TV

From the Herald archives: What's shaking Saturday night?

By ANA VECIANA-SUAREZ

Miami Herald Staff Writer

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Miami Herald on Dec. 6, 1986.

It is preen time at the television studio. The smell of hair spray and perfume wafts through the bathroom as five women, an assortment of spray nozzles in hand, get ready for a brief moment of glory. Lips pucker for a dab of color. Hands guide brushes through hair, teasing here, fluffing there.

"I drove all the way from Pompano Beach to Miami for this," said Margarita Ramos, 28, waving her mascara wand. "I took the day off from work and tried to relax. Maybe, just maybe, somebody out there is watching and I'll get discovered. It happens."

On television, anything can happen. And on Sabado Gigante, the Saturday night game show on Spanish-language WLTV-Channel 23, contestants such as Ramos, who entered a modeling contest, dream it will.

Only seven months old, the program is the latest craze among South Florida's Hispanics. It's Phil Donahue mixed with David Letterman blended with Let's Make a Deal, The Price is Right and The Gong Show. And it's three hours long, beginning at 8 p.m.

This is a show where the audience sings catchy commercial jingles written by the host, who is a Chilean mimicking the way his Cuban audience speaks. This is a program where two masters of ceremonies, three models and a 12-piece band lead old women and teen-age boys in the Mueve la colita (Move your tail) dance. At the first strains of music, the 225 people in the studio audience jump to their feet, shake their hips and clap their hands as cameras zoom in on wriggling posteriors.

"Sabado Gigante (Giant Saturday)!" proclaims host Don Francisco (in real life, Mario Kreutzberger). "The best pretext to stay home."

For Channel 23, Sabado Gigante is the best pretext to sell the station. According to the station, 176,000 households in Dade -- 70 percent of all Hispanic homes with television -- tuned in at some point during Arbitron's October rating period. Until now, only novelas (soap operas) had topped the ratings for the station.

When it is syndicated to other stations next July, it will be the first national Spanish-language game show in the United States.

Producers say the program owes much of its success to contests, where even losers win gift certificates. "People," explained Kreutzberger, "like to defy their own shyness."

The goofier the contest, the better. On one recent show, newlyweds were given the chance to win cash if they alternated standing up each time Don Francisco mentioned "Sabado Gigante" in a conversation. The contestant who stood up then had to recite a tongue-twisting rhyme.

When the couple missed twice, Don Francisco asked sarcastically: "Are you still out in the stratosphere?"

The crowd laughed. When they stumbled over the rhyme, he looked straight at the husband and stage-whispered: "Come on, tell us, how many hours did you sleep last night?"

The crowd roared their approval. In the end, the couple won $600.

The most popular contest is La Gran Oportunidad (The Great Opportunity), where aspiring actors, singers and others show off their talents in Sabado Gigante's version of The Gong Show. Usually -- and mercifully -- such displays last but a few seconds. Some fall victim to El Chacal, a hooded, black-clad trumpet player who toots his horn to express his displeasure. Unlike network game shows, Sabado Gigante's contests are sprinkled between interviews with soap stars and celebrities to maintain the momentum through the three hours of the show.

Bert Delgado, a professor of television production at Florida International University, watches the show regularly: "I would give it a B or a B-plus. They're doing a lot of things right. It's entertaining, the games are funny, and it's a completely different approach from what we are used to."

It is also financially successful. When the program began in April, it had seven sponsors. It now has 17 and a waiting list. The station used to charge $500 for a 30-second spot and $2,000, plus $1,000 in gifts to contestants, for audience- participation jingles. Both rates have doubled.

Marc Collins, general manager of Braman Honda, became a sponsor because he liked the idea of an audience singing jingles for his company.

"I was flipping the dial one time and I saw this show," Collins said. "I couldn't understand what was going on, but I heard the audience singing a Gus Machado jingle. I said to myself, 'I want them to sing for us.' "

Sabado Gigante is a condensed version of a show that Kreutzberger has hosted in Chile for the past 25 years. Kreutzberger approached Channel 23 with the idea at the right time -- the station was looking for a game show after its audience survey revealed viewers wanted one.

But Miami's program is different from Chile's. There, a single episode of Sabados Gigantes (in plural form) lasts six hours and 50 minutes, has fewer contests and more interviews.

"I would like to see the Miami show move to a more- journalistic approach, but what I like is not always what the audience likes. The audience here likes to see themselves on the show, because Hispanics are not represented in any of the other game shows," said Kreutzberger.

Kreutzberger is an indefatigable combination of Monty Hall and Bob Barker. He makes a 10-hour plane trip from Chile every 20 days. Before he leaves his country, he must have all the shows for the month taped. When he arrives here, he must start all over again -- taping four or five shows during the week-long stay in Miami.

Sabado Gigante is taped four days a month in the studios of WPBT-Channel 2 in Northeast Dade. A three-hour show can take more than 10 hours of production, and Kreutzberger and Channel 23 staff have often put in 12-hour days to finish taping for the upcoming Saturday show.

"This is total craziness. I don't know how long we can keep this pace," he said with a smile.

Kreutzberger describes himself as shy and quiet. But on camera, his voice and mannerisms -- loud, expressive and opinionated -- carry the show. Between breaks, he is staid and reserved, rarely talking to the audience.

When aspiring model Ramos, in a baby-blue bathing suit and four-inch heels, must do a commercial for a contest, Kreutzberger prods and jokes and interrupts until she stumbles over some of the words, giggling beyond control. The audience claps in  delight.

"I have a camera personality," Kreutzberger explained. "As soon as the light goes off, something happens, the feeling leaves me. It's like having two personalities. I know some people in the audience must think I'm a liar or a hypocrite. But that is not it. When the lights go on and the camera rolls, I'm a different person."

Station manager Alfredo Duran said Channel 23 was initially concerned about Kreutzberger. "I was worried how Mario, a Chilean, would come across with the Cubans, who are so nationalistic."

He was accepted immediately, nationality aside.    Taping doesn't always go smoothly. Someone muffles a line or misses a cue, forcing segments to be retaped. The studio audience doesn't seem to mind. Most have waited in line for free tickets, which are given out on a first come-first serve basis. Between takes, the band plays and women shout, "Mueve la colita, Pedro," (Move your tail, Pedro).

The show has a special appeal to children, because kids are featured in contests and interviews.

Victor Vega has brought his 7-year-old son Jose to two contests on Sabado Gigante. Each time, Vega has spent four hours sitting in the audience waiting for his son to perform with other children, usually in a segment that lasts less than 10 minutes.

"I enjoy it, but I really do it for him because it means a lot to him. It's the only show in Spanish that he watches," Vega said.

Rolando Barral, the show's second emcee, has starred in several soaps and interview programs on Channel 23. His face appears on billboards and commercials for a variety of products.

"I've done a lot of different things," Barral said. "But when people recognize me on the street now, they yell, 'Mueve la colita.' "

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