TELEVISION : He’s the Giant : Don Francisco dominates ‘Sabado Gigante,’ a 3 1/2-hour extravaganza seen by 6 million in the U.S. and millions more in Latin America

<i> Ivan Scott is a free</i> -<i> lance writer and broadcast journalist based in Washington</i>

It’s 2 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon. Inside Studio A at Univision’s modern production complex, the audience of 400 has just been ushered in. Most are in their 30s or 40s, but there are a few older people and some in their teens and early 20s. All are well-dressed--the men in jackets and ties, the women in suits or dresses. Many have been waiting outside in the sun since early in the morning. They are anxious, expectant.

“Having fun? Isn’t it great to be here? Now, here’s how we do it,” says longtime Spanish crooner Tomas de San Julian. His title: Animator de Publico . His job: Warm up the audience and, more importantly, teach them the words to the commercial tunes that they will be asked to sing during the broadcast. “Maestro, please.” Orchestra leader William Sanchez hits the downbeat and the musicians, all in tuxedos, strike up a toothpaste jingle. After a couple of rehearsals, De San Julian is satisfied and he tells the audience that the show will begin in a moment.

Backstage, the small dressing room is crowded and busy. Lily Estefan, Ana Gomez and Maty Monfort are putting the finishing touches on their makeup. The three help with various segments of the program and pitch products on camera. “And this is the co-host of the show,” Monfort says, introducing a visitor to Javier Romero, the handsome young announcer.

Hearing the title “co-host,” a man sitting like a pasha in the back of the dressing room rolls his eyes upward incredulously. He’s smiling, but the meaning is clear: There is no co-host. There is only one “top banana” here and it’s Don Francisco. He’s the giant of “Giant Saturday,” or, as it’s known throughout the Spanish-speaking world, “Sabado Gigante.”

Don Francisco, 50, is relaxed as the makeup artist applies the finishing touches. There’s no need to rush. The taping won’t begin until he is ready. When he is, he enters the studio from the rear, unseen by the studio audience until he suddenly is among them, shaking hands and engaging in small talk.


Floor director Antonio Menchaca waves, and Don Francisco takes his place onstage. Menchaca has been with Don Francisco for 25 years, as has the show’s musical director, Valentin Trujillo. Don Francisco is like a true Don: He takes care of those loyal to him. “Three, two, one,” Menchaca counts down, and he cues Don Francisco.

“Good evening to all my friends from coast to coast in the United States and, through the facilities of Univision, in Central and South America. Welcome to another international edition of ‘Sabado Gigante.’ ”

Every Saturday night, “Sabado Gigante” is televised throughout the United States on the Spanish-language Univision network, and to 16 countries in Central and South America via satellite. Ratings show that more than 6 million people watch the program in the United States, 1.1 million of them in the Los Angeles area on KMEX Channel 34, and countless millions more in Latin America.

What is “Sabado Gigante,” and why is it so popular? It’s roughly a 3 1/2-hour television extravaganza every Saturday night. “Roughly,” because the show often runs over as much as five or ten minutes--and the network doesn’t cut it. With the exception of sporting events, what show on ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox would be allowed to get away with that?

“Sabado Gigante” is a mix of the best and worst of English-language television, with a heavy dash of Don Francisco originality. It’s a game show, an interview show, a show with comedy skits and routines, a show that showcases jugglers, sword swallowers, fire-eaters, magicians and other circus-type performers, and it’s a show that has the top singers and dancers of the Latin world strutting their stuff--for free. “Sabado Gigante” is so big and so hot that it’s a required stop for Latin entertainers. The only money that changes hands is for expenses.

It’s light fare, but it also has a serious side where Don Francisco discusses issues with visiting experts. On one program earlier this year, for example, he spent nearly 10 minutes with a Univision reporter from Los Angeles, Sara Garibay, talking about the homeless in Los Angeles, many of whom are Latino. Garibay had lived four days on the streets with the homeless and she talked in detail of their plight.

