"Sabado Gigante" celebrates its 50th anniversary this week. The hit variety show might be ubiquitous, but little is known about the man at the center of this pop culture phenomenon: Don Francisco himself.
For starters, his real name is not Francisco but Mario Kreutzberger, and he started the show in Chile, not in the U.S.
I had the rare chance of visiting Kreutzberger at his Miami home recently. He is warm and intelligent, and makes it clear there is a line that divides Mario Kreutzberger the man to Don Francisco the icon -- one is private, human, the other one is energertic, perfectly coiffed, always smiling. However, one thing remains constant: he is a master interviewer and a good listener, even when he is the interviewee.
Kreutzberger was born in Chile in 1940 to German Jewish parents who fled Europe after World War II. His father, Erick, was a Holocaust survivor. In his 20's, Kreutzberger traveled to New York to become a tailor at the wish of his father, who wanted his son to work at the men's clothing store he owned in Santiago.
However, immediately after arriving in New York, Kreutzberger became mesmerized by American television. It's hard to imagine it now, but Don Francisco could've ended up as a Chilean version of Oscar de La Renta if a certain Johnny Carson had not piqued his interest. He spent two years watching and absorbing everything on American TV and upon his return to Santiago, Kreutzberger sold a game show idea to Chilean TV, a nascent industry at the time.
"Sabados Gigantes", plural, as the show was called, launched in 1962 in Chile's Channel 13, and 24 years later, Univision brought it to the U.S.
His ties to Chile remain tight -- he travels there once a month to carry on a mission dear to his heart, the telethon he started 35 years ago inspired by Jerry Lewis's own. With the funds he has collected through the years, his organization Fundación Teletón has built 11 centers for handicapped children in Chile; raising $60 million last year alone.
For Kreutzberger, the 50th anniversary of "Sabado Gigante" marks a double milestone in his life—he's also celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary to Teresa "Temmy" Kreutzberger, with whom he has three children and nine grandchildren. In their plush Miami home, Temmy has built a whole room dedicated to her husband's work (off limits to our cameras, however).
There are glass displays containing the numerous awards he's received through the years and tables with framed photos with every Chilean president, including Pinochet, and countless artists. The walls are lined with carefully compiled books containing every news clipping that has ever appeared about the show, making this the most comprehensive "Sabado Gigante" museum and Mario Kreutzebrger library.
Even though he filmed the first episode of "Sabado Gigante" way back in 1962, instead of relishing his success, these days Kreutzberger is preoccupied with introducing a new formula to the three-hour show.
"It's like renovating a house. All the interior walls will be torn down but the exterior will remain the same," he says. He didn't go into specifics about those changes, but he and the show's producers are experimenting with fresh co-hosting talent, perhaps in a move towards his eventual retirement date.
It's inevitable to bring up his retirement -- at 72, Kreutzberger has been hosting the longest-running show in television according to the Guinness Book of World Records. It's hard to imagine the program without Don Francisco; the two concepts seem inseparable. Kreutzberger stresses, however, that he's not ready to retire yet, unless his public, ratings or mental capacity say otherwise.
As I followed Kreutzberger during his morning exercise around his gated community with his trainer, he was recognized by a crew of Hispanic landscapers. "Trabajando fuerte muchachos?" Working hard boys? said Kreutzberger in his unmistakable Don Francisco intonation, seamlessly channeling his TV host persona. "Si, Don Francisco!" flashing smiles across their faces and thumbs up in the air.