning of her career, then later in the program downgrades that number to one; the accused was a powerful man in the industry, but she declines to name him.
The show really comes to life when Miami radio host Carlos D'Mant commandeers the program with ribald one-liners and open skepticism regarding the gravity of sexual harassment. Cutié struggles to maintain a tone of some seriousness. "What do we do for victims who maybe don't know they are victims and should be denouncing this?" he asks. A few seconds later D'Mant declares: "There are a lot of women who say 'no,' but really mean 'don't stop.'" Cutié responds with a grin: "This is not that kind of program."
Just what kind of program it will turn out to be, and what tone it should consistently take, still appear to be in development.
Cutié marvels at his identity as a Cuban who has never been to Cuba. He was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Miami. "It's a very Miami story, don't you think?" he asks. He waffles about whether he would ever visit the island while Castro is in power. He would like to meet his relatives but it would upset his mother, he acknowledges.
Cuban authorities would not let his father, a mechanical engineer, leave the island, and imprisoned him twice. Finally the family escaped to Spain in 1967. After two years they moved to Puerto Rico to join relatives. In Cutié family lore these are the "reunification years." After seven years the extended family began to relocate again, this time to Miami. "Right in the middle of second grade I left my nice, little cozy Catholic school in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and came to the Miami-Dade public school system," Cutié says with a laugh.
The Cutié family was Catholic, but they were not in church every day. "[Catholicism] was kind of subdued but faith was important to us," he says. "We didn't have any life-size statues or anything like that."
It never occurred to the boy to join the priesthood. "I always had visions of being married and having ten children -- you know, having a BMW convertible," he says. "I never thought of myself as the priestly type."
Some of his earliest memories involve music, and at the age of twelve he dedicated himself to mowing lawns to save money for a disc jockey sound system. Besides DJing at parties, he became active in the Catholic youth group of St. Timothy's Church in Kendall, where the family lived. Gradually the idea of becoming a priest took hold. "Part of being a DJ was that I really love people and I love sharing life with people," he says. "I think between loving people and loving God ... what came out of the equation was priest. It is hard to explain this to people because they think it is like an angel comes to your window [and talks to you]."
He breaks into an amusing imitation of an angel that sounds a bit like a truck driver. "'Hey, Albert, I want you to be a priest,'" he mimics. "That is not what happened. It was like inside my heart I felt like there was nothing better I could do with the rest of my life."
He tried to resist the calling. "When I first started thinking about it, I thought, This is like a virus, it has to go away," he says chuckling.
What helped sway him was meeting priests who lived normal lives. In particular he cites another media priest, Father Federico Capdepón, who is now director of the Archdiocese of Miami's Radio Paz (WACC-AM 830). Capdepón counseled the teenager to accept the vocation. "He still is somebody that I admire," Cutié remarks. "Even though he is a priest and loves God and is very committed to his priesthood, he is also very committed to communication and to buying the best microphones, and the best sound equipment. He is somebody who has really brought together two things, and I have always seen myself that way."
At age eighteen Cutié entered St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami. Father John Noonan, rector of the seminary, says that Cutié was an average and unremarkable student. After graduation he went on to St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach. Besides traveling with his youth group both in the United States and abroad, it would be the first time Cutié had lived more than an hour's drive from his mother for any length of time. (His father died of cancer in 1992.)
In 1995 at his home parish of St. Timothy's, Cutié took the vows of the priesthood. Unlike membership in a religious order like the Franciscans, diocesan priests such as Cutié don't take a oath of poverty. They are employed by the diocese and receive a salary.
Telemundo will not reveal the amount of Cutié's paycheck, which is being called an honorarium. Galán says it is relatively small, which has allowed the network to spend more money on production. Cutié insists he doesn't know how much he is being paid. The network will give the money to the Miami diocese, which will then release some of the funds as a salary to the priest. "It is kind of like [Cuba] where we are paid in dollars and then pay him in pesos," cracks one member of the diocesan hierarchy privy to the arrangement.
Cutié began work as an intern priest at St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West, the southernmost Catholic church in the United States. Despite having spent his entire life in Miami, at 24 years of age he had never been to Key West. After a year he was sent to the other end of the diocese at St. Clement's Church in Fort Lauderdale. In 1998 Cutié ended up at his current church in Miami Beach. "I've had real rough assignments," he jokes. "You know, Key West, Fort Lauderdale, Miami Beach."
The idea for a talk show with a priest as host came to Nely Galán while on a spiritual retreat in Mexico in 1995, before she joined Telemundo. "I thought, How come nobody has ever tried to do a show with a priest?" she remembers. "In our [Hispanic] community people don't go to shrinks; they go to priests. And I got to thinking, Isn't a talk show like a confessional in a way?" She envisioned a show that would focus on solutions rather than problems, and where the priest would help people lead better lives.
Ever pragmatic, Galán shelved the idea as impractical. "But really what am I going to do?" she remembers thinking. "Go sell a priest talk show to an American network? I don't think so."
If anyone could have done it, though, it would have been Galán, whose meteoric rise and precocious reputation are startling even by the youth-obsessed standards of television. As a two- year-old in 1965, Galán and her parents immigrated to the United States from Cuba. Raised in Teaneck, New Jersey, her big break came at age fifteen. When a nun at her Catholic school accused her of plagiarism, she retaliated by writing a satirical article about why parents shouldn't send their kids to an all-girl Catholic school. She sent the story to Seventeen magazine and she won the attention of the editors, who hired the teenager as a guest editor. Attractive, sassy, with a larger-than-life persona, she soon found herself with her own television program on PBS. From there she moved behind the camera. By age 22 she was manager at WNJU, New Jersey's leading Spanish-language television station.
She has worked for a variety of networks including Fox and HBO, starting their Spanish-language channels as well as producing her own shows. In her heart she says what she really wanted was to create programming for Hispanics like herself. "It is kind of depressing when you turn on the TV and there is no sign of you on TV," she complains. "There is nothing that looks like you, feels like you, has lived your life. Nothing. On American TV or Spanish TV. I guess that has kind of been my calling for a while."
Her desires dovetail with a rapidly changing U.S. Hispanic demographic that has advertisers salivating. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the year 2045 the Hispanic population will be larger than that of non-Hispanic blacks, Asians, and Native Americans combined. Eighty percent of that population will be born in this nation. Many of them will be bilingual and bicultural. To date most of the Spanish-language programming offered to Hispanics in the United States is made in Latin America. "For us who have grown up here, it's like, 'I got to tell ya something. If we don't do it, who the hell will?'" Galán asks. "I feel like if we all just settle for importing products, then what kind of industry are we going to have in twenty years?" So when Sony bought Telemundo and offered her a job that would allow her to create original programming, she took it despite reservations about working in a corporate environment. "I just felt like somebody needs to go in there that really has a vision, that really can cross both worlds," she says. "And also somebody that knows how to fight."
It would take a pushy, pugnacious attitude to convince Telemundo higher-ups to embrace her wild idea of a priest talk show. "It was a hard sell. I don't have to tell you," she says, pausing at the absurdity of it. "I kept saying for the whole year, 'We are working on this priest talk show,' and everybody looked at me like, 'Oh my God, she is losing it.' "
The show never would have happened, she admits, if they hadn't found the right priest. Telemundo launched a national search and interviewed 500 clerics. The priest had to be fluent in Spanish and English. He had to be a traditionalist but also hip and current. Hungry for a younger demographic, Telemundo executives wanted a priest who worked well with youth, but also someone who conveyed spirituality and earthiness.
When Galán first met Cutié the similarities between the two were striking. "I call her 'Nely-girl,' the priest says with a grin as he begins the story of their first meeting. "I meet this Nely girl and she is so Cuban and so overwhelming. I thought I was overwhelming. She beat me."
He then goes into an imitation of her, flailing his arms and talking a mile a minute. "I want a priest. I want a ... but you're too young. I want someone with gray hair," he parodies.
Galán's main problem, he says, was with his hair. "She didn't like my Fred Flintstone haircut; that's really what it came down to," he recalls.
Today Cutié sports a hairstyle combed up in a retro way that makes him look like he stepped out of the '50s.
"I am credited with hipping up Father Albert," says Galán.
She recalls with enjoyment the first meeting between the two kindred spirits. "I was like, 'Excuse me. I want to know everything about your calling, your mission, because this is my mission. If you don't have the same mission, it is not going to work.' I was really tough. He must have been like, 'Oh my gosh, this is like one of those head nuns.'"
He came in and I said, 'You look like a nerd.' And he said, 'I'm a priest, I can look like a nerd.' 'Nope,' I said. You have to change your look. I'm sorry, it's TV."
