Don Francisco & MeBy: Joel Marino
I’m haunted by Don Francisco.
As with other Latinos in this country, the partially affable, slightly menacing host of Univision’s long-running Sábado Gigante has been a background character in my life, popping up here and there like some unwelcomed specter.
And while media outlets struggle over the Chilean presenter’s legacy following news his show has been shuttered after a half-century run, I instead wonder what his legacy has been in my own life.
FEBRUARY 1992: THE FIRST TIME
I’m 6, and I’ve just moved with my family to Miami Beach from Argentina. The new country’s customs baffle me. When the neighborhood boys invite me to play “football,” I stare at the odd, oval ball they hand me and don’t understand why they laugh when I kick it around. English eludes me. I avoid children’s channels because I can’t understand what the cartoons are saying. Instead, I look forward to Saturdays, when my mom cooks heaps of empanadas and the family snuggles on the couch to watch this new show we’ve found, Sábado Gigante. It’s bright, it’s noisy, and I can understand what the people are saying. I’m finally comfortable in the US.
APRIL 1994: LITTLE OLD LADY BLUES
The elderly lady who lives in the apartment across from us has become friends with my mom. So we’re super excited for her when her son takes her to be an audience member at Sábado Gigante, which is filmed in Miami. We’re even more excited when she wins a car on one of the show’s many games. She’s not as enthused—she never learned to drive. What she does with the car, I can’t remember. She lives for two more years and dies in her sleep, in that apartment across from us.
DECEMBER 1997: SÁBADO NIGHT LIVE
My parents install a TV in the tiny room I share with three brothers. The folks talk of moving to a bigger place, getting each of us a separate room. Our own boob tube is a concession till then. On Saturdays, we reluctantly spend the evenings with mom watching Don Francisco’s hijinks, waiting impatiently to rush back to our hideaway for our new passion: Saturday Night Live. No one at school ever mentions Don Francisco, but everyone quotes Will Ferrell. Bit by bit, we stay in the living room less. We hear mom outside talking with the neighbors about La Cuatro’s latest humiliation just as SNL’s opening monologue rolls.
SEPTEMBER 2003: JEW BROS
I’m attending college in Miami, and though my parents still live in South Florida, I’ve moved on campus. As part of a freshman project, I swing by the Jewish Museum of Florida, and am surprised to find an exhibit on Hispanic Jews. Even more surprising is an entire vestibule dedicated to Don Francisco, where a sliver of paper informs me his name is actually Mario Kreutzberger. Being half Jewish myself, I immediately call my dad to see if he knew this entertaining bit of trivia. I tell him I’ll also visit that weekend. We eat mom’s empanadas as Sábado Gigante blares in the background.
MARCH 2006: THE EMBARRASSING UNCLE
I have a year of college to go. I walk in on my roommate laughing riotously at our dorm TV. He’s had a few drinks, and he’s watching Sábado Gigante for the first time. “This is the most surreal thing I’ve ever seen,” he says. Maybe El Chacal is blowing his trumpet, or skimpily clad women are being paraded across the stage for Don Francisco’s amusement. Whatever is happening on screen, it gives me a strange twinge of humiliation, as though by watching the show my roommate has found a deep, shameful secret of mine. I want no part of the gaudiness on display. After briefly explaining the show, I ask we change channels. I never again see an episode of Sábado Gigante.
APRIL 2015: RIP, SÁBADO GIGANTE
I work and live in New York, toiling away at a magazine covering the TV industry. That’s why we’re one of the first to hear the news that Univision’s pulled the plug on Don Francisco’s variety show. I write up the story, explaining to the editor that “Don” isn’t the host’s first name. I then take a minute to call my parents and let them know what’s happened. My dad says, “How about that?” and asks how things are going in the Big Apple. My mom says she stopped watching some time ago. I say the same thing. I hang up and walk back to my desk. For some reason, I expected some kind of mourning.