Mar 29, 2004  •  Post A Comment

How is it that a man of German-Jewish extraction wound up being just about the biggest star on Spanish-language television? Mario Kreutzberger-better known to millions of fans as Don Francisco-has for 42 years hosted “Sabado Gigante” (“Giant Saturday”), a three-hour (7-10 p.m. ET) variety show now carried on Univision Network.
Think about it. When Mr. Kreutzberger stepped into the spotlight in August 1962, President Kennedy was alive, the Beatles had not yet appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and the top TV shows on American television were Westerns.
The series has aired for so long it was certified last year by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s longest-running variety show.
Although its ratings have waned somewhat over the years, “Sabado Gigante” remains one of the most popular Univision programs. The show is produced in Miami before a live audience.
“It is a unique type of program-like a soup, really. The ingredients are almost the same every week, but the way we mix them up changes,” Mr. Kreutzberger said from his home in Santiago, Chile, where his family settled in the 1930s after fleeing Nazi Germany.
Each week more than 100 million viewers in 42 countries tune in to watch an eclectic mixture of music, comedy, guest stars and audience participation skits, spiced up with a couple of female co-hosts. But it’s not all about fun. “Sabado Gigante” gets its share of political visitors, including Mexican President Vicente Fox and, during the 2000 U.S. presidential campaign, candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore.
Magaly Morales, who covers Hispanic television for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Ft. Lauderdale, said “Sabado Gigante” is a bit too hokey for sophisticated younger-adult viewers. “The show should have been off the air a long time ago, in my opinion, but it has a steady, loyal audience,” she said.
Mr. Kreutzberger began the program in his native Chile, where it aired for a quarter-century before Univision picked it up in 1986. Between “Sabado Gigante,” a weekly talk show and an annual telethon he hosts to raise money for disabled children, Mr. Kreutzberger figures he has put in the equivalent of about 600 days’ worth of TV face time, traveled 3 million miles, hosted more than 1.5 million audience members and doled out $50 million in prizes.
Now 63, Mr. Kreutzberger figures he can keep up the pace for at least another three to four years.
“Forty-five years, that’s my goal, but it depends, of course, on my health, the ratings, lots of things,” he said.