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.
“When I wrote my first book, I told my father that I needed to know his story, why I was born in Chile, why he came to Chile. But he would not share his story,” Kreutzberger told me. “My father did not want me to feel hate toward anyone. And out of respect I did not push him.”
But in 2005, five years after his father’s death, Kreutzberger went on a March of the Living trip to Poland on the 60th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust, the same year he turned 65 (he is now 72). “I inherited this history but I never wanted to know it, until I was 65. I was scared to see it, to hear it,” he told me. “But finally, I had to go see with my own eyes.” He continued: “We thought of our father as a superman. He started out so modestly and had success, only to have it be taken from him and sent to a concentration camp and then having to move to a new country, Chile, where he didn’t even speak the language.” His father arrived in the new country damaged by the persecution. “It wasn’t only the concentration camp. It was the whole process of slowly being stripped of everything he knew.”
The process of being stripped of everything is well known to many Hispanics in America. Despite the loss of homeland, the language barrier, the political and economic turmoil, many Hispanics, like Kreutzberger, retain a deep orgullo, or pride, against powerful odds. Kreutzberger said growing up Jewish in Chile was difficult, but he was always proud of his heritage. “I always tried to live as a Jew and a good man who can cross religious borders.” When I asked him about anti-Semitism in Hispanic culture he said, “There is anti-Semitism in every culture, not only in the Hispanic world.”
In his autobiography, Don Francisco: Entre la espada y la T.V. (Between the Sword and the TV), Kreutzberger narrates the harrowing tale of how he was temporarily held hostage by Augusto Pinochet’s soldiers, who had appeared at his home in the early aftermath of the coup. The soldiers had been directed to take Kreutzberger to the headquarters of Channel 13 at the Catholic University in Santiago and announce to the nation that Salvador Allende had been overthrown by Pinochet. Kreutzberger managed to talk his way out of this and, he says, that is when he swore to himself to stay out of politics, even though he is now occasionally mentioned as a presidential candidate. “I always stay out of politics,” he told me. “I never share my personal political beliefs with my audience. Never. I have to reach everybody, and this show is not political.” This approach is perhaps what enabled him to stay on the air during the Pinochet junta, when most other shows were censored. In fact, his show achieved its highest ratings—as high as 80 percent, according to him—during the 1970s of Pinochet’s dictatorship, when the program ran as long as eight hours on Saturdays.
Though he is adamant about remaining apolitical, he does let slip later in our conversation that he is not always in agreement with Israel’s politics. But that statement is quickly followed by a poignant sense of bemusement: “I do not understand the obsession that other countries or people have with Jews. It always shocks me because when you ask people how many Jews there are in the world they rarely even know. Why can’t they leave us alone? Why so much focus on us? We are only about 16 million. I always ask myself why does it come back and back and back? Why are the Jewish people always in the middle?”
I, and others, might ask the same question about Latinos. Why are they in the center of a national debate about immigration? Why is Arizona, with several states following, raging against the Hispanic community, profiling, isolating, ostracizing, and segregating its members. Politicians seem to recognize that placing a community front and center in a hostile and contentious debate about what it means to be American can pay certain dividends. Some rail about national identity, the “browning of America,” La Reconquista.
Kreutzberger, consciously or not (and I would venture that it is conscious) recognizes this narrative, this story, this plight. It is deeply rooted in his very being. Sábado Gigante is meant to entertain, and for many of the more than 50 million Latinos in the United States that can come as a relief. Immigration policies come and go, but the show has remained an anchor for diverse Hispanic communities. Kreutzberger knows the risks of xenophobic policies. He understands what they can lead to. He witnessed the scars of his parents, which were so deep that they were never spoken of. And he became an MC, a man paid to speak for the silenced.
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