The Jewish don of Latin American TV says ‘adios’ after 53 years

Lisa Keys

Don Francisco — born Mario Luis Kreutzberger Blumenfeld — in front of a live audience on his record-making show,

Don Francisco — born Mario Luis Kreutzberger Blumenfeld — in front of a live audience on his record-making show, “Sabado Gigante,” in the 1990s. (Courtesy of Univision)

(JTA) — On Saturday, the Spanish language television network Univision will host the final broadcast of “Sábado Gigante.”

With 53 years on TV, the world’s longest-running variety show is an eclectic, strange mashup of a game show, a talk show and live entertainment. There are singing competitions — the poor-performing contestants are eliminated by a trumpet blast, a la “The Gong Show” — as well as lie-detector tests for husbands accused of infidelity, comedy segments and beauty contests. (Check out a montage of clips from the show’s 50th anniversary here.)

Each week, the three-hour hodgepodge is broadcast in 40 countries and watched by tens of millions of viewers. With a reach beyond the Spanish-language market — it’s been the subject of parodies on “Saturday Night Live” and “The Colbert Report” — “Sábado Gigante” is a well-known pop-culture phenomenon.

Less known, however, is that Don Francisco, the show’s Chilean creator and host, is Jewish.

The son of German Jews who had fled Nazi persecution, Mario Luis Kreutzberger Blumenfeld created “Sábado Gigante” and transformed it into an unprecedented success. Drawing on his immigrant background and influenced by American television culture, the kindly Kreutzberger connected with a pan-Latino audience and became the the undisputed “Gran maestro” of Spanish-language media — not in spite of, but because of, his Jewish identity.

“Among Spanish speakers in the United States he is an icon,” said Ilan Stavans, a professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College who has been a guest on “Sábado Gigante.” “In my view, he couldn’t really come to that type of persona were he not Jewish.”

Kreutzberger was born in Chile in 1940; his parents were German Jews who fled the Nazis. (Courtesy of Univision)

Kreutzberger with his parents, German Jews who fled the Nazis for Chile, where he was born in 1940. (Courtesy of Univision)

Kreutzberger, 74, was born in Chile, the “only option” his refugee parents had when they left Germany, he told CBS News. In his 2001 Spanish autobiography “Don Francisco: Entre la Espada y la TV” (“Between a Rock and the TV”), he describes a Jewish upbringing in Chile filled with bar mitzvahs, Hanukkah celebrations — and anti-Semitism.

His world was the world of immigrants. At home with his family, German was the language of communication, not Spanish.

“German is my first language,” he wrote. “I only learned Spanish when I started to go to school.”

This immigrant experience — facing linguistic challenges and prejudices — was what eventually allowed the TV host to connect with his pan-Latino audience, who faced similar challenges in the United States.

In fact, it was at Club Israelita Maccabi, the Jewish community center in the Chilean capital of Santiago, that the prototype of Don Francisco was born.

“Every Friday night, we had a soiree that I presented in the character of ‘Don Francisco Ziziguen González,’ a German-Jew who had arrived some 15 years earlier to Chile,” he wrote in the autobiography. “He spoke some faulty Spanish the way Germans pronounced it. The character wasn’t a mere invention, but based on my parents and their German friends who came to our house on the weekends.”

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Kreutzberger’s father, a tailor, wanted him to join the family business and sent him in the late 1950s to New York to learn the trade. In the Big Apple, however, the young Chilean discovered a different passion: television. Inspired by what he saw on the screen, he returned to Chile with the goal of becoming the country’s Johnny Carson. He pitched his idea of an American-style variety show to Channel 13. The executives were enthusiastic but there was one problem: His name was “too difficult to pronounce and not easy to remember,” he recalled in his autobiography.

In search for a more universal Spanish name, “I decided to resurrect my old character from my times at Club Maccabi,” he wrote — and Don Francisco was born.

Kreutzberger’s show — then called “Show Dominical” (“Sunday Show”) — premiered in 1962 on Channel 13. (The same year, Carson started his 30-year tenure as host of “The Tonight Show.”) In 1963, the broadcast was moved to Saturday and the name consequently changed.

Kreutzberger, celebrating on-air the 50th Anniversary of

Don Francisco celebrating on air the 50th anniversary of “Sabado Gigante” in 2013. (Courtesy of Univision)

In 1986, the U.S.-based Univision came calling and “Sábado Gigante” — “low-brow entertainment geared toward the working and middle classes,” as described by Stavans — became an American show. No longer confined to the slim borders of Chile, it was produced for the rapidly growing Spanish-speaking community in the United States.

“With the move to Miami, the show acquired a new identity as a Latino show,” Stavans said. On Univision, the son of immigrants to Latin America quickly became the pride of Latin American immigrants in the United States. He said Kreutzberger “sees himself as a Latino, not just a Chilean, because of his Jewish identity.”

Simon Guindi Cohen, the New York-based founder of the clothing label Spenglish, is a lifelong fan of “Sábado Gigante.”

“Don Francisco was always a people person and in less than a second he could make them laugh and also cry,” Guindi said. “The show was amazing. It was a great, dynamic show like any other American family show. It was a show full of emotions, just like a Latin soap opera but with games.”

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“I could relate to him because he literally looked like one of my uncles, but never in my mind did the idea of him being Jewish come across,” said the Mexico-born Guindi, who is Jewish. “To me, and I think that to the rest of the viewers, Don Francisco was an aspirational character of a Latino that has genuinely made it in the United States.”

Stavans is not surprised.

“Only a minuscule and largely educated portion of the audience is aware of his Jewish identity,” the Amherst professor said. “In Latin America, Jews constitute less than 0.001 percent of the entire population of close to 460 million. This means that the vast majority has absolutely no experiential knowledge of Jewish culture.”

Crowds gather to catch a glimpse of Kreutzberger when a block in Manhattan's Washington Heights was named for him on Sept. 8, 2015. (Courtesy of Univision)

Crowds gathering to catch a glimpse of Don Francisco when a block in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood was named for the longtime TV host, Sept. 8, 2015. (Courtesy of Univision)

Kreutzberger didn’t address Jewish topics on “Sábado Gigante.” But off camera, Stavans said, “he sees himself as very Jewish.”

In advance of the final broadcast, which will include guests like Shakira and Enrique Iglesias, a street in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood was renamed last week in honor of Don Francisco. Hundreds of fans jammed the streets in hopes of seeing their idol.

In a way, honoring Don Francisco also was recognizing an increasingly self-confident Latino community in the U.S.

“‘Sábado Gigante’ was like a little miracle in everyone’s weekend when you were in a country that wasn’t yours,” Guindi said. “It was a reassurance to the people who watched, so they could know and see that we were not in this country alone.

“It gave us a little extra push on the weekend so we could go on and strengthen our Latin roots.”

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