They narrowed the search to two priests: a Mexican American from San Antonio and Cutié. Both did screen tests in a talk-show format. The videos were reviewed by focus groups and Cutié was chosen. "What happened was two or three days later I get this contract hand-delivered [with a note that says], 'Sign this in two days.'"
Only Cutié was on a different schedule. "I'm Catholic," he says. "Nothing happens in the Catholic church in two days. We're 2000 years old. We have been taking our time for a long time and we still are for a lot of things."
He told Galán he needed to discuss it with his pastor, his spiritual director, and the bishops. Then he needed to pray about it. "I told [her], 'Nely, if this is what God wants I'm willing to do it. If God doesn't want it, I want it less,'" he relates. "Her eyes were like, wide open because I told her I don't need to be on television. These big-shot TV people don't like to hear you don't need to be on television. They want you to think they are rescuing you or something. [But] messing with a priest is something different."
Once Galán got used to the idea of his autonomy, she relished the fact that Cutié wasn't the same needy talent with whom she usually worked. For the public-relations staff at Telemundo that has tried to control information about the show, Cutié's independence and openness has proved to be something of a headache.
The Archdiocese of Miami has sanctioned the show, excited about the publicity they anticipate from Father Albert. The opportunity to enliven Catholicism seems to outweigh any potential pitfalls. Besides, the diocesan bishops say, they trust Cutié to do the right thing.
Bishop Gilberto Fernandez visited the sound stages, ceremonially blessing the Telemundo studio on the first day of taping. "It wasn't just for the place," says the bishop. "I prayed that the show would carry a message of morals, ethics, and entertainment."
Fernandez hopes Cutié will appeal to young people and perhaps by example encourage them to join a priesthood in which ranks are flagging.
It was Bishop Thomas Wenski who recommended Cutié to Telemundo. Wenski wants Cutié to follow in the steps of Bishop Fulton Sheen, a popular television host in the '50s. At the height of his popularity, Sheen, who died in 1979, reached 30 million Americans on his program, Life Is Worth Living. Dressed in a flowing cape with nothing but a blackboard and piece of chalk as props, Sheen added warmth and wit to his message of finding the sacred in everyday life. His show, which ran from 1952 to 1957, garnered an Emmy Award. In 1953 it even topped Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater as the number-one-rated show and earned its host the sobriquet Uncle Fulty. Cutié says he has always been an admirer of Sheen. One of the first books the young priest read upon entering the seminary was a tome written by the television cleric.
Wenski recognizes that the days when a priest could simply sit in front of a blackboard are over. He is confident Cutié can avoid the temptation that television offers, especially its tendency to sink to the lowest common denominator. But will the young priest be able to handle success if it comes his way? At one point Sheen received 9000 letters per day. "The big question is whether it will go to his head," ponders Wenski. "But if you are doing this five days a week there will always be a couple of days when you flop on your face. That should keep his ego in check."
Galán also recognizes the danger. She says it's unlikely Cutié will be doing much publicity. "We don't want to overcommercialize him to the point where it stops being what it started out to be," she says. "The core of the show is based in spirituality. Even though it is very fun and energetic and all that, you can't forget that the mission of the show is to inspire people to be better people. If we are burning him out then he is not going to be in a good place to be giving that message every day. That's my job as the keeper of this little baby."
The heavens could smile on Telemundo yet. After initially abandoning much of its telenovela programming because Univision had the better product (through the Mexican company Grupo Televisa), Telemundo has hooked up with TV Azteca. (The Mexican-based Azteca burst on to the scene a few years ago with its series Nothing Personal, a hard-edged, thinly veiled political drama more NYPD Blue than One Life to Live. (Telenovelas, unlike American soap operas, generally end after about 360 half-hour shows.) In addition Telemundo has a Sunday-night block of original programming that includes an All in the Family-style comedy involving a Cuban American whose daughter takes up with a militant Chicano. Also to come, a dramatic series about a single immigrant mother from Mexico trying to raise her young son.
Back on the set of Father Albert, Cutié continues to learn the tricks of the television trade. Whether he'll pick up enough to make a big hit remains to be seen. Cutié ends the program on sexual harassment with a sermonette about its evils and the need for respect and professionalism in the workplace. He needs several takes to get through it. Then the guests lock hands for another quick prayer. "May everyone have peace and love and may God bless you," the priest concludes.
You can request audience tickets for the Padre Alberto show by calling 305-805-6434, 305-805-6435, or 305-805-6436.