Francisco, Don

Francisco, Don
▪ 2003

      In August 2002 Chilean television host Don Francisco celebrated the 40th anniversary of his hugely popular TV show Sábado gigante, which the Guinness Book of World Records had already recognized in 1993 as the longest-running program with the same host.

      He was born Mario Kreutzberger on Dec. 28, 1940, in Talca, Chile, to German-Jewish parents who arrived in Latin America just prior to World War II. His mother, a classical singer, gave him singing lessons, and when he was a teenager, he found some success onstage as an actor. It was during this time that he formulated the character of Don Francisco, a funny emcee with a somewhat lecherous personality.

      Though he was sent by his father to New York City in 1961 to study tailoring, he became enamoured of television there. He launched Sábado gigante in Santiago in 1962, the year that television came to Chile. Originally eight hours long, the program was a cazuela (“stew”) or mix, of music, dance, comedy, travelog, games, news, and interviews. He proved skilled in avoiding political influences in his programming. In 1973, when Augusto Pinochet Ugarte overthrew Chilean Pres. Salvador Allende Gossens, Don Francisco convinced authorities that his comic character should not read on nationwide TV Pinochet's proclamation creating a military junta. The production of Sábado was moved to Miami in 1986, and the show was tailored to the Hispanic immigrant community in North America. Nonetheless, the program was shown in 42 countries for three hours every Saturday on Univision's Channel 30.

      Don Francisco was also active in charitable work. As national vice president of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, he spearheaded the MDA's 2001 landmark outreach to Hispanic Americans, Un futuro con ezperanza. In 1978 he had begun the telethon Logremos un milagro to raise money to construct hospitals for Chile's disabled children. By the end of 2000, the telethon had benefitted children in 14 countries. He also led Los Hispanos se dan la mano to help Florida rebuild after Hurricane Andrew. UNICEF named him its first Hispanic ambassador of goodwill. In 2001 Don Francisco became the first Latin American to be recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

      Despite talk of retirement—his daughter Vivi, herself a Chilean TV announcer, was being groomed to be his successor on Sábado—Don Francisco had a new weekly talk show, Don Francisco presenta. He also hosted the Chilean version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? In his autobiography, Don Francisco entre la espada y la TV (2001; Don Francisco: Life, Camera, Action!, 2002), he described in part the anti-Semitism he encountered while growing up in Chile, where the book became a best-seller.

Ramona Monette Sargan Flores

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Universalium. 2010.

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