Don Francisco prepares for last 'Sábado Gigante': 'I don't think I'll cry'

Mario Kreutzberger is maneuvering his white Land Rover down a one-way street. He's driving slowly one moment, cutting off other cars the next, drawing honks from other motorists.

“These people get mad about everything,” he mutters in Spanish.

Perhaps they wouldn't honk if they knew the man behind the wheel is no ordinary guy, but rather the man who transforms into Don Francisco every Saturday night as host of the longest running variety show in TV history — Univision network's “Sábado Gigante.”

The 74-year-old Chilean-born TV personality, who is Jewish, will be hosting Shabbat dinner on the eve of “Sábado Gigante's” last show that airs Saturday night. A rabbi friend will be in town, and Kreutzberger has hit the streets to personally book him a room at a local hotel.

Other big-time TV personalities would assign this chore to an assistant. But not Kreutzberger — he wants to make sure the hotel meets his standards, and that there's no mistake on the date. A micromanager? Perhaps — but it's this kind of old-school, do-it-yourself ethic that has helped “Sábado Gigante” last more than half a century.

“I don't know how it's going to hit me,” he says of bidding goodbye to the show that occupied more than 2,800 of his Saturday nights. “I don't think I'll cry.”

Others might.

Every so often there's a figure whose indelible mark on a generation of viewers shakes up the TV world by signing off — think Johnny Carson or Oprah Winfrey. Recent years have seen the cycling out of generational pillars such as Jay Leno from “The Tonight Show,” David Letterman from “The Late Show” and Jon Stewart from “The Daily Show.”

Kreutzberger as Don Francisco is just that sort of singular TV figure for the Latino community.

He is known far and wide for his booming voice and clownish persona just as he's known for interviewing political leaders and reuniting families. There are also the zany sketches and bizarre TV characters like El Chacal that have been a fixture inside millions of Latino homes.

For many immigrants and their children, the three-hour weekly program served as a lifeline to the sort of high-energy entertainment of their homeland and served as a unifier for the Latino diaspora. The show also triggered contention from some who viewed Kreutzberger and “Sábado Gigante” as anachronistic and offensive with its parade of scantily clad women and lowbrow contests.

Some of those thorny qualities were on display one recent afternoon during production on one of the final shows (which are a mix of live and pre-recorded segments). Outside the chaos of the production, a carefully coiffed and sharply dressed — though a bit fatigued — Kreutzberger didn't shrug off addressing the criticisms that the show was too coarse, too chauvinistic and too corny.

“The most important critic is the audience,” Kreutzberger said. “If the audience leaves you, that's the end ... But we are human. You do mistakes sometimes. And I did, I'm sure, many mistakes. But we did [the show] with passion.”

Polarizing opinions aside, it seemed as if “Sábado Gigante's” run would be as everlasting as the confetti that often tumbled from its stage.

Its longevity is akin to how “The Simpsons” or “Saturday Night Live” have that eternal quality in the English-language market.

“It has been a very important show and Mario is a very iconic figure,” said Alberto Ciurana, president of programming and content for Univision. “I don't think there is anyone in the world with that stature. … He's huge. So, of course, it's difficult to see that come to an end. It's been an amazing, long ride.”

The shifting viewing habits currently disrupting all of television caught up to the show that's cycled through generations of fans.

Ratings have dropped sharply in recent years among young adults who are prized by advertisers. So far this year, it has averaged nearly 1.8 million total viewers and about 722,000 viewers ages 18-49, according to Nielsen.

But the nostalgic factor is expected to boost the finale's ratings performance Saturday night — the show will be broadcast live simultaneously, for the first time, in the U.S., Chile and Mexico.

As with all of television, technology's influence in viewing behavior, particularly with young viewers, is partly the cause for the disruption. Not to mention, there is a large percentage of bilingual millennials who are increasingly consuming their media in English.

Kreutzberger, whose offstage voice is decibels lower than his alter ego, is quick to note that changes are affecting every network show. He talks of how the viewer disruption has led to too many shrinking budgets.

“It's more and more difficult to do something with a very small budget,” said Kreutzberger. “But that's the reality. Everything has changed. Everybody is looking for viewers from 18-49. And I have the idea that maybe you have to reach the audience over 50. But that's only an idea, so far.”

His primary focus now, he said, is finishing the show that was born out of his fascination with Jack Paar, Art Linkletter and Ed Sullivan during his brief time living in the U.S. in his youth. But it's not as if he needs a rehearsal.

“I think it's the right time.... It's the right, right time,” he said. “We don't want to end when we are not on [top].” He thinks the changes hitting TV will stabilize in a few more years, but for his show “that's too late.”

Planning for the show's retirement was carefully thought out and began after its 50th anniversary in 2012.

Kreutzberger, despite his optimism for more, hinted in a 2012 Times interview that his age was starting to catch up with him.

“In my soul, it doesn't feel like 50 years,” he said. “In my body, I can feel it. I don't have the elasticity that I had 50 years ago.”

Kreutzberger had even toyed with the idea of having his daughter, Vivi Kreutzberger, take over once he retired to carry on the family business.

“Yeah, but my daughter has five kids, she lives in Chile, times are changing,” he said when asked what happened of that plan. “I don't know if that was a good idea.”

Kreutzberger checked his three mobile phones as seamlessly as a millennial , then sat with his eyes closed as if to save up his energy for the audience. After all, they expected to see a boisterous circus leader.

When Kreutzberger finally made his way to the set, production assistants affectionately greeted him as “Don Mario.” He waited in the wings quietly for his cue.

When he was introduced, the Don Francisco switch turned on. And the crowd cheered, just as they always have when his thundering voice calls them to attention.

Across the studio, on the set of Univision's entertainment news show “El Gordo y La Flaca,” host Lili Estefan fought back tears as she discussed the effect “Sábado Gigante” had on the Latino community.

“This is a guy that has a history that is never going to happen again,” said Estefan, who got her start as a model on “Sábado Gigante” when the show made its jump from Chile to Univision in 1986. “He was, at least for me, a rock. It's hard. But that's life. Everything has a beginning and everything has an end.”

Yes, “Sábado Gigante” is over. But Kreutzberger, despite his slowed-down demeanor, doesn't plan to completely retire. He'll host entertainment specials on Univision and will help develop future projects for the network.

Saturday night's finale might strike some as anticlimactic.

Univision executives wanted to give the show a proper send-off that was emblematic of its place not only in the network's history, but its mark on Spanish-language TV.

The network hoped for an elaborate goodbye, with a studio audience in the thousands, to match the hurrah of what the show has come to embody for so many decades.

Kreutzberger said no.

“I have to end the program the same way I always did the program,” he said.

There will be some special guests in the studio that holds 250 audience members. One thing he conceded to was having a crowd of about a thousand people to cheer him on outside.

And on Saturday, he's going to prepare for the live airing, which is being dubbed “Sábado Gigante – ¡Hasta Siempre!” (Giant Saturday – Forever!), just as he always does.

“I don't like to look back,” he said. “I like to look forward ... because back is a story.”

yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

Twitter: @villarrealy

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