UNIVISION'S CASH COW 'SABADO GIGANTE' COMES TO LOS ANGELES

Outside the Hollywood Palladium, traffic was stacked up like a bad day at Los Angeles International Airport.

Cars cruised up and down Vine Street looking for any parking lot that wasn't already crammed with vehicles.

Women, dressed in their Sunday best, tottered on high heels as they strode purposefully down the sidewalks. Men sporting cowboy boots and crisply ironed shirts maintained an equally brisk pace as they hurried toward the 60-year-old theater where Lawrence Welk had hosted his TV program for a decade, Elvis Presley once played in the 1950s, and champion boxing matches have been won and lost.

But on this cloudy afternoon, the man inside generating all the commotion wasn't a musician or a boxer. In some people's opinion, he's greater than that.

He's Don Francisco, one of the most famous icons of Spanish-language TV. For 38 years, he has been hosting "Sabado Gigante" ("Giant Saturday"), the longest-running variety show in TV history, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

Something of a mix between "Let's Make a Deal" and "The Ed Sullivan Show," "Sabado Gigante" has been a cash cow for Los Angeles-based Univision Communications Inc. ever since it brought Don Francisco from Chile in 1986 to host the program from Miami. The four-hour show is normally broadcast from Florida to more than 20 countries around the world.

But in all its years on the air, Don Francisco (whose real name is Mario Kreutzberger) had never recorded a full-length show in Los Angeles.

Last week, he and his crew were in town to make history and to boost the ratings of his show.

"Over the years, the ratings have fluctuated stronger on the East Coast and weaker on the West Coast," said Rochelle Newman, president of Enlace Communications Inc., a Spanish-language ad agency in L.A. "I believe that is why they have come out here to film."

Don Francisco, whose show began in 1962 in his native Chile, has always had a strong following throughout the Spanish-speaking world. But because his program is recorded in Miami, it has a Cuban and Latin-American flavor with music, jokes and contestants from those regions. In Los Angeles, most Latino immigrants are from Mexico.

"Mexican consumers have different musical tastes and cultural instincts," Newman said. "But for many new arrivals in this country, it gives you a window on American things."

Big local audience

Despite the slant toward Cuba and Latin America, "Sabado Gigante" is still one of the 20 most popular weekly shows on KMEX-TV Channel 34, the L.A. station that broadcasts the program. In July, "Sabado Gigante" had a strong 15.1 household rating on KMEX, according to the Nielsen Hispanic Station Index. In Miami, it had an even stronger 23.4 rating. In New York it was 21.8.

While neither Univision nor KMEX would say how much money "Sabado Gigante" brings in, local commercials cost an above-average $7,000 to $8,000 for a 30-second spot, said Raquel Tomasino, media director of Spanish ad agency Ad Americas.

Even Don Francisco declined to give specifics on the show's financial matters. But when the 59-year-old variety-show host is asked whether the show has been a good moneymaker, he glances over and sighs, "Oh, yes."

Don Francisco has always known he had a good product, as corny as the program may seem to non-Latino viewers. Its mix of jokes, music, banter and audience participation has changed little over the years.

There is always some kind of singing contest between audience members. A popular Latino band plays a few songs, famous Spanish-language actors and actresses appear. There are drawings for prizes, standup comedy skits and gorgeous models dressed in slinky, tight outfits.

Along with that comes Don Francisco's trademark product integration for advertisers just like they used to do in Ed Sullivan's day. He will expound upon the benefits of life insurance for the entire family. Minutes later, there will be an ad for Allstate Insurance Co.

"It is such a fast-moving show that the entire family is entertained," Tomasino said. "You can count on him to be there every Saturday night."

Indeed, Don Francisco never misses a Saturday night. He is a hard-working entertainer who says he spends "11 days a month in Miami, 11 days a month in Chile, and 11 days on an airplane." He still has a home in Santiago and a 99-acre ranch where he grows grapes.

New York origins

He never saw his first television set until 1960 when his Jewish parents, who fled Nazi Germany before World War II, sent him to New York for two years to study men's fashion design.

In his youth he spent a lot of time in his hotel room at 33rd Street and Broadway looking at a large box he originally thought was a radio. "I knew this was the future," he remembered.

Upon returning to Chile, he started working in the nascent broadcast industry there when a producer hired him to be a variety-show host on Sundays. The show was about to be cancelled when it was changed to a one-hour program on Saturdays, the only show that day. It soon expanded to eight hours, from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. When an executive suggested that Kreutzberger was an unwieldy name, the TV-show host changed it to Don Francisco.

That moniker is very familiar to the 2.1 million people who on average tune in to his show every week. The show averages over a half-million viewers in Los Angeles.

One of those is 30-year-old Lidia Nicoleysor, who drove from Oxnard last week to view the show at the Hollywood Palladium. "We watch it every week," she said, noting that the whole family, from her grandmother to her children, views the program together. "It is something you have to do."

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