Javier Romero doesn't notice the dancing midget in the turkey costume at first. Wearing a suit and sitting on a short stool backstage on the set of Sábado Gigante, the 47-year-old Cuban cohost, with a deceptively smooth face and brown hair seemingly sculpted into place, is taking a break. How he manages to find any peace in this cramped and chaotic corner of the set, however, isn't clear.
It's almost 4 p.m. on a Wednesday in mid-October in the vast Univision studios in Doral. Several dozen actors, producers, and stagehands are making Saturday night happen. Today's episode is being taped for broadcast on Thanksgiving weekend, which is why the midget is waddling around looking like someone's dinner. He's now killing time by putting on an impressive display of salsa moves to the sounds of the house band, which is playing at a volume that can be charitably described as deafening. Laughs ripple among the folks backstage, including Romero, who chuckles and shakes his head.
Soon a parade of impossibly tall and attractive women, whose heels are longer than their dresses, scamper past and line up for a makeup check. Five members of a Mexican norteño band, occasionally pumping accordions and tuning guitars, struggle to pin themselves against a wall every 20 seconds or so as someone rushes past. Members of the behind-the-scenes crew, each armed with a mike headset and the day's script on a clipboard, frantically sprint on and off the set or yell directions to the assembled cast. Just past a curtain hung between two sets of bleachers, 200 fans seated in molded plastic chairs clap, sing, and stomp. Amid it all, Romero, who has been on the show for 21 years, reflects on the controlled anarchy.
"It's like a TV circus," he says. "But you get used to it."
Suddenly, the door leading to the set swings open, and the frantic motion of the backstage menagerie halts. The circus's ringleader has arrived.
At 72 years old, Mario Kreutzberger moves slowly, as if his body were dragging him down. His broad shoulders give way to an expansive midsection tucked into a crisp navy blue suit with a bright red tie. Bushy brows and perfectly coiffed brown hair tinged with gray frame his narrow, heavy-lidded eyes. He looks like the aging comandante of a Caribbean island nation, out for a leisurely stroll.
In a slow drawl with a lingering hoarseness, he murmurs greetings to the cast and crew, slapping some on the back and sharing a private joke with others. "Who's in charge of the microphones?" he asks, and in an instant, a wireless mike appears. After about five minutes of waiting, with the audience in a lather and the music threatening to bring down the walls, Kreutzberger gets his cue.
As he strides to the main stage, a transformation takes place. His body straightens and his chest puffs out. His voice turns from a tired growl to a booming, baritone burst of excitement. With every step, Mario Kreutzberger fades away, and the best-known TV personality in the Spanish-speaking world emerges. This is the man who has guided this show from its infancy in Chile to an international phenomenon that has been on the air for half a century. By the time he reaches the stage, beaming with happiness, Mario Kreutzberger is gone, and Don Francisco has emerged. "Welcome!" he bellows in Spanish to the enraptured crowd. "Welcome to Sábado Gigante!"
To white American audiences, Sábado Gigante is a three-hour embodiment of every silly stereotype of Hispanic culture: midgets, buxom women, over-the-top slapstick humor, and music that veers from Mexican country to treacly romantic ballads, all delivered in rapid-fire gibberish. But to Latin America and many Spanish speakers in the United States, Sábado Gigante is a cultural landmark that spans generations and countries. It helped launch the careers of pop stars such as Shakira and Enrique Iglesias and has featured interviews with Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The show has given away hundreds of thousands of dollars and dozens of cars to lucky audience members, reunited lost families, and provided countless abuelitas with something to watch Saturday nights at home.
"Don Francisco is the envy of Hispanic television," says Alejandro Alvarado, an associate professor at Florida International University's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. "The show is a unifier, the dream of any TV producer."
In 2012, Sábado Gigante celebrated its 50th straight year of broadcasting, a feat that seems impossible in an age when most shows are lucky to get four or five years before cancellation. It's the longest-running variety show in television history and has been on the air longer than 60 Minutes, Monday Night Football, and Sesame Street. And those five decades have all been with Kreutzberger at the helm.