Don Francisco, whom Joaquin Blaya, the president of Univision, calls “one of the great showmen of the world,” knows that his Saturday-night extravaganza is watched by families, from children to grandparents, and he offers “a little something for everybody.” Twenty-nine years on the air in Chile helped him hone his craft and create a mix of entertainment and schmaltz that makes for successful television.

Asked what would happen if Don Francisco became ill and had to leave the show, Blaya replies, “We’d be in big trouble. ‘Sabado Gigante’ is Don Francisco.”

At 6 feet, 1 inch tall and an out-of-shape 210 pounds, Don Francisco is charming, easygoing and introverted when not “on,” and a perfectionist and extreme extrovert while performing. He says he loves work, his family and the power to be able to communicate. He views “Sabado Gigante” as a service, and he says he would work for nothing rather than give up performing. His stated dream is to have a show seen in every country of the world where Spanish is spoken.

He was born Mario Kreutzberger in the small city of Talca, Chile, on Dec. 28, 1940. His Jewish parents fled Nazi Germany and went to Chile because they couldn’t get visas for the United States or their second choice, Argentina. As Kreutzberger says, “There weren’t many options for Jews in those days.”

While he was a boy, his family moved to Santiago, where, until he was a teen-ager, he had what he says was a normal childhood. But during his teen-age years, he was badly beaten by schoolmates one day--because he was a Jew, he says. From that day on, he determined to succeed, whatever the costs.

When Kreutzberger was 20, his father sent him to New York to study fashion design. But he had no appetite for it, and instead of concentrating on clothing, he spent hours consuming television. In fact, he couldn’t get enough. He later said it helped him with his English, but from what came later it’s clear he was definitely hooked on Jack Paar and Art Linkletter.

When he returned to Santiago two years later, television was just arriving in Chile, and he wanted in on it. He went knocking on the doors of Chilean producers and finally hooked up with one who was looking for a host for a variety show. When an executive suggested that Kreutzberger was a strange name for an entertainer, he chose as his professional name the stage name of an old comic who used to perform in a nightclub in Santiago, and “Sabado Gigantes” was launched in 1962. It has been running in Chile ever since.

Through TV, and some shrewd investments, Kreutzberger today is a rich man. He has a home in Santiago, a 99-acre ranch in the Chilean countryside where he grows grapes and other fruit, and a Miami residence in posh Grove Isle, an expensive development in the Coconut Grove section of the city. In Chile, he owns a fruit-shipping business and a department store chain.

By Hollywood standards, his private life is boring. He doesn’t smoke, drinks only a little wine, has been married to the same woman for 29 years and adores his family. They have two sons and a daughter, all grown. The daughter is pregnant with twins. Kreutzberger is also a bit of a stoic: He says he embraces a philosophy that a man’s role is to be born, to struggle and to die. That may account for his addiction to work.

In addition to taping one series in Santiago and another in Miami, he has now embarked on a third: 13 two-hour talk shows that Univision will air this fall. If they work, the show will run nightly in 1992. It will be called (what else?) “Noches Gigantes” (or “Giant Nights”). The plus side of the venture is that Don Francisco can communicate with even more people and make more money for himself and Univision. The downside is that he will have to give up his show in Chile. That bothers him greatly but, as Blaya says, “If he wants to stay alive, he’ll have to move to Miami.”

“A si, Asi, como mueve la colita .” The studio audience of 400 recognizes the music and begins clapping and cheering wildly. Don Francisco beams at the camera and waves his arms in rhythm. The director cuts to the audience, which, in unison, is turning its back to the camera. Four hundred men, women and children are shaking their rear ends, or colitas , at the camera.

This is vintage “Sabado Gigante” and an integral part of Don Francisco’s formula for success: “The show must be relevant, it must have participation and it must have interaction with the audience.”

