Don Francisco: 1940—: Television Show Host Biography
Few television personalities have been as enduring and beloved as Don Francisco, the host of the weekly Spanish-language variety show Sabado Gigante. Debuting in 1962 in Chile, the show offered light comedy, music, and audience contests in a variety-show format centering on the genial and reassuring personality of its emcee. A mainstay of Chilean television for decades, Sabado Gigante relocated to Miami in 1986 and made its national debut in the United States on the Univision network the following year. Retaining its original format, Sabado Gigante proved as popular in the rest of the Latino world as it had been in its home country and became Univision's biggest hit. With an estimated 100 million viewers in thirty countries, Sabado Gigante indeed made Don Francisco into one of the best-known television personalities in the history of Spanish-language television.
The man behind the character of Don Francisco was born Mario Kreutzberger Blumenfeld on December 28, 1940, in the South American country of Chile. Kreutzberger's parents had emigrated to the country from Germany in the 1930s when, as Jews, their lives came under threat by the Nazi regime under Adolf Hitler. His mother had been a promising classical vocalist and his father worked as a tailor; both parents passed along their vocations to their son. His mother encouraged him to sing, and although the shy young man enjoyed performing in a neighborhood theater group in Santiago, where the family lived, it was not until he created the comical character of Don Francisco that he felt at ease performing. His father, who owned a menswear shop in Santiago, encouraged his son to follow in his trade and sent Kreutzberger to New York City around 1959 to study fashion design.
Kreutzberger spent two years in New York City, but most of his attention was focused on pursuing a new interest that he discovered there: television. "In my humble hotel room was something I never saw before: a radiant screen that you could watch and listen to at the same time," he told Jordon Levin of the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service in 2000, "It was my first television. When I saw that, I said, 'My father was wrong. This is the future.'" After returning to Chile, Francisco spent a year learning the technical side of television production at Channel 13, located at the Catholic University in Santiago, the country's capital. Putting together a variety show of skits, interviews, contests, and music, Francisco debuted Sabado Gigante (Giant Saturday) on August 8, 1962, in a fittingly stupendous eight-hour format. "It was my idea to make the program like a soup, to melt everything inside," Francisco recalled to Levin, adding, "People like change. When I started in TV, there was no remote control. So the idea was to try and do the remote control in people's minds." Although the length of the program was later reduced to a more manageable three hours, its format stayed essentially the same for the next forty years.
Sabado Gigante rapidly became the most popular program on Chilean television and Don Francisco became one of the most popular celebrities in the nation of 13 million people. Over time Francisco developed into a pop culture icon and his popularity endured despite the upheavals that transformed his native country in the 1960s and 1970s. Although Chile had enjoyed relative tranquility and a democratically elected civilian government through 1973, a military coup allegedly engineered by the Central Intelligence Agency against President Salvador Allende, a Communist who was elected to office in 1970, plunged the country into a period of repression. After General Augusto Pinochet took power and established a right-wing, anti-Communist dictatorship, the country enjoyed little political freedom or other civil liberties until his departure from office in 1993. Ruthless and corrupt, the Pinochet regime was responsible for the disappearance and presumed murders of an estimated 3,000 of its citizens.
Given the tense atmosphere, Francisco steered clear of political topics on Sabado Gigante. In 1978, however, he inaugurated a major philanthropic effort with his National Telethon to raise money to help crippled and ill children. The twenty-seven-hour telethon, which appealed to watchers for donations, became an annual event on the first weekend of each December. The telethon raised Francisco's profile even further, as sociologist Maria Elena Valenzuela commented in a Boston Globe profile in 1985, "He's an omnipotent, semireligious figure who bestows gifts on people, and the poor can live the miracle as their own.… Everything in Chile is divided and tense, but Don Francisco unites people and makes them feel they have a chance."
After marrying the former Teresa Muchnick in 1962, Francisco and his wife raised one daughter, Vivian, and two sons, Francisco, and Patricio, in Santiago. In 1986, however, Francisco's career took a dramatic turn when Chilean native Joaquin Blaya, then head of the Miami-based Spanish-language Univision network, offered him a spot on the broadcast schedule. Filming Sabado Gigante in both Miami and Santiago, Francisco shuttled back and forth between the two cities for the first seasons of production. The hectic schedule paid off when the show became an instant hit. By the end of its first season Sabado Gigante was Univision's highest-rated show and was watched by an estimated 43 percent of Hispanic viewers in the United States. Eventually the show was broadcast in 30 countries and claimed a viewership of 100 million people. In 1991 Francisco relocated full-time to the United States, where he lived in a large home in an exclusive neighborhood in North Miami Beach. He also continued to travel around the world promoting Sabado Gigante and filming segments for the show.
The success of Sabado Gigante allowed Francisco to branch out into other television projects. In 1991 he appeared in Noche de Gigantes (Night of Giants), an interview show that featured Hispanic celebrities, singers, and comics. After cutting Sabado Gigante to just three hours, Francisco added Fiesta Gigante, another hour-long variety show, to the Univision line up in conjunction with his first show. He also continued to secure commercial endorsements for products ranging from Mazola Oil to American Airlines to Ford automobiles for his shows. Demonstrating the potency of Francisco as a commercial pitchman, his image was used beginning in 1998 to promote the launch of the Puerto Rico-based Banco Popular credit card in the United States. Chosen because his name and face were universally known and trusted among Hispanic consumers, Francisco's popularity among advertisers such as Banco Popular also demonstrated the power of the growing Hispanic consumer market. Already the largest ethnic minority in several Sunbelt states, Hispanic Americans were predicted by the U.S. Census Bureau to become the largest minority group in the United States no later than 2004.
As the largest Spanish-language network in the United States, the Univision network beamed Sabado Gigante into 90 percent of Hispanic-American homes by 2002, when Francisco marked the fortieth anniversary of his television career. Although he was still an inveterate traveler who claimed to have visited every region of the world except for a few remote places, Francisco reflected long enough on his success to write Entre la espada y la TV, published in English as Don Francisco: Life, Camera, Action, in 2002. The book was the second installment of Francisco's autobiography and traced the development of Sabado Gigante into a global broadcasting phenomenon.
Still conducting the National Telethon in Chile every year—with the exception of 1999, when the country held its presidential elections—Francisco was lauded for his television success and philanthropic efforts in 2001 when his name was added to the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles. The event brought out one of the largest turnouts of fans that Walk of Fame organizers had ever seen and demonstrated that Fran-cisco's international appeal had yet to ebb. Perhaps the secret to his success was best described by Francisco himself in a 1995 interview with Norma Libman of the Chicago Tribune, "If you scratch a little under the surface you will find people are similar everywhere, even if they look from the outside completely different," he commented. "There are differences in color, in religion, in culture, but everybody wants a good life, they want to build a family, they want to have a job and be successful, even in the Communist countries."
American Banker, October 19, 1998, p. 13.
Billboard, February 26, 2000, p. 8.
Boston Globe, December 16, 1985, p. 2.
Chicago Tribune, July 31, 1988, p. 3; October 7, 1991, p. 5; June 25, 1995, p. 20.
Críticas, July/August 2002, pp. 13, 44.
Daily Variety, June 14, 2001, p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter, February 22, 2000, p. 47.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, June 5, 2000, p. K4418.
Los Angeles Magazine, August 2001, p. 24.
People, September 2, 1996, p. 61.
San Francisco Chronicle, June 8, 1998, p. E2.
Variety, November 1, 1999, p. M22.
"Biografía Don Francisco," Sabado Gigante, www.gi gante.com/usa/biografia.shtml (March 29, 2003).