But as Sábado Gigante presses on past 50, it faces an uncertain future. The show has declined in viewership since 2005. In 2011, it went under 2.3 million viewers for the first time in a decade. Perhaps worse, the median age of its audience has risen dramatically, from 34 in 1992 to 45 in 2011. Most popular with seniors, middle-aged women, and children, Sábado Gigante has yet to capture the all-important 18-to-32 demographic.
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.
The show quickly grew. At one point, 25 percent of Univision's ad sales were coming from Sábado Gigante, which expanded its presence to Mexico, Central America, and South America. In 1990, the Miami Herald reported that an astonishing 89 percent of all Hispanic households in the United States were watching the show Saturday nights. Celebrities such as Ricky Martin, Selena, Jennifer Lopez, and Marc Anthony appeared frequently, either to boost or start their careers.
The show's constant was Don Francisco, an amalgam of Art Linkletter, Jack Paar, Steve Allen, and most important, Johnny Carson.
"He was an entertainer, a host," Kreutzberger says of Carson. "Being a host was a lot more then than it is today. The host sang, he tap-danced, he told jokes. The one who got closest to that was Johnny Carson, and that's what I loved about him."
A sexual harassment scandal, however, nearly derailed the show in its early years. In 1994, a former Sábado Gigante model named Ana Gomez sued Kreutzberger. She claimed he'd repeatedly fondled and demanded sex from her and even attempted to rape her in a Miami hotel room. Kreutzberger steadfastly maintained his innocence, and the scandal fizzled once the two sides reached an out-of-court settlement later that year.
As the show's popularity continued to skyrocket, accolades accumulated. Kreutzberger was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2001, and four years later he garnered a special Emmy for contributions to Spanish television. In 2006, Guinness World Records recognized the show as the world's longest-running variety program.
Those awards and acclaim helped make Kreutzberger rich. His net worth is estimated to be between $12.5 million and $100 million, according to the website CelebrityNetWorth.com. He resides in Indian Creek, Miami's most exclusive neighborhood, in a $4.5 million mansion that was purchased in 1994. And he has accomplished all of that with a format most TV networks abandoned long ago.
One of Sábado Gigante's most popular segments is one of its simplest: "El Detector de Mentiras," or the lie detector test. In it, a preselected audience member is hooked up to a polygraph onstage and then asked questions, usually regarding some marital infidelity, as his wife or girlfriend worriedly looks on. Part of the fun is watching people squirm under the lights as they try to fool the lie detector. But the audience and cast also love to see the struggles of the test's administrator, a former Miami-Dade police officer named Joe Harper. That's because Harper doesn't speak Spanish so much as he spits it out, one tortured syllable at a time.
For the Thanksgiving episode that's being filmed, Harper must narrate a skit featuring the turkey-costumed midget trying to steal a trumpet, despite the ex-cop's inability to pronounce anything more complicated than hola. Sweating profusely, Harper stumbles over his phrases so often that it requires four takes to get through 15 seconds of dialogue. One word in particular keeps tripping him up: ajuua, a Mexican expression of celebration. Even with Don Francisco walking him through it, the best Harper can manage is a stuttering "ah-joo-wah." As the audience cackles, the director, Vincente Riesgo, moves on from the skit. There are simply too many bits to film to worry about a gringo mastering Spanish.
As Harper butchers his lines, cast members filter in and out of the backstage area, pausing to laugh. Among them is talent-show judge El Chacal, a masked figure who looks like an executioner and is the show's second-most popular character, after Don Francisco. This is an impressive feat for a man who never utters a sound or reveals his face. His trumpet blast during the talent show — the first notes of the song "Charge!" — brings an end to whatever contestant is warbling away onstage, to the audience's delight.
