100 Million Viewers — But Do You Know Him?

For 100 million viewers in more than 40 nations, Saturday night means one thing: Don Francisco.

Don Francisco is Latin America's best-known TV personality. As host of the variety show Sábado Gigante, the longest continuously running entertainment program in television history, he is a cultural icon for Spanish-speaking viewers across the Americas. His show has launched the careers of countless Latin stars, and helped fuel the tremendous success of Spanish-language television in the United States.

The three-hour show, whose name means "Giant Saturday," is a wild mix of comedy, music, games, reports and interviews, all held together by the oomph of Don Francisco's boundless energy. The dapper Latin swagger of the often silly, shiny-suited Don — who is in reality a quiet, German-speaking Jew named Mario Kreutzberger — carries his program through goofy, Apollo-style talent segments and audience sing-alongs.

But he also tackles serious subjects that touch on the lives of his viewers. In one segment of the show, Don Francisco pressed New York's Gov. George Pataki to increase the aid given families of Latino workers who died in the Sept. 11 attacks. In another, he discussed illegal immigration with President Bush.

Power of a Cultural Icon

Kreutzberger pioneered the show in Chile in the 1960s, and moved it to the Miami studios of Univision in 1986. The show has helped make Univision the fifth most-watched network in the United States.

"Don Francisco represents 40 million people in this country, and if you don't know who he is, you might not understand what kind of country it is that you're living in," said Univision news anchor Jorge Ramos.

"Every Saturday they tune in and there he is: 'That's the man of Sábado,'" said the show's director, Vincente Riesgo. "Don Francisco gives them the sense of security that they lack as immigrants in a new country."

"It's a bridge between your new world, the United States, and your old world," Ramos explained.

If most non-Spanish-speaking Americans still haven't caught on to the Sábado Gigante phenomenon, politicians have. President Bush invited Kreutzberger to his Texas ranch during the 2000 campaign. In a similar a bid for support from the country's fastest-growing minority, Al Gore also appeared on the show.

The show has launched the careers of countless Latin stars. "It translates into record sales, it translates into performances, and when you're promoting something, it's a very important show," three-time Grammy winner Gloria Estefan said.

Hard Work to Have This Much Fun

Kreutzberger often puts in 12-hour days and six-day weeks, working to make sure the show's humor reflects the tastes of his international audience. To attract the more profitable, younger viewing demographic, the show moves faster, the dancers show more skin, and the younger audience members are seated closer to center stage.

Keeping up with today's channel-surfing audiences is a constant challenge, Kreutzberger acknowledges. "There's a big difference: before and after the remote control. This is like a gun for the viewer. They're sitting in front of a TV set," he said, "and you have to be prepared for that — you have to try to move before the remote control, because you have to have ratings."

Modeled on American TV, Circa 1959

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.