Sabado Gigante at 50

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The Climents came to the United States in 1968 from Cuba and settled in Newark, New Jersey, for the next 26 years. There they raised a son and a daughter and grew to love American culture. Maria, in particular, became transfixed by television.

In 1986, she caught the Sábado Gigante broadcast on Channel 41 in Newark. She was immediately hooked. "It's the versatility it has," Maria says. "It's not just musical; it's got games and a human-interest side. It's a program for the family, a complete show."

The couple decamped to Florida in 1994 to escape the cold. They bounced from Cape Coral to Boca Raton to Miami, and once they arrived in South Florida, their Sábado tradition began.

What keeps Richard and Maria going to tapings? Lots of emotion and something comfortable and established — gentle entertainment.

"For me, going to the show, it's like going fishing," Richard says. "You forget everything that's going on. Fishing was what I loved. Now I have Don Francisco."

Alejandra Espinoza is tall and thin, with smoldering eyes and dark hair that cascades past her high cheekbones and down to her shoulders. In her usual attire of a skintight dress and precarious heels, the 25-year-old stops men dead in their tracks. Backstage at the Sábado Gigante Thanksgiving episode taping, however, she is transfixed by the sight of her huge and fake pregnant belly.

It's the third hour of filming, and the crew is taking a short break. To keep the audience entertained, the producers show a previously filmed comedy skit called "Hospital de la Risa," the hospital of laughs. In the slapstick-heavy bit, a group of cut-up doctors and nurses tries to take care of a pregnant trophy wife, played by Espinoza. No one is paying much attention to the skit backstage, except her. "I'm in this one!" she exclaims, and rushes over to a TV set broadcasting the house feed. Laughing, she watches herself swoon. It's good exposure, she says, on a show that can launch a pretty woman's career in no time.

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.' "

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Jon Tayler
Contact: Jon Tayler