By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
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.
"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."