You know how it goes, a married German-Jewish couple escapes the Holocaust by emigrating to Chile, gives birth to a child in their new homeland, and sends him off to learn the family tailoring trade in New York. Said child falls in love with American television and before you know it, he becomes a Latin American icon by hosting the longest-running variety show in history, that old chestnut.
Mario Kreutzberger, best known as his television alter-ego Don Francisco, ends not only an unprecedented 53-year run hosting the unapologetically campy Sabado Gigante variety show tonight, but the show itself as well. While iconic hosts like Johnny Carson were ultimately replaceable, Don Francisco’s shadow looms so large over Sabado Gigante that there was nary a thought given to an idea as sacrilegious as replacing the man who became a multi-generational cultural touchstone for the Latino diaspora.
Up until 1986, however, Don Francisco and his show were a distinctly Chilean phenomenon. He spoke with a native’s accent and geared his show accordingly, even when it came to politics. An exception came, according to his autobiography, when General Augusto Pinochet seized dictatorial control of Chile in 1973 and demanded Kreutzberger announce his seizure of power on air. Somehow, Kreutzberger convinced Pinochet that it would be inappropriate for a mostly comedic figure to make so serious an announcement.
That brush with politics entrenched Kreutzberger’s practiced centrism and carried him on through the show’s post-1986 rise to cultural primacy with Univision. Sabado Gigante moved from Chile to Miami and began broadcasting not just to Latin America, but to the United States as well. For a sense of how the move worked out, consider that Kreutzberger now lives in a mansion located in Indian Creek Island, Florida, which is every bit as exclusive as it sounds. How a cheesy, jingle-laden variety show became by far the most successful Spanish language television show ever is pretty simple.
Sabado Gigante appealed to Latinos of all stripes, it transcended age gaps and cultural divides because it abided by what makes a variety show effective: if you don’t like what’s on right now, give it four minutes and you might like what’s next. Raffles, quizzes, musical performances, and games could all be found in any given episode.
Oh, and there was also the show’s tendency to mirror the worst aspects of what can be broadly understood as Latino culture.
While Kreutzberger was always front and center on Sabado Gigante, there was almost always at least one scantily clad woman acting as his personal stage prop. At times, most of Kreutzberger’s job was to be his gregarious self in a well-tailored suit while a small army of three-quarters naked women cheerily giggled at a respectable volume in response to his every action. To say the show entrenched the gender norms of many Latino cultures is about the most charitable statement one could make on that front. This can be said without even bringing up Kreutzberger’s habit of groping female audience members and the 1992 sexual harassment suit brought forth by one of the show’s models against him. (The suit was, of course, settled out of court by Kreutzberger.)
The show did no better on race as its large cast of characters almost never featured black or indigenous Latinos and, on the rare occasions it did feature such groups, it was in the context of playing the stereotypes against them for cheap laughs. No less common were flamboyant gay caricatures and the use of little people in outright demeaning roles. Behind the veneer of cheesy camp and harmless fun there was an undeniable tendency to reflect pre-existing biases of Latino culture that marginalized anyone who didn’t quite fit in with the notion of normalcy.
It would be comforting to think that the show’s end reflects a move within Latino cultures away from such ugly biases, but the reality is that the show’s inherently campy nature reached its final half-life. This is not to deny the show’s value—it did, after all, serve as a comforting slice of something resembling home to Latinos who found themselves increasingly far away from those who once made up their home. Sabado Gigante was a relentlessly cheery and unapologetically Latino show, for better or worse.
With the show now all but gone, all that’s left is to hope that whatever takes its place can be the same sort of cultural touchstone without providing safe harbor to the worst of that culture.