El Chacal never breaks character. Asked how he enjoys being El Chacal, he nods vigorously, gives a thumbs-up, and points to his heart. He's asked whether he can actually play his trumpet. He picks it up and performs a few bars of what sounds like a Miles Davis song. Then he's asked if he ever gets nervous. That touches off a frantic flurry of thumbs-ups, hand clasps, heart pounds, and sky points, like someone crossed Bill Clinton with Jose Reyes. According to a helpful public relations representative, that amounts to, "He doesn't get nervous anymore, but the contestants do."
Sábado Gigante has remained more or less the same since it came to Miami. Along with Don Francisco, there's longtime sidekick La Cuatro, played by Chilean actress Gloria Benavides; Romero, the Cuban cohost; and El Chacal. Then there's the rotating cast of models who present segments, dance, and look pretty.
The format hasn't evolved much either. Any given three-hour show likely includes a comedy sketch, an interview with a celebrity, a musical performance, a singing talent show, and a prize giveaway. There might also be a short travel documentary, a "Kids Say the Darndest Things" bit, or a beauty pageant (which occasionally devolves into an ass-shaking contest).
Each segment lasts seven to nine minutes, no longer than a chipmunk's attention span. Romero explains the rationale: "If there's something you don't like, just wait and it'll change in seven to nine minutes."
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."
The couple decamped to Florida in 1994 to escape the cold. They bounced from Cape Coral to Boca Raton to Miami, and once they arrived in South Florida, their Sábado tradition began.
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.
In its five decades, Sábado Gigante has helped create many careers for its stars and actors. The show has led to anchor positions on news programs, starring roles on telenovelas, and pop music stardom. For the models, a steady role can give them fame in the most popular medium in the world.
Espinoza, for one, never expected to be in television. "I wanted to specialize in plastic surgery," she says. "Medicine fascinates me."
Originally from Tijuana, she planned on moving to Mexico City for medical school. But on a whim, she decided to enter Univision's inaugural Nuestra Belleza Latina beauty pageant in 2007. She won, and as part of the job, she appeared a few times on Sábado Gigante. In 2008, she joined the show as a model. But the role was more than simply smiling on command and holding up products during the in-show advertisements. Don Francisco expected his models to be perfect.
"He would criticize me a lot — that I spoke too fast and didn't pause and didn't breathe, that my voice was nasal," Espinoza says. "I could tell you 20,000 things he's said to me like that."
Lili Estefan, the niece of Emilio Estefan, also knows Don Francisco's tough love. In March 1986, she received a tip from a friend that a new Spanish-language show in Miami was looking for models. Nineteen years old, with sparkling blue eyes and an easy smile, Estefan had recently come to Florida from Cuba and was making money by modeling and appearing as an extra in music videos. The interview at Channel 23 was short and personal: She was simply asked if she liked television, what she knew about being on TV, and whether she'd be willing to travel for the job.
"They never told us what the show was," Estefan says. "They just said they needed models to hold things, sing jingles, and that they'd advertise certain products like they did in the 1960s."
A few weeks later, Estefan was hired. For the next 12 years, she would sing, dance, pitch products, act, and do essentially anything required of her by Don Francisco.
But he poked fun at her large facial features, particularly her nose and mouth. On one occasion, during a segment, he told her not to smile so big, because some of their viewers had small TV screens. Estefan was embarrassed beyond belief and, a few days later, confronted Don Francisco about his crack.
"He told me: 'Everyone knows you're the model with the big mouth and the big smile, and that's not a bad thing,'" she recalls. "He said, 'I think you're a model that the public will really remember.'"
The exposure helped Estefan become a household name. Her modeling work on Sábado Gigante led to a morning radio show, a regular segment on Channel 23's local news broadcast, hosting gigs for beauty pageants, and other jobs. In 1998, she landed a cohosting spot on Univision's daytime celebrity gossip show, El Gordo y la Flaca, marking the end of her Sábado Gigante tenure. "It was inevitable to take the next step," she says. "I cried a lot."
