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January 17, 2013

Mario Kreutzberger, a.k.a. Don Francisco

Laura Martinez

When Mario Kreutzberger was nineteen years old, his parents — German-Jewish immigrants living in Chile after escaping the Nazi regime — sent him to New York City with hopes that the young man could become a successful tailor. But as soon as he set foot in the $7-per-night hotel room in Manhattan’s garment district, he came across a contraption that would change his life: It was a radio, Kreutzberger recalls, quite similar to the one he would listen to at home in Chile, except this one featured a glass window.... “It was a radio that could actually be seen.”

As Kreutzberger recalls, his initial contact with a television set was nothing short of love at first sight. “I thought my dad was wrong. [Being a tailor] was not the future. This thing was the future...and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Fifty-three years later, not only has he been a part of it, Kreutzberger (better known as Don Francisco) has broken television records worldwide as host of Sábado Gigante, a three-hour weekly extravaganza that celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2012. Recognized by the Guinness Book of Records as the longest-running variety television show in the world — a new episode of Sábado Gigante has been produced each week throughout its history with no reruns — it has aired non-stop for 2,600 consecutive weeks, beating the thirty-year stint of Johnny Carson as host of The Tonight Show.

First conceived in Chile in 1962, Sábado Gigante today airs on Univision on Saturdays, and its host has shown up to work religiously every week, missing only one Saturday in 1974, when his mother passed away.

Today the show continues to deliver healthy ratings, pulling in an average of 2.9 million total viewers, and is currently the top-ranked regularly scheduled program on Saturday night (broadcast or cable) among Hispanic adults eighteen to forty-nine. It is estimated that Sábado Gigante is watched weekly in forty-two countries across the United States, Latin America, Canada and Europe.

Mario Kreutzberger Blumenfeld was born on December 28, 1940, in Talca, Chile. His parents had emigrated to the country from Germany in the 1930s. His mother had been a promising classical vocalist and his father worked as a tailor. Both parents had encouraged their son to become a professional, and although he didn’t become a singer, as his mom would have liked, nor a tailor, as his dad would have preferred, he knew early on he would make a career in show business.

Indeed, several years before his fateful trip to New York City, a very young Kreutzberger loved to entertain the crowds at a comedy club in Chile. Among his most popular acts was the impersonation of a character named Don Francisco, a Jewish man who didn’t know how to speak Spanish. And when the young entertainer was invited to a joke competition by a local radio station — and won — the host pulled Kreutzberger aside and asked him point blank: “Don’t you have another name by any chance? I cannot pronounce that thing...and neither will the rest of the people!” And so the moniker Don Francisco was forever adopted.

“I ended up winning [the joke competition] and since I am a very superstitious man, I thought the name Don Francisco would bring me luck, so I kept it,” says Kreutzberger.

It was under the newly adopted name of Don Francisco that Kreutzberger became the host of a modest TV variety show in 1962, a show first known by the slightly different name of Sábados Gigantes (Giant Saturdays). Sábados Gigantes was an instant hit in Chile and, over time, began attracting other Latin American audiences. In 1986, Kreutzberger came to the U.S. and was invited by the Spanish International Network (now Univision) to broadcast from Miami.

“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Sábado Gigante is the most important television show ever produced for the U.S. Hispanic market,” says Joaquín Blaya, the Chile-born executive who, as CEO of Univision in 1986, decided to bring the show to the U.S. (He first met Don Francisco when he himself tried his luck as a young singer on Sábados Gigantes.) “None of this would have been possible without someone as hardworking and disciplined as Mario.”

Once in Miami, the challenge for Sábado Gigante and its host was to address a larger audience, and to keep the relevance of the show among Hispanics from all walks of life. “I knew each culture was different, so we needed to look for topics that would resonate among all Hispanics, not only from those coming from a specific country,” says Kreutzberger. He was also aware his U.S. show had to have a strong Mexican component, as more than 60 percent of Hispanics in the U.S. are of Mexican origin. Don Francisco started using more neutral Spanish, speaking less Chilean and more Latin American.

Explaining Sábado Gigante to a non-Spanish speaker is no easy feat. The weekly show is a mix of live game show, skit comedy and musical entertainment. It features scantily clad Latinas dancing around and touting their wares onstage, but it has also included interviews with world leaders, including former U.S. President George W. Bush and Vicente Fox of Mexico and, more recently, President Barack Obama. “I like to tell people that my show is part Letterman, part Carson, part Larry King and even part Jack Paar,” says Kreutzberger.

In the mainstream, Sábado Gigante has inspired its share of live spoofs of Latino television on shows including Saturday Night Live and The Soup. And while younger generations of Latinos might dismiss it as antiquated, or better suited for their parents or grandparents, it has an indisputable place in U.S. Hispanic culture, bringing together millions of Latinos every week that see the show as a kind of glue that keeps them together, regardless their country of origin.

“You can say anything about Sábado Gigante, but the show and its host have been key to the growth of the U.S. Hispanic market,” says Luis Miguel Messianu, president and Chief Creative Officer of Alma, one of the nation’s top Hispanic advertising agencies, which regularly uses Sábado Gigante and Kreutzberger as platforms to pitch products and services to the Hispanic demographic.

“We owe it to Mario Kreutzberger for putting U.S. Hispanics on the map,” says Messianu, whose clients — State Farm and Pepsi among them — are regular advertisers on Sábado Gigante.

Indeed, Sábado Gigante is also an advertiser’s dream come true. Throughout his fifty years on television, Don Francisco has helped pitch dozens, if not hundreds, of brands to its millions of viewers worldwide. The show has capitalized for years on the product-placement trend, inserting ads for firms that range from Dell Computers to Coors Light, Coca-Cola and the Ford Motor Co. Unlike other variety shows that claim to seamlessly and subtly integrate a brand within a sitcom or a telenovela, Don Francisco does it bluntly, often inviting a live audience to join him in singing an advertiser’s jingle.

As Don Francisco, Kreutzberger has interviewed a wide range of people, from the smallest man on Earth to world leaders and Hollywood personalities. He has been a guest of honor to the assumption of seven Chilean presidents and received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in 2001.

And while he estimates he has done more than 50,000 interviews throughout his career, he still has one more goal to accomplish: To launch a television network targeting senior citizens, going beyond what most TV outlets currently do, which is to cater to the eighteen-to-forty-nine crowd. “I want to have a TV chain for people ages fifty and over,” he says.

In addition to hosting Sábado Gigante, Kreutzberger also hosts a one-hour weekly show called Don Francisco Presenta, a more serious interview-only show, also on the Univision Network. Additionally, Kreutzberger created Teletón, a charity telethon for physically disabled children that this year raised more than $50 million for children throughout the Americas. He is also the president of the International Organization of Telethons, a group dedicated to improving the quality of life of the disabled, and is the Latino spokesperson for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Unlike most people his age, Kreutzberger does not think of retirement. In fact, when asked about retirement, Kreutzberger refers to what he himself calls a clichéd, overused phrase: “I don’t think you retire yourself, you get yourself retired. In my case, I’ll be retired by the ratings, or by my own physical and intellectual endurance.”
But now? No reason to think about it — he’s at the height of his career.

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