Javier Romero doesn't notice the dancing midget in the turkey costume at first. Wearing a suit and sitting on a short stool backstage on the set of Sábado Gigante, the 47-year-old Cuban cohost, with a deceptively smooth face and brown hair seemingly sculpted into place, is taking a break. How he manages to find any peace in this cramped and chaotic corner of the set, however, isn't clear.
It's almost 4 p.m. on a Wednesday in mid-October in the vast Univision studios in Doral. Several dozen actors, producers, and stagehands are making Saturday night happen. Today's episode is being taped for broadcast on Thanksgiving weekend, which is why the midget is waddling around looking like someone's dinner. He's now killing time by putting on an impressive display of salsa moves to the sounds of the house band, which is playing at a volume that can be charitably described as deafening. Laughs ripple among the folks backstage, including Romero, who chuckles and shakes his head.
Soon a parade of impossibly tall and attractive women, whose heels are longer than their dresses, scamper past and line up for a makeup check. Five members of a Mexican norteño band, occasionally pumping accordions and tuning guitars, struggle to pin themselves against a wall every 20 seconds or so as someone rushes past. Members of the behind-the-scenes crew, each armed with a mike headset and the day's script on a clipboard, frantically sprint on and off the set or yell directions to the assembled cast. Just past a curtain hung between two sets of bleachers, 200 fans seated in molded plastic chairs clap, sing, and stomp. Amid it all, Romero, who has been on the show for 21 years, reflects on the controlled anarchy.
"It's like a TV circus," he says. "But you get used to it."
Suddenly, the door leading to the set swings open, and the frantic motion of the backstage menagerie halts. The circus's ringleader has arrived.
At 72 years old, Mario Kreutzberger moves slowly, as if his body were dragging him down. His broad shoulders give way to an expansive midsection tucked into a crisp navy blue suit with a bright red tie. Bushy brows and perfectly coiffed brown hair tinged with gray frame his narrow, heavy-lidded eyes. He looks like the aging comandante of a Caribbean island nation, out for a leisurely stroll.
In a slow drawl with a lingering hoarseness, he murmurs greetings to the cast and crew, slapping some on the back and sharing a private joke with others. "Who's in charge of the microphones?" he asks, and in an instant, a wireless mike appears. After about five minutes of waiting, with the audience in a lather and the music threatening to bring down the walls, Kreutzberger gets his cue.
As he strides to the main stage, a transformation takes place. His body straightens and his chest puffs out. His voice turns from a tired growl to a booming, baritone burst of excitement. With every step, Mario Kreutzberger fades away, and the best-known TV personality in the Spanish-speaking world emerges. This is the man who has guided this show from its infancy in Chile to an international phenomenon that has been on the air for half a century. By the time he reaches the stage, beaming with happiness, Mario Kreutzberger is gone, and Don Francisco has emerged. "Welcome!" he bellows in Spanish to the enraptured crowd. "Welcome to Sábado Gigante!"
To white American audiences, Sábado Gigante is a three-hour embodiment of every silly stereotype of Hispanic culture: midgets, buxom women, over-the-top slapstick humor, and music that veers from Mexican country to treacly romantic ballads, all delivered in rapid-fire gibberish. But to Latin America and many Spanish speakers in the United States, Sábado Gigante is a cultural landmark that spans generations and countries. It helped launch the careers of pop stars such as Shakira and Enrique Iglesias and has featured interviews with Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The show has given away hundreds of thousands of dollars and dozens of cars to lucky audience members, reunited lost families, and provided countless abuelitas with something to watch Saturday nights at home.
"Don Francisco is the envy of Hispanic television," says Alejandro Alvarado, an associate professor at Florida International University's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. "The show is a unifier, the dream of any TV producer."
In 2012, Sábado Gigante celebrated its 50th straight year of broadcasting, a feat that seems impossible in an age when most shows are lucky to get four or five years before cancellation. It's the longest-running variety show in television history and has been on the air longer than 60 Minutes, Monday Night Football, and Sesame Street. And those five decades have all been with Kreutzberger at the helm.
But as Sábado Gigante presses on past 50, it faces an uncertain future. The show has declined in viewership since 2005. In 2011, it went under 2.3 million viewers for the first time in a decade. Perhaps worse, the median age of its audience has risen dramatically, from 34 in 1992 to 45 in 2011. Most popular with seniors, middle-aged women, and children, Sábado Gigante has yet to capture the all-important 18-to-32 demographic.