Profile: Mario Kreutzberger

Mario Kreutzberger, aka Don Francisco.
Photo courtesy of Univision.

Every Saturday night, millions of television viewers around the world—most of them Latino—spend four hours with a Chilean-born Jewish entertainer of German background. His real name is Mario Kreutzberger, but they know him as Don Francisco, host of the longest-running variety show on television, Sábado Gigante (giant Saturday), which earned him a Guinness record. Last year, Kreutzberger, 72, reached a milestone: 50 years hosting the weekly mash-up of entertainment, interviews, skits, contests, travel segments and games (Saturdays 8 P.M. to midnight on Univision).

Whether he is emceeing from the brightly lit steps in the middle of the studio audience or bantering onstage, dimple flashing, Kreutzberger is equally at ease with scantily clad models, children, Latino stars, American presidential candidates—he interviewed George Bush at his Texas ranch during the 2000 presidential campaign as well as John Kerry in 2004—and personalities like Bill Gates, Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas. Last year, Kreutzberger was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Hall of Fame, one of 132 inductees.

For Kreutzberger, his power as a “communicator” comes with a responsibility to promote tolerance, family, charity, perseverance, community and cultural pride. “I’m always trying to give the best service I can, the best values, so that people can have a better life,” he says. “You might ask, ‘How is that possible by being a television host?’ I believe that even entertainment is a service, that people need it, like any other service, like food or transportation.”

Judging solely by the recognition he has amassed, Kreutzberger has succeeded. At his home in Miami (the show began in Chile but has been produced in Florida since 1986), his wife of 50 years, Temy, built a wing to house his numerous awards and 80,000-plus pages of clippings. “I don’t care,” he says, “but she has everything that I ever got. Nobody can believe it.” He has received an Emmy for his leadership in Spanish-language television; a United States Congressional award for his efforts in bridging the gap between North American and Latin American cultures; a Hispanic Heritage Award as a “legend”; honors from the Chilean government for contributions to culture, solidarity, humanitarian efforts and service to the country; and a Benemerenti medal bestowed on him by Pope John Paul II. His is the 2,179th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

What means most to Kreutzberger, however, is the annual telethon for the handicapped that he founded and hosts, and which was at least partly inspired by American Jewish comedian Jerry Lewis: It has raised over $240 million since 1978. Those funds have built 10 hospitals in Chile that treat over 80,000 disabled children. He also created the International Telethon Organization, a network of 16 Latin American countries (he serves as president for life); is vice president of the Muscular Dystrophy Association–USA; and is goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. “I wanted to give back to the audience in my country,” he says. “We have changed the mentality of people there toward the handicapped.”

Kreutzberger is fiercely dedicated to fighting prejudice in whatever form it takes—religious, racial, social or gender discrimination—and wherever it occurs worldwide. “I fight it every day, every day, in my act, in my program,” he says. “If you have an experience of discrimination, you are different.” In fact, he did experience anti-Semitism as a young teenager, when he was beaten up by a gang of boys. But his parents taught him not to hate. “Part of my parents’ legacy is to not feel hate against other people. Try to accept everyone. It’s not easy.”

In New York to showcase upcoming programming, Kreutzberger is trim and natty in a navy suit and blue-and-white pinstriped shirt. The Latino waiters at the Grand Hyatt recognize the unobtrusive celebrity in their midst and bring over special slices of cake and plates of fruit in addition to the Macchiato that Kreutzberger orders. “He’s like the Oprah of Spanish channels,” says the sous-chef, Miguel Gruillon.

A Type 2 diabetic, Kreutzberger doesn’t eat the cake but moves it around on his plate to not offend the staff when the table is cleared later. “People are faithful to our market,” says Kreutzberger, in Spanish-inflected English. “When they see you they try to be nice to you.”

He’s lived with the name Don Francisco since he coined it as a 16-year-old performer at the Jewish Maccabi Club in Santiago, about 150 miles from his hometown, Talca. “I did an impression of a Jewish guy who couldn’t speak Spanish very well,” he recalls. “I talked about everything that was going on in the week in the country. I had a big stomach, thanks to a pillow, and a small mustache.” Today, he responds equally to both names. His energetic onscreen personality feeds on and even depletes the quieter offscreen one, he says, likening the relationship to the flower that devoured its owner in Little Shop of Horrors. “Every day I give more fuel to Don Francisco, but I’m over 70 now. I have less fuel than I had before.” Kreutzberger also hosts Don Francisco Presenta, a talk show featuring interviews with popular artists, such as actor and singer Ricky Martin.

