By Ryan Yousefi
By Chuck Strouse
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Then there's the matter of how much longer Kreutzberger will be the host, even as he promises to run it until he dies. When there's no longer a Don Francisco, there might no longer be a Sábado Gigante.
But today, basking in the applause of the audience, Kreutzberger isn't concerned about the future. He takes the stage for the 2,466th time in his career, leading the audience in a sing-along, clapping, and roaring the words. His circus must go on.
It's easy to miss Kreutzberger's office in the Univision studios. Tucked amid a maze of cubicles, the room belonging to the network's most famous face isn't much bigger than a walk-in closet. At one end is a white leather couch with a coffee table and two chairs. At the other is Kreutzberger's desk, surrounded by books, framed pictures of himself with various celebrities, and a shelf lined top to bottom with model cars.
Dressed in a white tracksuit and a pink checkered shirt, Kreutzberger looks like an aged Italian uncle at a family picnic. His hair, normally lustrous onscreen, is slightly rumpled and streaked with gray, and deep bags hang under his eyes. There's no sign of Don Francisco, except in the ease with which Kreutzberger speaks, perfected by years of addressing cameras and audiences. Instead, he's the tristón, the sad man, who wears the countless 12-hour days on his face and rarely sees his wife of 50 years, Teresa, or his three children.
"This isn't just work," he says. "This is a passion. You have to have a passion for this."
As a boy, Kreutzberger never expected to become Don Francisco. He was born December 28, 1940, in Talca, Chile, to German Jewish parents who had fled Germany just a year earlier to escape the rising tide of anti-Semitism.
His father, Erich, was a tailor, and his mother, Anna, was an opera singer. Anna, who lost her chance at a singing career when the Nazis began to impose harsh restrictions on the country's Jews, encouraged her son to pursue music. "I studied all the instruments — guitar, piano, accordion, trumpet," Kreutzberger says. "I didn't have the ability for it."
Nevertheless, when Mario was 10, Anna secured a scholarship for him to attend Chile's National Conservatory, where he studied music and theater. He enjoyed acting, but it wasn't until age 14 that an instance of racial violence spurred him to choose a career in the arts. In the streets of Santiago, a group of older boys surrounded Kreutzberger and then taunted and hit him. He recounted the conflict in his 2002 autobiography, Entre la Espada y la TV.
"After punches and shoves, I fell to the ground," he wrote. "I felt a number of kicks all over my body... 'So you're a Jew? Now you're going to get it,' another one said, as I felt them pull my hair."
A quiet and withdrawn child, Kreutzberger responded to the beating by becoming outspoken and brash. He began telling jokes in class and saw his popularity rise. Determined to shed his reputation as a meek Jewish schoolboy, Kreutzberger soon found himself enjoying the attention of others.
"From there, everything changed for me," Kreutzberger wrote. "I began to consider the possibility of dedicating myself to acting as a passion."
At age 16, Kreutzberger left school and began to work in his father's clothing shop while spending his free time studying acting at a local club. At 19, he headed to New York City to learn more about the garment industry — his father hoped Mario would take over the small family business. Knowing only a few words of English, young Mario arrived in America on a cold morning in January 1960 and checked into the Hotel Stanford at 32nd Street and Broadway.
There he made a discovery that would change his life. "In the room, I found a bed, a nightstand, and a table, next to a radiator," he wrote. "Under that, there was a refrigerator. In the back, I could see, through an open door, the shower in the tiny bathroom. What didn't mesh with the furniture was the giant and ancient radio, with a pane of large black glass in the middle."
The radio with the screen was a TV set, the first one that Kreutzberger had ever seen. Entranced, he turned the knobs and was surprised to see pictures fluttering on the glass. "It was like stepping onto another planet," he wrote. "It was love at first sight.'"
In New York, Kreutzberger watched hours of television every day for almost two years. He returned to Chile determined to make a career in this new medium, and in the summer of 1962, he persuaded executives at Santiago's Channel 13 to give him a two-hour block on the then-unoccupied and unwatched Saturday night. He christened the show — a variety format featuring games, comedy, and drama — Sábados Gigantes and gave himself a stage name: Don Francisco. The character was based on something he'd come up with as a teenager in a Jewish theater club.
The first episode was broadcast August 8. It continued every Saturday night, except for one week in 1974 when Kreutzberger's mother died. The show grew from an upstart experiment to the most watched production in Chile. At one point, Don Francisco was on the air for eight hours straight on Saturdays. In 1985, he was approached by executives from the Spanish International Network (SIN), the precursor to Univision. SIN wanted Kreutzberger to create a new Saturday-night show in the United States, filmed in Miami, the epicenter of Hispanic media. On April 12, 1986, Sábado Gigante began airing on Miami's WLTV, Channel 23.