The Giant of Sábado Gigante
Don Francisco, Chilean son of Holocaust survivors, marks 50 years hosting the wildly popular variety TV show
This fall, the wildly popular Spanish-language television show Sábado Gigante (Supersize Saturday)—seen by millions of Hispanics around the world for two hours every Saturday afternoon—celebrates its 50th anniversary. This makes it, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest-running variety show in the history of television.
For those who haven’t seen it, Sábado Gigante offers light entertainment that at times borders on the ridiculous and, at other times, on the inspiring. There are contests and games, a standing competition for a Ford Fiesta, parodies, music, and a beauty contest called “Miss Colita,” along with moving personal life stories and discussions of controversial political issues like immigration. And although the show is lighthearted entertainment, politicians worldwide recognize that it is a potent conduit to the growing political power of the Latino voting bloc.
All of which makes Don Francisco, the show’s popular host, something of a prophet. His instinct regarding the entertainment needs of Latinos has been sterling ever since he landed in America. In terms of popularity, Don Francisco easily bests Bob Barker, with much greater international reach and an innate ability to predict the desires of viewers. (“100 Million Viewers—But Do You Know Him?” crowed ABC’s Nightline.) He is friends with Latino luminaries like Gloria Estefan, Daddy Yankee, Sofia Vergara, Ricky Martin, and Andy Garcia, as well as President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry. He has a Hollywood star and also hosts a serious interview show, Don Francisco Presenta. He has been interviewed, parodied, imitated, and feted.
But behind the comical and somewhat silly TV persona is in fact a rather serious and somber son of German Jewish Holocaust survivors, Mario Kreutzberger Blumenfeld. Kreutzberger’s passion for making an audience laugh was born at the Maccabe Club in Talca, Chile, where he created the first Don Francisco character, a German-Jewish recent arrival named “Don Francisco Ziziguen González.” Although Kreutzberger’s father had sent him to New York to learn the trade of tailoring and follow in the family business, he returned with an obsession with television. Shortly after, in 1962, Kreutzberger began his show on Channel 13 in Chile. Twenty-five years later, he was gigante.
Part reality TV show, part Saturday cartoon, part Barbara Walters, Sábado Gigante is packaged to provide viewers with escape and comfort from labor and reconnection with countries left behind. It is designed to smoothly assuage the intangible yet recognizable feeling of being in the precarious position of belonging to an embattled minority in the United States. Kreutzberger excelled at this task in part because he had seen his parents struggle with the same feelings in Chile.
On the air, Don Francisco is known to his audience as a kind of jovial “gordito,” a bit of a fat macho, always laughing, always poking fun at himself and at others. But when I called his office in Miami, he soberly introduced himself as “Mario Kreutzberger Blumenfeld,” using the Latin American tradition of putting the father’s surname first.
His parents, Erich Kreutzberger and Anna Blumenfeld Neufeld, escaped to Chile from Germany in 1938, the day after Kristallnacht. Anna and her mother were able to sail from Hamburg to England and then to “this strange and foreign land” called Chile. Erich Kreutzberger was not so lucky. Though the facts are obscured by Erich’s refusal to talk about his experiences, he spent time in a concentration camp. When he was liberated he first went to London and then to Chile. As was the case with many European Jews fleeing to South America from Germany, the Chilean government welcomed them but with certain stipulations: They had to live outside the urban city of Santiago, the capital. The Kreutzbergers were thus relocated to Talca, about 150 miles outside of Santiago. At the time, Talca was a rural area without a Jewish community, and even today most of Chile’s approximately 20,000 Jews live in Santiago.
Because of the persecution his father faced in Germany, including the destruction of his tailor shop, Kreutzberger said that his father was restrained when it came to raising his two sons Jewish in Talca. Although they both had bar mitzvahs and celebrated Shabbat, Kreutzberger believes that they were given their names, Mario and Rene, to help them assimilate into their environment. His father never spoke of his life in Germany—as if fearing that if he exhibited any real passion it would infect or taint his children’s future in Chile. He wanted them to fully assimilate and be Chilean above everything. Like many Holocaust survivors, Erich never spoke of his time in a concentration camp or life in Germany.
As the son of immigrants who left everything behind, Kreutzberger is proud of his success in the United States. “I came here like Christopher Columbus,” he told me. “I hosted the first production made in the United States that ran for 52 weeks.” But, he added, there are two things that make him even prouder: Fundación Teletón Chile and Testigos del silencio. He started his Jerry Lewis-like telethon in 1978 to raise funds for children with neuromuscular disorders, including cerebral palsy. According to Kreutzberger, the telethon raises millions of dollars each year and has helped over 80,000 children in Chile. He is also extremely proud of his 2005 documentary Testigos del silencio, or “Witnesses of Silence,” which retraces his father’s journey from a small town on the border of Germany and Poland to a concentration camp and then to Chile. It was meant to pay homage to his father and the millions who died in the camps, but also to Kreutzberger himself, his Judaism, and his inherited past as a son of Holocaust survivors.
The documentary is solemn not only because of the subject matter but because Kreutzberger is so dramatically different here than in his TV persona: “For the first time ever,” he says in the documentary, “instead of being in front of the camera, I will be the camera.” His narration in this documentary, initially meant only for his family and close friends, is subdued. With a certain sense of discomfiture, Kreutzberger told me that it took him most of his life to come to terms with this history and his father’s persecution not only because his father did not share his story but also out of fear of opening old wounds. In fact, to this day Kreutzberger knows very little about his father’s ordeal. He does not know the name of the camp in which his father was interned, he does not know if he escaped or was released. He does not know how he secured passage to England and then on to Chile.
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