Like many entertainers, he has a host of superstitions. He always enters the set on the same side. “Every superstition that is available, I take it,” he says. “If you have a new one, I take it. I think success and non-success are so close in my business that most people are superstitious.” On the set, he eats lunch and dinner in his dressing room that contains about 100 suits. “I bring my lunch every day. I am on a diet always, but I lose my diet always. I eat very, very healthy and I like a lot of hot pepper. But then when I go out I drink wine and I eat everything.” Kreutzberger describes himself as “reflective, persevering—and a hungry man always.”

The show, he says, continuing the food metaphor, is like a soup. “We have the basic ingredients but we change a lot of ingredients every week,” he explains.

Many of the ingredients include humorous segments that are goofy, suggestive, even crude, and seem to objectify women through swimsuit and body-jiggling dance competitions. In “El Chacal de la Trompeta,” six contestants are given the chance to sing a song, with the bad performers being eliminated midsong by El Chacal, a ghostlike character who blows an old trumpet to end the act, à la The Gong Show. Don Francisco gets into the act by wearing silly hats and wigs to intimidate the contestant.

Lili Estefan, host of her own Univision show, got her start on Sábado Gigante in 1986 and, for 12 years, was the popular model with the big smile on the show. She acknowledges that some segments might be considered disrespectful to women, but says she came to understand them as gimmicks. Kreutzberger’s impact on the Hispanic market in the United States, she says, is immeasurable. “There was never a show before it with so much credibility,” she says. “I’ve never seen anyone do a funny segment that has you rolling on the floor and after the commercial break come back with a segment that makes you cry like a baby. He does that in taping after taping. He’s got integrity and passion for what he does.”

On- and offstage, she says, Kreutzberger is totally different. “He goes onstage and suddenly he’s happy and life is great and he has incredible energy. After the lights go down, he’s just thinking again. He’s working. He is absorbing everything, writing down more and more ideas in his notebook.”

Kreutzberger’s Jewish identity is no secret. “Everybody knows,” he says. “Everybody knows.” His tzedaka work is related to the Jewish values with which he was raised. “Maybe that’s the reason for the telethon, but I don’t know. You have to study yourself very long to give the right answer.”

Kreutzberger’s immigrant parents fled Nazi Germany. His father, Erick, a tailor, was taken to Bergen-Belsen but later escaped to England. His mother, Anna, an aspiring opera singer whom the Nazis barred from performing, boarded a ship to Chile days after Kristallnacht. “I didn’t know much about this growing up,” says Kreutzberger. “My father never talked to me about this. I found out from other friends and relatives.” To better understand and honor his parents, Kreutzberger participated in the March for Life, an event hosted by the Chilean Jewish community to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Holocaust. He chronicled that trip in a documentary, Testigos del Silencio (witnesses of silence).

His parents each had a different aspiration for him. His mother encouraged his performance talents, including singing and playing musical instruments. His father sent him to New York in 1959 to apprentice in the garment industry with the goal of becoming a men’s clothing designer. What he thought was the radio in his hotel room looked just like the radio at home. “The only difference is that instead of a piece of cloth covering it there was a piece of glass,” he recalls. His eyes grow big as he remembers his first encounter with television. “This was like a movie. You could listen and watch at the same time.” He devoured Johnny Carson, Steve Allen and Art Linkletter—and understood that television was the future.

After two years in New York, he returned to Chile and set his sights on his country’s fledgling broadcasting industry. His debut program, Show Dominical (Sunday show), was canceled twice. He mixed all the elements of the talk and variety shows he had seen in New York and changed the name to Sábado Gigante. It aired as an eight-hour program in Chile for 23 years. “I was much better as a television host than as a tailor,” Kreutzberger says. His father was “completely against that career when I started. He said that I wanted to be a clown instead of an entrepreneur with a stable business.”

When the American show was launched, Kreutzberger taped two simultaneous programs in Miami and in Chile, flying back and forth once a week. His trips to Chile are now limited to once a month.

He has three children: Patricio, a businessman; Vivian, the host of her own television show; and Francisco (“the only real Francisco”), a television producer. His brother, René, is a businessman in Santiago. Kreutzberger has visited Israel many times, most recently for the bat mitzva of one of his nine grandchildren. He belongs to many Jewish organizations in Chile and two synagogues in Miami Beach, Temple Menorah and Beth Torah. He plays tennis every day to stay in shape. And Kreutzberger travels frequently; he has visited 164 countries to film a segment of the show Camara Viajera.

Television, he says, demands his full-time attention. To be as innovative as possible he watches everything he can—even programs in languages he doesn’t understand. He dreams of building a network for the 50-plus demographic that most networks overlook. “I have every day one goal, every month one goal, every year one goal,” he says.

But at his age, he adds, his goals cannot be far away. “If I’m here tomorrow, I’m O.K.”