Saturday Night's All Right for 'Sabado Gigante'

Dec. 7, 2006— -- Even if you don't know his name, millions of Americans consider him one of the biggest stars in the world. And many say that if you do not know who he is, you might not understand what kind of country you're living in. He's been called "Spanish Television," and "The Face of Latinos." He's known simply as Don Francisco.

His weekly variety show on the Univision network is called "Sabado Gigante," Giant Saturday. Watched in dozens of countries, the program draws close to 100 million viewers; that's more than "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," "The Late Show with David Letterman" and "The Oprah Winfrey Show" combined.

It also holds a world record -- the longest running entertainment show in TV history according to "Guinness World Records": 44 years since it first premiered in Santiago, Chile.

Now the three-hour extravaganza is produced out of Miami, Fla. But since the start, Don Francisco has set the tone. Whether he is singing, dancing or interviewing, he is always center stage. The fans wouldn't have it any other way.

For the uninitiated, "Sabado Gigante" is a hybrid game show, talent show and variety show, all of which Francisco directs and participates in.

Attention Must Be Paid

Politicians already understand the reach of his show. Who did President Bush invite to his Texas ranch during the 2000 election? Don Francisco. And once in office, Bush extended an invitation to his new home. Don Francisco is a channel to communicate with the largest minority in the country.

Though millions love the show, it has also generated detractors. Critics have called the show campy and cheesy, and they say it's especially disrespectful to women. They argue that women are portrayed as simply sexual beings, especially the dancers and the backup models, who are often skimpily dressed.

Their brand of provocative dance catches the attention of many male viewers -- even those who don't speak Spanish and just catch a peek while channel surfing.

Don Francisco told me on ABC News Now's Hispanic news program "Exclusiva" that it's all much simpler. "Now there are critics for everything. When you are more traditional you don't think that it's a bad use. We are using the beauty of women, that's what we are using ... and we have to be surrounded by beauty."

Ironically, although Don Francisco is arguably the best known television personality in Latin America, his first language was not Spanish and his real name does not even sound Hispanic.

Francisco's Surprising Life

Don Francisco is really Mario Kreutzberger, born in 1940, the son of German Jews who had fled to South America after escaping the Nazis and the Holocaust.

Mario keeps his father's prison camp uniform, a uniform he wore before a lucky escape. And with it Mario retains the memories of an immigrant's childhood, growing up in Chile, his adopted country.

According to The Jewish People Policy Planning Institute there are about 21,000 Jews in Chile today, fewer than the 185,000 in Argentina and 97,000 in Brazil.

The plight of European Jews who fled to South America brought Don Francisco to his latest project -- producing a documentary with some survivors and their families. Set to be released first in Chile, Don Francisco hopes it will give his audience a look at a part of history that he says is "very difficult to talk about." It will be a look at the Holocaust through the eyes of Hispanic Jews.

That's a long way away from the fun, colorful and loud show millions enjoy every Saturday night -- "Sabado Gigante."

For more on the headlines and issues from around the Hispanic world, read David Puente's blog, Exclusiva.