Mario Kreutzberger was born in 1940, the son of German Jews who fled to South America after escaping the Nazis and the Holocaust. In his Santiago apartment, Kreutzberger still keeps the prison camp uniform his father was forced to wear for two years.
When Kreutzberger was 19, his father sent him to New York for a two-year stint in the garment district to train to be a tailor. Instead, he became a student of television — brewing what he calls a "stew" of American influences that include Johnny Carson, Art Linkletter and Jack Parr.
"My idea was always mixing the programs that I saw in one program," he said. And when he returned home to Chile in 1962, just as TV was beginning to catch on there, Kreutzberger seized his chance to become a television pioneer.
"I went to the station, and I said to the manager, 'Excuse me, but I know more about television than any of you, because I was in New York for two years, and I saw television. Nobody of you saw television,'" he remembers.
The result was Sábado Gigante, which first aired on Aug. 8, 1962, when Kreutzberger was just 21 years old.
A Character and His Creator
Born as a character in a stand-up comedy sketch, Don Francisco was initially a poorly-spoken, well-intentioned immigrant — perhaps a reflection of Kreutzberger's own childhood. But after a radio host recommended Kreutzberger adopt a stage name, Don Francisco grew into the jovial, outgoing, internationally known master of ceremonies still seen on Sábado Gigante 40 years later.
If you spend a few days with him, it becomes clear that Mario Kreutzberger and Don Francisco are two very different people. Shy, deliberate and serious, Kreutzberger is a 61-year-old grandfather, and reflective on his long career in television.
"That relation that I have with the audience is a direct connection with my ego," he said. "Not only myself, but everybody that does the same job. That's difficult when you have to think that one day you have to leave this, and you depend so much. It's part of your soul. It's part of your life. It's part of your body."
As for retirement, Kreutzberger says he will remain Don Francisco until his audience tells him it's time to quit.