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TELEVISION : He's the Giant : Don Francisco dominates 'Sabado Gigante,' a 3 1/2-hour extravaganza seen by 6 million in the U.S. and millions more in Latin America

August 25, 1991|IVAN SCOTT | Ivan Scott is a free - lance writer and broadcast journalist based in Washington

MIAMI — It's 2 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon. Inside Studio A at Univision's modern production complex, the audience of 400 has just been ushered in. Most are in their 30s or 40s, but there are a few older people and some in their teens and early 20s. All are well-dressed--the men in jackets and ties, the women in suits or dresses. Many have been waiting outside in the sun since early in the morning. They are anxious, expectant.

"Having fun? Isn't it great to be here? Now, here's how we do it," says longtime Spanish crooner Tomas de San Julian. His title: Animator de Publico . His job: Warm up the audience and, more importantly, teach them the words to the commercial tunes that they will be asked to sing during the broadcast. "Maestro, please." Orchestra leader William Sanchez hits the downbeat and the musicians, all in tuxedos, strike up a toothpaste jingle. After a couple of rehearsals, De San Julian is satisfied and he tells the audience that the show will begin in a moment.

Backstage, the small dressing room is crowded and busy. Lily Estefan, Ana Gomez and Maty Monfort are putting the finishing touches on their makeup. The three help with various segments of the program and pitch products on camera. "And this is the co-host of the show," Monfort says, introducing a visitor to Javier Romero, the handsome young announcer.

Hearing the title "co-host," a man sitting like a pasha in the back of the dressing room rolls his eyes upward incredulously. He's smiling, but the meaning is clear: There is no co-host. There is only one "top banana" here and it's Don Francisco. He's the giant of "Giant Saturday," or, as it's known throughout the Spanish-speaking world, "Sabado Gigante."

Don Francisco, 50, is relaxed as the makeup artist applies the finishing touches. There's no need to rush. The taping won't begin until he is ready. When he is, he enters the studio from the rear, unseen by the studio audience until he suddenly is among them, shaking hands and engaging in small talk.

Floor director Antonio Menchaca waves, and Don Francisco takes his place onstage. Menchaca has been with Don Francisco for 25 years, as has the show's musical director, Valentin Trujillo. Don Francisco is like a true Don: He takes care of those loyal to him. "Three, two, one," Menchaca counts down, and he cues Don Francisco.

"Good evening to all my friends from coast to coast in the United States and, through the facilities of Univision, in Central and South America. Welcome to another international edition of 'Sabado Gigante.' "

Every Saturday night, "Sabado Gigante" is televised throughout the United States on the Spanish-language Univision network, and to 16 countries in Central and South America via satellite. Ratings show that more than 6 million people watch the program in the United States, 1.1 million of them in the Los Angeles area on KMEX Channel 34, and countless millions more in Latin America.

What is "Sabado Gigante," and why is it so popular? It's roughly a 3 1/2-hour television extravaganza every Saturday night. "Roughly," because the show often runs over as much as five or ten minutes--and the network doesn't cut it. With the exception of sporting events, what show on ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox would be allowed to get away with that?

"Sabado Gigante" is a mix of the best and worst of English-language television, with a heavy dash of Don Francisco originality. It's a game show, an interview show, a show with comedy skits and routines, a show that showcases jugglers, sword swallowers, fire-eaters, magicians and other circus-type performers, and it's a show that has the top singers and dancers of the Latin world strutting their stuff--for free. "Sabado Gigante" is so big and so hot that it's a required stop for Latin entertainers. The only money that changes hands is for expenses.

It's light fare, but it also has a serious side where Don Francisco discusses issues with visiting experts. On one program earlier this year, for example, he spent nearly 10 minutes with a Univision reporter from Los Angeles, Sara Garibay, talking about the homeless in Los Angeles, many of whom are Latino. Garibay had lived four days on the streets with the homeless and she talked in detail of their plight.

Don Francisco, whom Joaquin Blaya, the president of Univision, calls "one of the great showmen of the world," knows that his Saturday-night extravaganza is watched by families, from children to grandparents, and he offers "a little something for everybody." Twenty-nine years on the air in Chile helped him hone his craft and create a mix of entertainment and schmaltz that makes for successful television.

Asked what would happen if Don Francisco became ill and had to leave the show, Blaya replies, "We'd be in big trouble. 'Sabado Gigante' is Don Francisco."

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