Timing is everything

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

Barral's custom in his previous talk shows was to invite people from disparate walks of life to be his interview subjects. (He's particularly fond of one segment in which his guest was a Calle Ocho panhandler.) Thus far, about five months into the broadcasts, most Siete Menos Cinco guests have been musicians and entertainers, because they're the most readily available. "As we continue and more people watch," Barral predicted three months ago, "everyone will be calling us and asking to be on." He wasn't far off. The reason Siete Menos Cinco starts at five minutes before seven is to lure in Spanish-speaking viewers before they have a chance to switch to the nightly rundown of Mexican and Venezuelan telenovelas, beginning on the hour on the other channels. So far, according to TVC deputy manager Eduardo Palmer, "it's our star program" and has been reliably attracting sponsors.

Rolando Barral, born in Havana in 1938, is the son of pioneering writer and director Mario Barral, a prolific author of radio and television soap operas. Rolando got his first acting job at the age of nine, when he pestered the producer of a radio drama to give him an audition. Until he left Cuba in 1962, he was one of the island's most successful leading men in radio and TV. (He became a star on the live radio variety show De Fiesta con los Galanes -- Having Fun With the Heartthrobs -- featuring six of the top hunks of the day.)

As a radio celebrity in Fifties Cuba, Barral was often photographed at promotional events: as one of Los Tres Villalobos (top; Barral is on right); and speaking (Jorge Felix at right) at a Havana school presentation
As a radio celebrity in Fifties Cuba, Barral was often photographed at promotional events: as one of Los Tres Villalobos (top; Barral is on right); and speaking (Jorge Felix at right) at a Havana school presentation

As part of the postrevolution diaspora, Barral became famous as an actor in both radio and television soap operas. He claims to hold the record for acting in the most telenovelas -- 70 -- produced in Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico. By 1977, though not yet 40 years old, Barral was no longer being cast in the best parts reserved for younger actors. "As the years go by, they start moving you into different roles," he explains on a recent afternoon in his office at the TVC headquarters in Doral. "I refused to be the father of the leading lady. So one day I said that's enough of soap operas. You should do what you know how to do at the right time."

In 1977 Barral began a new career: television talk-show host. He says he'd wanted to interview people for a living ever since watching his uncle Don Galaor (his nom de plume) in action. "He was very important at Bohemia (one of Cuba's prominent pre- and postrevolution magazines) -- a specialist in interviews," Barral says. "I admired him so much, and I thought someday I'm going to do that."

The Rolando Barral Show on Spanish International Network (SIN), which later became Univision, was a huge nationwide hit from the beginning. The program was a Spanish-language Tonight Show, though there was no live orchestra -- no Doc Severinsen to banter with and make funky-fashion jokes about. There was just Rolando Barral, who clearly was in his element. During the ten years The Rolando Barral Show was on the air, he estimates he interviewed close to 2000 people, everyone from political activists and screen stars to priests and baseball players. He smiles as he remembers the Calle Ocho panhandler. "He was Cuban, but he always dressed like a Mexican [in serape and sombrero]," Barral remembers. "I was very interested to know how he got his money, what he said to beg, what he did with the money. After about ten minutes, he got mad at a question I asked, I don't remember what it was, and he stood up, pointed a finger at me, and went, ďBang!' and walked out."

Critics started calling Barral "the Latino Johnny Carson," which suited him fine, since he is quick to declare Carson his hero. "[Carson's] ability to conduct an interview was unbelievable," Barral elaborates. "He could think fast; he knew when to stop and when to go on with a person. There's a time to not pursue a subject. I think the most important thing in interviewing is to know when to stop."

In 1984 competitor network Telemundo hired Barral away from SIN with a big pay increase and an additional job as executive producer for Miami's WSCV-TV (Channel 51). The next year, though, Univision stole him back with a $100,000 per year contract -- "at that time the most lucrative contract in the history of Hispanic TV in Miami," according to Barral. He also claims to be the only Hispanic entertainer ("not Ricky Martin, not J. Lo") whose photograph has twice been on the cover of the Miami Herald's English-language TV-guide section.

In addition, Rolando Barral can take credit for bringing Sábado Gigante to the attention of the entire Spanish-speaking world. Sábado Gigante, true to its name, offers a big mix of music, comedy, games, and serious interviews for three hours every Saturday night on Univision. For more than a decade it has been one of the network's most highly rated programs. Host Don Francisco (a.k.a. Mario Kreutzberger) is a celebrity and even has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Interestingly Kreutzberger debuted his own Tonight Show variant, Don Francisco Presenta, on October 10. The hourlong program features a live orchestra and airs every Wednesday at 10:00 p.m. (Two of the Siete Menos Cinco singers now also perform with the Don Francisco Presenta orchestra.)

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