Sabado Gigante at 50

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In New York, Kreutzberger watched hours of television every day for almost two years. He returned to Chile determined to make a career in this new medium, and in the summer of 1962, he persuaded executives at Santiago's Channel 13 to give him a two-hour block on the then-unoccupied and unwatched Saturday night. He christened the show — a variety format featuring games, comedy, and drama — Sábados Gigantes and gave himself a stage name: Don Francisco. The character was based on something he'd come up with as a teenager in a Jewish theater club.

The first episode was broadcast August 8. It continued every Saturday night, except for one week in 1974 when Kreutzberger's mother died. The show grew from an upstart experiment to the most watched production in Chile. At one point, Don Francisco was on the air for eight hours straight on Saturdays. In 1985, he was approached by executives from the Spanish International Network (SIN), the precursor to Univision. SIN wanted Kreutzberger to create a new Saturday-night show in the United States, filmed in Miami, the epicenter of Hispanic media. On April 12, 1986, Sábado Gigante began airing on Miami's WLTV, Channel 23.

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.

The show's constant was Don Francisco, an amalgam of Art Linkletter, Jack Paar, Steve Allen, and most important, Johnny Carson.

"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.

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Jon Tayler
Contact: Jon Tayler