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

(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.

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 undisputed “Gran maestro” of Spanish-language media.

“Among Spanish speakers in the United States he is an icon,” said Ilan Stavans, a professor 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, 74, was born in Chile, the “only option” his refugee parents had when they left Germany. 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.”

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.”

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. 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. The executives were enthusiastic but there was one problem: His name was “too difficult to pronounce.”

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. In 1963, the broadcast was moved to Saturday and the name consequently changed.

In 1986, the U.S.-based Univision came calling and “Sábado Gigante” became an American show.

Simon Guindi Cohen, the New York-based founder of 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 show full of emotions, just like a Latin soap opera but with games.”

“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.

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