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
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

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.

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 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, “Bang!' 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 Presentaorchestra.)

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.

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 telenovelaand 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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