Timing is everything

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

Back in the Sixties and Seventies, Kreutzberger hosted a Sábado Gigante-like program in Santiago de Chile, his home. Barral watched when he was in Venezuela and thought it had great possibilities as a network variety show. In 1985 a Telemundo station in Puerto Rico contracted Barral to host a live program called Super Sabados. The next year Barral introduced Kreutzberger to WLTV-TV (Channel 23) general manager Joaquin Blaya, a fellow chileno, and proposed an even bigger, better version of Kreutzberger's Chile product, to be called Sábado Gigante.

Despite Blaya's reservations about Kreutzberger and his show, according to Barral, Blaya decided to make the newcomer and the established star cohosts. At the same time Barral continued his nationwide talk show on Univision, as well as his Saturday programs in Puerto Rico. Every Sunday morning Barral jumped on a jet to Santo Domingo to host a similar seven-hour live show on a government-owned station.

"Rolando and I were partners at the beginning," remembers Kreutzberger. "Because I was a complete unknown and he was a big star at the moment in Miami, the proposal was sharing with him half and half. After about sixteen or twenty weeks, I got a new proposal from [Blaya] that I stay with the show and they'd give another show to Rolando." It doesn't appear their parting was entirely amicable; the two men didn't stay in touch, and today neither has anything complimentary to say about the other.

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

In January 1988, as Kreutzberger was quickly becoming a household name throughout Latin America, Barral's career came to a crashing halt. He was arrested in Miami for cocaine possession. Univision took his show off the air. That May Barral pleaded no contest to the drug charge and was sentenced to a year's probation and ordered into rehab. He never returned to his former heights in network TV. Today it's rare to find anyone who wants to talk about that time; Barral doesn't and, with a detachment learned from hard knocks, seems to regard his downfall as one of many stages in the course of his remarkably long career.

Certainly it wasn't the end: Barral never lacked for work. He signed on with Miami's Radio Suave (WSUA-AM 1260) to do a talk show. Then the wealthy Chicago-based, Cuban-born television executive Marcelino Miyares contracted Barral for a series of talk shows to be produced at Miyares's Times Square Studio in New York. That was where Geraldo Rivera taped his controversial audience-participation program, and TV con Barral followed the same general format -- without the fistfights. Barral completed about 40 programs, which were syndicated.

In 1989 he moved to Venezuela to work on a telenovela and a miniseries being produced by his friend and long-ago costar, Cuban actor Jorge Felix. Meanwhile Barral continued to remote-tape his Radio Suave show. He also worked in TV soaps and miniseries in Puerto Rico. In 1990 he returned to the talk-show format with another Rolando Barral Show on Miami cable network HIT-TV. Then the next year a one-hour special, Barral Hoy (Barral Today), aired on Channel 51. "I'm very excited about this," Barral told El Nuevo Herald. "It's like a rebirth for me." Throughout the Nineties Barral, as customary, kept several projects going, including production duties at WQBA-AM 1140 (then La Cubanisima) and commentaries on Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710). He also began an ongoing position with Natural Vita, a vitamin and natural-foods manufacturer, appearing in and producing TV infomercials.

With Siete Menos Cinco Barral again is reborn, and at this point in his life and artistic development, he's entitled to do it His Way. He doesn't make any oversize claims for the new show, but he is clearly proud of the quality of the production and its audience reception up until now, even if it is broadcast on a minor cable channel.

On one of his earlier Sietes, toward the end of July, Barral hosted Twister, a Brazilian boy-band, one of the new multitude of 'N Sync imitators, replete with spiky frosted hair, earrings, and all-Latin good looks. The boys had some talent, which Barral acknowledged (they actually sang live in the studio), and he didn't mind joking with them about show biz and the availability of adoring young women as they went about their travels.

After a bow to the pretty packaging of youth, Barral brought on a guest who, like him, has had to reinvent herself more than a few times. The Cuban singer and actress Mirta Medina also performed a song and then settled herself like a cat in the chair next to Barral's desk. They touched on a few obligatory Cuban themes, such as the future without Fidel. But Medina, who is now in her forties and pressing on after starting in show business as a teenager, expressed more interest in the most elemental of human concerns: love, family, the passage of time. "I still feel ten years old inside," she exclaimed, looking like an ingenue with her wide brown eyes under a fringe of blond bangs.

"I think all human beings, despite all their troubles, all the years that pass, have this sense of youth inside," she continued. "But I've really worked hard to accomplish the things I did. I've always been outgoing, always had a lot of friends. And here a lot of people have supported me and helped me. It's been like that with you; you're sencillo, an open person. You're still accomplishing things because of the kind of person you are." That brought applause from the crew, as did Medina's subsequent admission that she's been married ("papers and everything") five times.

"Pero," she concluded, displaying her right leg, most of which was visible through a mesh panel that ran the whole length of her black pant leg, "Estoy libre en este momento." But I'm free right now.

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