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."
Bits range from the bizarre — such as a salsa-dancing dog named Carrie or a professional regurgitator named Stevie Starr who swallows things like billiard balls or light bulbs and then throws them up — to standard human-interest pieces. In 1991, the show featured a 4-year-old Colombian musical prodigy named Cristian Del Real, who played the timbales and said his dream was to meet legendary salsa drummer Tito Puente. The next year, Del Real was invited back on the show to play again, with a surprise guest: Puente.
That people still flock to and love a hokey, old-fashioned throwback is something of a miracle for Univision. Even as new channels and shows are created every day, Sábado Gigante continues to draw fans and keep them.
"Ten or 15 years ago, there were no other choices," Romero says. "But we have a loyal audience."
As the carnival wheel slowly spun, Richard Climent held out hope that his touch had been right. It was December 2000, and Climent was the lucky contestant in Sábado Gigante's game-show segment. If he could get the giant wheel to land on the right spot five times, he'd take home the show's most coveted prize: a brand-new blue Ford Escape SUV.
The 67-year-old Climent stood anxiously next to Don Francisco. From behind his thin-frame glasses, his eyes darted from the spinning wheel to the car and back again. Studio lights glistened off his balding head. In six spins, he'd gotten a car icon four times and a Chacal icon twice. One more car icon and he'd win. One more Chacal and he'd go home empty-handed. Then the wheel came to a stop, and Don Francisco shouted, "He won the car!" Suddenly the stage was awash in lights, applause, and music.
A shocked Climent somehow squeezed out a joke, asking if the show's models came with the car. With a shaky voice, he dedicated the win to his wife, Maria. "I've been with her 40 years, and I hope to God for another 40," he said. Then he paused and added, "Sábado Gigante is the best show I've been on in the last 60 years."
Today, 12 years later, that car sits in a parking space in front of the Climents' beige condominium in a gated community in Doral, just three miles from the Univision studios. Many of its 92,000 miles have been the roadway between home and the Sábado Gigante set. All told, Richard and Maria have been to more than 500 tapings. Just as the show holds the record for longest running, they likely are number one in the fan category. Along with the car, they've won $12,000 in prize money on the show's contests and have met almost every cast member past and present.
"I think it's the top show in Spanish television," Maria says. "There's no other show like it."
The pair is an almost perfect example of Sábado Gigante's audience. The 72-year-old Maria is every inch the abuelita, from her close-cropped auburn bouffant and thinly drawn eyebrows to the ease with which she dispenses advice and suggestions. Now age 79, Richard has gained a slight stoop and lost more of the snow-white hair that fringes his head. They've been married as long as the show has been on the air.