Timing is everything

Rolando Barral's long, bumpy ride as the Johnny Carson of Latin TV

Y tres, dos -- cue the band, cue the host, canned applause up, and Rolando Barral strides onto the set and over to his desk, arms raised in greeting. Dressed in a gray suit and pale lavender shirt, the trim 62-year-old Barral carries himself with the low-key sureness of a man who is accustomed to living, moving, and having his being before an audience. The five-piece studio band is pumping out a jazzy Latin-pop theme while the production crew claps along with the applause track.

"Bienvenidos," exclaims Barral, blowing kisses to the camera and to the band, "a Siete Menos Cinco." That is the name of this new talk show, "Five minutes till seven" in English, which is what time in the evening the program airs on TVC, the five-month-old local cable channel that is also known as TV Cuba. (Siete Menos Cinco was the name of a popular variety show in Cuba in the Fifties.) Every weekday morning Barral and crew tape an hourlong program for broadcast later the same day.

Barral finishes with his greetings, the band rests, and the host fixes his gray eyes on the band leader, Gaby Gabriel, standing at his usual spot a few feet away from the host's desk, behind a pair of red conga drums. Barral appraises the tomato-red suit Gabriel is sporting. "Que cosa mas linda," he compliments the musician, promising an equally lindo program for tonight. But first a little banter, Miami-style: In the classic improvisatory mold of Johnny Carson-Doc Severinsen, or David Letterman-Paul Shaffer, Barral and Gaby Gabriel exchange remarks in Spanish. "Ay, Rolando, I had a terrible dream last night," Gabriel confesses. "I dreamed Fidel Castro's wife tried to molest me in an old-folks home." (He later swears he didn't make it up.)

Steve Satterwhite
Featuring a live orchestra and glamorous guest list, Siete Menos Cinco brings Rolando Barral back to his "Latino Johnny Carson" roots
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Featuring a live orchestra and glamorous guest list, Siete Menos Cinco brings Rolando Barral back to his "Latino Johnny Carson" roots

This gives Barral, even with five decades in show business behind him, pause. "That is a terrible dream, Gaby," he commiserates. "Maybe you were seeing a ghost."

"Well, she used to be a beautiful woman," Gabriel says, "but after living so long with Fidel, she must be crazy by now."

Barral agrees, then goes on to more mundane matters, items recently published in Spanish-language gossip columns, such as legendary singer José José's upcoming tour and the comeback of a once-hot South American singer who, according to El Nuevo Herald, will now perform with the aid of a microphone that releases oxygen into his emphysema-damaged lungs.

"Que bárbaro," Gabriel comments. "That's really something."

"Now we'll take a commercial break." Barral announces. "But we'll be back with a very interesting guest. Don't go away."

Drums, congas, and bass start up, and the singers launch into a rapid-fire jingle to the break: "Barral, Barral, Barral," they coo, Gabriel interjecting "Rolando! Rolando!"

Outside the studio, housed in a mamey-colored building in an industrial section of Hialeah Gardens, director Sommer Carlucci sits behind a video panel in a remote truck -- one of those mobile TV control booths. Until TVC moves into its new permanent studios, currently still under construction at its new offices in Doral, Siete Menos Cinco will be taped here. "En la frente dile que le pongapancake," Carlucci speaks into the floor director's headset. "Tell the makeup lady to powder Barral's forehead." Then Carlucci sets up the camera angles he wants. "Wide shot on camera four so we can see the whole drum set." In the next segment, Gaby Gabriel is going to sing a song while playing drums.

And tres, dos, applause, and Barral introduces a number by Gaby Gabriel y su Orquesta, the band that has performed five nights a week for the past fifteen years at the Fontainebleau hotel's Club Tropigala in Miami Beach. It's a hot salsa version of "La Negra Tomasa," the musicians are cooking, and the three singers spice up Gabriel's vocals, their hips gyrating in sparkly gowns and their arms undulating like octopus tentacles.

It's not cheap doing a live-on-tape talk show with a live band. Barral estimates per-week production and talent expenditures for Siete run about $5000, but that's because the startup TVC has to cut costs and his guests aren't usually paid; the same show on one of the major networks would easily be five or ten times more expensive. Nor is it easy taping straight through with no second takes; not once does the host or any of his guests misspeak, hesitate, or mess up in any way that would require reshooting a segment. That is but one of the advantages of building a show around Barral, who twenty years ago was lauded as the Latino Johnny Carson and today is making a TV talk-show comeback.

Barral says he saw an opportunity to create a program by and for Miamians -- Cubans, in other words, and Caribbean Hispanics, as distinct from the heavily Mexican and South American audiences to whom the two leading Spanish-language television networks cater. "Let's be frank," Barral argues. "Univision and Telemundo don't take Miami into consideration. Now it's time to do something for Miami in TV."

"Our guests are anyone who contributes to the culture of Miami," sums up Janny Villar, Barral's associate producer, who helps with the bookings.

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