Jordan Levin

‘Sábado Gigante’ says farewell after 53 years

"Sabado Gigante" host Mario Kreutzberger, better known as Don Francisco, tapes the final show, which will air Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015.
"Sabado Gigante" host Mario Kreutzberger, better known as Don Francisco, tapes the final show, which will air Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015. EL Nuevo Herald

Sábado Gigante, the quirky, iconic, 53-year-old variety show that has been a fixture for generations of U.S. Hispanics, will broadcast for the last time on Saturday night. As they prepared to say farewell, Sábado’s beloved host, Don Francisco, and his followers looked back on their time together with nostalgia and emotion.

“I started doing this when I was 22 years old, and since then, my whole adult life has transpired,” Mario Kreutzberger (Don Francisco’s real name), told El Nuevo Herald shortly before a taping for Saturday’s show. Kreutzberger, 74, married, raised three children (including a son named Francisco) and had nine grandchildren.

“Through all these years, Sábado Gigante has been another member of the Hispanic family, one that has grown and evolved,” he said.

One member of that multigenerational family is Carlos Raurell of Coral Gables, whose father won a new car on Sábado Gigante in 1992, when Raurell was 16.

“It was one of the most exciting moments in my family’s history,” Raurell said. “I’m especially sad to see [Sábado] go because I will no longer have it as a weekly reminder of my late father.”

A former comedian, Kreutzberger began hosting Sábado in his native Chile in 1962. Univision imported the show in 1986, where it became a key part of the fledgling network’s growth into a major platform for the emerging community of U.S. Hispanics.

“I was looking for the Ed Sullivan show for Hispanics,” Joaquin Blaya, Univision’s president at the time, told the Miami Herald in April, when Univision announced Sábado’s cancelation. A combination of flagging ratings, particularly among young adults, as well as corporate cost-cutting and a shift to younger on-air talent, led Univision to cancel the still-popular show.

“Sábado Gigante” is the longest-running variety show in TV history

Sábado Gigante was a singular take on an old-fashioned variety show, centered on the outsize, jovial persona of Don Francisco. Filmed at Univision’s studios in Doral, there were skits, jokes, audience singalongs and advertising jingles, skimpily clad dancers, a kids-say-the-darndest-things type of segment and another reuniting long-separated families, as well as musical performances from famous and aspiring artists.

In a testament to the show’s cultural clout, Saturday’s broadcast will include a host of famous acts, including Shakira, Marc Anthony, Juanes, Enrique Iglesias and Prince Royce. Daddy Yankee will appear from his concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden, and Gloria Estefan will perform Hasta Siempre, which she and husband Emilio Estefan wrote for the occasion.

The three-hour show has been a comforting ritual to Hispanic immigrants like Surfside residents Zermira Hidalgo, 97, and her sister Dolores, 96, who came to Miami from Cuba in 1971.

“Don Francisco has accompanied us for so many years,” Hidalgo said. “We basically lived from Saturday to Saturday… We are already feeling very sad.”

Sábado Gigante often served as a cultural bridge, whether between different generations in families who watched it together, or into U.S. culture.

“I remember my grandparents and other family in my youth being so thoroughly entertained by it,” said Joe Gato of Miami Beach. “It helped them get along with their lives as fresh immigrants to this country.”

Basil Racuk, 50, was an Americanized teenager when he and his Argentine family moved to Miami from San Francisco in 1980.

“In hindsight, Sábado Gigante was a bridge, connecting me and my parents on a Saturday night,” said Racuk, who again lives in San Francisco. “My parents enjoyed the music and the merriment. I always loved the high camp… I experienced the show as a clearly defined example of Latino pride, unashamed to act nutty and sexy because life is nutty and sexy.”

Kreutzberger takes pride in the impact he’s had on so many lives, even as he wonders what he’ll do without the show that has been the center of his own.

“We’ve launched stars, reunited families and made millions of people smile,” he said. “We’re saying goodbye with our heads held high and the satisfaction of knowing we’ve made history.

“Now I have to start preparing for the last chapter of my life. If I could say just one thing to the audience that has accompanied us all these years, it would be thank you. Thank you so much.”

El Nuevo Herald writer Sandra Palacios contributed to this story. This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at MiamiHerald.com/insight.

FYI

▪ “Sábado Gigante” airs 8 to 11 p.m. Saturday on Univision (WLTV Ch. 23)

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