Few people’s names are synonymous with a cultural phenomenon. Those who achieve such brand recognition often do so posthumously. Not so for 71 year old Don Francisco. The mastermind of the variety television show Sábado Gigante is a permanent fixture in Latino households across the globe.
To say he’s reliable is an understatement. Now in its 50th year, Sábado Gigante is the longest running Spanish language show on television and Don Francisco more formally known as Mario Kreutzberger is its longest running (and only) host. Not bad for a kid who dropped out of high school and was groomed to run a garment factory.
Kreutzberger was born in Talca, Chile where his German-Jewish parents found sanctuary after fleeing Nazi Germany. His mother, an opera singer encouraged his creative interest in acting and music. His father, a tailor, hoped he’d take a stable job after dropping out of high school and sent him to New York City to learn the family business — the garment industry — as a teenager. The trip sealed his fate. He watched tons of American television and found his calling. He returned to Chile determined.
“My idea was mixing all the programs that I saw into one,” he once shared with a reporter.
His first chance came with an offer to be on Channel 13 at the Universidad Católica en Santiago. He started and starred in Show Dominical which flopped — twice. On his third attempt, Kreutzberger incorporated live sketches, switched timeslots — to Saturday night — and changed the show’s name. On Saturday August 8, 1962, Sábado Gigante was born. As was his alter ego — Don Francisco — after realizing his name was too hard to pronounce.
After 24 years of success in Chile, Don Francisco sought a global stage and in 1986 the show made its way to Miami’s Univision. The show along with Mario, his wife and three children, soon moved to Miami where it’s been recorded ever since. Don Francisco and his half-dressed beauties, roving cameras and pet tricks were now seen by the rest of the U.S., Latin America and Europe. The move also allowed Don Francisco’s reach to go beyond just Latino entertainers and celebrities — although many have gotten their start or heightened their fame thanks to him — he has interviewed everyone from Bill Gates to Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama.