By Chuck Strouse
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Bits range from the bizarre — such as a salsa-dancing dog named Carrie or a professional regurgitator named Stevie Starr who swallows things like billiard balls or light bulbs and then throws them up — to standard human-interest pieces. In 1991, the show featured a 4-year-old Colombian musical prodigy named Cristian Del Real, who played the timbales and said his dream was to meet legendary salsa drummer Tito Puente. The next year, Del Real was invited back on the show to play again, with a surprise guest: Puente.
That people still flock to and love a hokey, old-fashioned throwback is something of a miracle for Univision. Even as new channels and shows are created every day, Sábado Gigante continues to draw fans and keep them.
"Ten or 15 years ago, there were no other choices," Romero says. "But we have a loyal audience."
As the carnival wheel slowly spun, Richard Climent held out hope that his touch had been right. It was December 2000, and Climent was the lucky contestant in Sábado Gigante's game-show segment. If he could get the giant wheel to land on the right spot five times, he'd take home the show's most coveted prize: a brand-new blue Ford Escape SUV.
The 67-year-old Climent stood anxiously next to Don Francisco. From behind his thin-frame glasses, his eyes darted from the spinning wheel to the car and back again. Studio lights glistened off his balding head. In six spins, he'd gotten a car icon four times and a Chacal icon twice. One more car icon and he'd win. One more Chacal and he'd go home empty-handed. Then the wheel came to a stop, and Don Francisco shouted, "He won the car!" Suddenly the stage was awash in lights, applause, and music.
A shocked Climent somehow squeezed out a joke, asking if the show's models came with the car. With a shaky voice, he dedicated the win to his wife, Maria. "I've been with her 40 years, and I hope to God for another 40," he said. Then he paused and added, "Sábado Gigante is the best show I've been on in the last 60 years."
Today, 12 years later, that car sits in a parking space in front of the Climents' beige condominium in a gated community in Doral, just three miles from the Univision studios. Many of its 92,000 miles have been the roadway between home and the Sábado Gigante set. All told, Richard and Maria have been to more than 500 tapings. Just as the show holds the record for longest running, they likely are number one in the fan category. Along with the car, they've won $12,000 in prize money on the show's contests and have met almost every cast member past and present.
"I think it's the top show in Spanish television," Maria says. "There's no other show like it."
The pair is an almost perfect example of Sábado Gigante's audience. The 72-year-old Maria is every inch the abuelita, from her close-cropped auburn bouffant and thinly drawn eyebrows to the ease with which she dispenses advice and suggestions. Now age 79, Richard has gained a slight stoop and lost more of the snow-white hair that fringes his head. They've been married as long as the show has been on the air.
The Climents came to the United States in 1968 from Cuba and settled in Newark, New Jersey, for the next 26 years. There they raised a son and a daughter and grew to love American culture. Maria, in particular, became transfixed by television.
In 1986, she caught the Sábado Gigante broadcast on Channel 41 in Newark. She was immediately hooked. "It's the versatility it has," Maria says. "It's not just musical; it's got games and a human-interest side. It's a program for the family, a complete show."
What keeps Richard and Maria going to tapings? Lots of emotion and something comfortable and established — gentle entertainment.
"For me, going to the show, it's like going fishing," Richard says. "You forget everything that's going on. Fishing was what I loved. Now I have Don Francisco."
Alejandra Espinoza is tall and thin, with smoldering eyes and dark hair that cascades past her high cheekbones and down to her shoulders. In her usual attire of a skintight dress and precarious heels, the 25-year-old stops men dead in their tracks. Backstage at the Sábado Gigante Thanksgiving episode taping, however, she is transfixed by the sight of her huge and fake pregnant belly.
It's the third hour of filming, and the crew is taking a short break. To keep the audience entertained, the producers show a previously filmed comedy skit called "Hospital de la Risa," the hospital of laughs. In the slapstick-heavy bit, a group of cut-up doctors and nurses tries to take care of a pregnant trophy wife, played by Espinoza. No one is paying much attention to the skit backstage, except her. "I'm in this one!" she exclaims, and rushes over to a TV set broadcasting the house feed. Laughing, she watches herself swoon. It's good exposure, she says, on a show that can launch a pretty woman's career in no time.