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
In its five decades, Sábado Gigante has helped create many careers for its stars and actors. The show has led to anchor positions on news programs, starring roles on telenovelas, and pop music stardom. For the models, a steady role can give them fame in the most popular medium in the world.
Espinoza, for one, never expected to be in television. "I wanted to specialize in plastic surgery," she says. "Medicine fascinates me."
Originally from Tijuana, she planned on moving to Mexico City for medical school. But on a whim, she decided to enter Univision's inaugural Nuestra Belleza Latina beauty pageant in 2007. She won, and as part of the job, she appeared a few times on Sábado Gigante. In 2008, she joined the show as a model. But the role was more than simply smiling on command and holding up products during the in-show advertisements. Don Francisco expected his models to be perfect.
"He would criticize me a lot — that I spoke too fast and didn't pause and didn't breathe, that my voice was nasal," Espinoza says. "I could tell you 20,000 things he's said to me like that."
Lili Estefan, the niece of Emilio Estefan, also knows Don Francisco's tough love. In March 1986, she received a tip from a friend that a new Spanish-language show in Miami was looking for models. Nineteen years old, with sparkling blue eyes and an easy smile, Estefan had recently come to Florida from Cuba and was making money by modeling and appearing as an extra in music videos. The interview at Channel 23 was short and personal: She was simply asked if she liked television, what she knew about being on TV, and whether she'd be willing to travel for the job.
"They never told us what the show was," Estefan says. "They just said they needed models to hold things, sing jingles, and that they'd advertise certain products like they did in the 1960s."
A few weeks later, Estefan was hired. For the next 12 years, she would sing, dance, pitch products, act, and do essentially anything required of her by Don Francisco.
But he poked fun at her large facial features, particularly her nose and mouth. On one occasion, during a segment, he told her not to smile so big, because some of their viewers had small TV screens. Estefan was embarrassed beyond belief and, a few days later, confronted Don Francisco about his crack.
"He told me: 'Everyone knows you're the model with the big mouth and the big smile, and that's not a bad thing,' " she recalls. "He said, 'I think you're a model that the public will really remember.' "
The exposure helped Estefan become a household name. Her modeling work on Sábado Gigante led to a morning radio show, a regular segment on Channel 23's local news broadcast, hosting gigs for beauty pageants, and other jobs. In 1998, she landed a cohosting spot on Univision's daytime celebrity gossip show, El Gordo y la Flaca, marking the end of her Sábado Gigante tenure. "It was inevitable to take the next step," she says. "I cried a lot."
Jackie Nespral also took that next step after three years on Sábado. Like Estefan, she was one of the show's original models. She had also made a name for herself when she was chosen as the Orange Bowl Queen in 1985 and 1986 while a student at the University of Miami.
Nespral had ambitions beyond modeling. After three years with Sábado Gigante, she transferred to Univision's news division. In 1990, she became co-anchor of the network's national news show. She then did a three-year stint on NBC's Today, followed by a lead anchor position back in Miami in 1994 with NBC 6, where she has been ever since. But before beginning her long career in news, Nespral was just a 20-year-old Cuban-American pageant queen who'd never been on the air. Like Estefan, she was an early participant in Don Francisco's TV boot camp.
"Don Francisco would make fun of my Spanish because I was born and raised in Miami and my first language was English," Nespral says. "Because of that critiquing, I took intensive Spanish courses because I knew it wasn't up to par to work news in Spanish."
Even after moving on to a new career, Nespral is amazed at the number of people who remember her from her earliest days on Sábado Gigante. "Still, to this day, I'll get stopped in Little Havana or Hialeah and people will say, 'Oh, it's Jackie from Sábado Gigante!' " Nespral says. "That is the power that show has."
At 10:15 on a muggy Wednesday night in late October, a limo pulls up to a red carpet leading to the doors of Univision's studios. Out steps Mario Kreutzberger, moving slowly and wearing a spotless white suit and gaudy purple shirt, to make his way to Sábado Gigante's 50th-anniversary taping. Fans outside are in a frenzy, chanting his name and singing "Happy Birthday."
A presenter asks Kreutzberger what the past 50 years have meant to him. He pauses and then gives one word: "Life."