“Sabado Gigante” has all three, with perhaps the most important element being the interaction of the studio audience with Don Francisco and the show’s commercial representatives.

Though the show is taped in advance, that interaction gives “Sabado Gigante” the verve and excitement of live television. It also spawns the main criticism of the show. Critics have labeled “Sabado Gigante” as 3 1/2 hours of commercials, interrupted by moments of entertainment.

There are a lot of commercials. The show is sold out, with a long waiting list of hopeful sponsors. Fourteen of the top 15 U.S. sponsors advertise on “Sabado Gigante,” including Colgate-Palmolive, Coca-Cola, American Airlines, General Foods and Procter & Gamble. Unlike most English-language television, “Sabado Gigante” is sold in 5- to 10-minute segments instead of 30- or 60-second spots. Also, the commercials on “Sabado Gigante” are a combination of live-sell and videotape, with the studio audience helping to peddle the products. Each sponsor has an identifying jingle, which is taught to the studio audience before that segment of the show is taped. Then, on cue, the audience comes on camera, weaving back and forth to the music and singing the words.

“Most Anglo television today is dull and boring,” says executive producer Antoni (Cuco) Arias. “That’s not the case with ‘Sabado Gigante.’ ”

Basking in the unqualified success of “Sabado Gigante,” Joaquin Blaya is a happy man. He is also from Chile, and he’s the man who gave Don Francisco his start in the United States.

“They thought I was crazy,” he says, referring to Hallmark Cards Inc., the owner of Univision. “They couldn’t believe I wanted to put on a show as expensive as ‘Sabado Gigante,’ and with a talent then unknown outside of Chile. Maybe I was, but I was younger and more foolish then and I didn’t know any better.”

“Sabado Gigante” began as a local show on Miami’s WLTV in the spring of 1986, and it went network in January, 1987. Blaya won’t tell how much “Sabado Gigante” brings in, or how much Univision charges for each commercial on the show. All he’ll do is smile and say, “Univision is now very solid financially.”

(With projected gross sales of $234 million this year, maybe so, but last year Univision almost filed for bankruptcy. Hallmark bought up the junk bonds that were forcing Univision toward Chapter 11 and saved the network. Blaya says that with that burden removed, Univision will make money now.)

Univision is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, although Blaya believes that figure is misleading. Until 1987, Univision was SIN, the Spanish Information Network, which broadcast novelas and other programs exclusively produced in Mexico and Latin America.

“We got tired of seeing Latin kitchens and bathrooms,” he explains. “We wanted kitchens and bathrooms that looked American.” Many shows produced in Latin America are out of touch with the American way of life, he argues. “We must produce American shows in Spanish if we are to successfully attract second- and third-generation Hispanics.” Univision now produces 41% of its programs at its state-of-the-art production facility in Miami.

The principal competition is Telemundo, a rival Miami-based network that also produces much of its own programming. Telemundo owns seven television stations (including KVEA Channel 52 in Los Angeles) to Univision’s nine; it has 32 affiliates to Univision’s 35, and it is carried by about 300 cable systems in this country, compared to 546 that carry Univision.

A third Spanish-language program service is Galavision, headquartered in Century City. Seen in Los Angeles on KWHY Channel 22, it gets all of its programming from the Televisa network in Mexico and is aimed primarily at Mexican-Americans in the West.

Blaya stresses that Univision is not a Spanish TV network, but an American TV network broadcasting in Spanish. He insists that the distinction is paramount to the mission of Univision. “We are not in competition with the other networks and stations broadcasting in Spanish,” Blaya contends. “We are in competition with all TV networks and stations in the U.S.”

The key problems he wrestles with constantly are how to win over, or win back, the Latinos who watch mostly English-language television, and how to appeal to the diverse Spanish-speaking audience--people from Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Central and South America. “Don Francisco and ‘Sabado Gigante’ do it,” Blaya says. “I’m convinced you do it by offering quality programs.”