Jackie Nespral also took that next step after three years on Sábado. Like Estefan, she was one of the show's original models. She had also made a name for herself when she was chosen as the Orange Bowl Queen in 1985 and 1986 while a student at the University of Miami.
Nespral had ambitions beyond modeling. After three years with Sábado Gigante, she transferred to Univision's news division. In 1990, she became co-anchor of the network's national news show. She then did a three-year stint on NBC's Today, followed by a lead anchor position back in Miami in 1994 with NBC 6, where she has been ever since. But before beginning her long career in news, Nespral was just a 20-year-old Cuban-American pageant queen who'd never been on the air. Like Estefan, she was an early participant in Don Francisco's TV boot camp.
"Don Francisco would make fun of my Spanish because I was born and raised in Miami and my first language was English," Nespral says. "Because of that critiquing, I took intensive Spanish courses because I knew it wasn't up to par to work news in Spanish."
Even after moving on to a new career, Nespral is amazed at the number of people who remember her from her earliest days on Sábado Gigante. "Still, to this day, I'll get stopped in Little Havana or Hialeah and people will say, 'Oh, it's Jackie from Sábado Gigante!'" Nespral says. "That is the power that show has."
At 10:15 on a muggy Wednesday night in late October, a limo pulls up to a red carpet leading to the doors of Univision's studios. Out steps Mario Kreutzberger, moving slowly and wearing a spotless white suit and gaudy purple shirt, to make his way to Sábado Gigante's 50th-anniversary taping. Fans outside are in a frenzy, chanting his name and singing "Happy Birthday."
A presenter asks Kreutzberger what the past 50 years have meant to him. He pauses and then gives one word: "Life."
As Sábado Gigante heads past its 50th year, the show's fate depends on two things: ratings and Kreutzberger's health.
In the ratings, the toughest figure is the 18-to-34 demographic, which sits at just 22 percent of the show's audience, down from a 20-year high of 31 percent in 2005. "My obligation now is to reinvent myself, do something new and different," Kreutzberger says. "I'm twice your age. How can I speak with you?"
There's little detail about strategy. The show's executive producer, Antonio Arias, speaks vaguely of the need to have "a production team constantly taking the pulse of the viewing audience." He also mentions closed captioning for non-Spanish speakers.
A recent University of Florida study, however, bodes ill for the show. The study notes that bilingual Hispanics under 35 are drawn more to English-language programming than Spanish content. Even worse, those younger viewers have little interest in variety shows from their grandparents' generation.
"Young, bilingual Hispanic audiences are more into sitcoms and reality shows, and that's a problem for Univision," says FIU's Alvarado.
The biggest question on everyone's mind, however, concerns Kreutzberger himself. He is a diabetic with two bad knees. "I'm not going to retire," he says. "They are going to retire me."
Even if that happens, he thinks the show would go on without him. "This format has been useful and modern for 50 years," he says. "Why can't it go on for 60 years? The Tonight Show has had six different hosts, but it's still on the air today."
Before the show reaches 60, however, it has to celebrate 50.
Back at the golden-anniversary gala, celebrities such as Thalia, Paulina Rubio, and Gabriel Soto walk the red carpet.
But the night is stormy and slow. When the taping begins at 8 p.m., select audience members fill three metal bleachers outside the studios. After repeated takes of less-than-newsy interviews — the most common question was a tie between "What are you wearing?" and "How much fun is it to be here?" — a torrential downpour begins. Audience members and celebrities alike crowd under a small overhang. After a short interlude, a second shower sends many people home. Maybe two or three dozen audience members out of an initial 100 stick it out. When Kreutzberger's limo finally arrives, the hardy remaining few cheer like mad.
Then, just as Kreutzberger steps into the studio, the sky opens for a third and final time that night. Everyone rushes home. But Don Francisco makes his way to the set.