Adiós, Gigante: Our Saturday Afternoon Fever

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a weekly TV variety show that ran live for 8 hours straight in a poor South American nation, and was unheard of anywhere else in the world. It was a low-budget broadcast that achieved the greatest success with audiences and sponsors and was able to transcend political and social divides. The critics, however, were relentless, pointing at its vulgarity. Nevertheless, in the bleak horizon of Chilean society at the time, that rambunctious potpourri of music, games, humor, drama and interviews was a welcome escape for adults and children alike.

In 1986, I was one of those children.

The school I then attended asked me to go to a casting for a new quiz section of Clan Infantil, the kids' segment of Sábados Gigantes (the plural form was its original name) and the country's answer to the Mickey Mouse Club. Children with advanced knowledge of certain topics were to be interrogated by an academic jury over a number of weeks, with an all-expenses paid trip to Disney World as the final prize of the competition: something that, at the time, only very affluent Chileans could afford. I was chosen as a participant in that initial casting (my topic was the Renaissance), and eventually won the coveted prize. I was also invited to attend the Miami version of the program (which had debuted just months earlier). Finally, I returned to the Chilean show to discuss my trip, and joined the permanent cast of singers and dancers for an end-of-year musical performance. All of that allowed me to spend many Saturdays observing the adults who produced that seemingly endless show.

Among the mental photographs of that time, tired faces emerge: those that appeared when the cameras were switched-off. Getting on and off planes covering the Santiago-Miami route, without the technology available today, the sleep-deprived Don Francisco and his equally restless team produced, on opposite sides of the continent, two weekly TV programs of identical name and similar style. In one country, they were stars who enjoyed stability and privilege; in the other, they were unknowns working in an unfamiliar environment, trying hard not to get fired and attempting to conceal a scant audience, housed in a poor-looking studio. The pace they kept was insane, and the dual life they led just added to the overall schizophrenia.

Time passed. Children grew up. Sábado Gigante got rid of the plural, and not only in its name: the Chilean show stopped and Miami took over. It became a shorter show, while the skin display of its models became considerably larger. With newly adopted Caribbean flavors, it was unrecognizable by its Chilean, more conservative, roots. Despite the mutation, Don Francisco, by travelling constantly to front other, short-lived shows, and by charity campaigning, was able to keep his place at the apex of Chilean show business; but the local resonance of his historic first show progressively vanished. In the United States, however, the initial struggle gave way to unprecedented accomplishments.

Some years ago, while living in Washington D.C., I realized that being Chilean was, among the Latino community, synonymous with being Don Francisco's compatriot (and no longer one of Pinochet's). And that this connection -- an infallible ice-breaker, even if the conversation turned into criticism of the show for its sexism or another reason -- generated a degree of fraternity. Beyond our actual nationality and other social barriers, we realized that not only did we share a language and the circumstance of being migrants, but also musical references or jokes: unsophisticated perhaps, but endearing as time went by. With Don Francisco, we, his fellow Chileans, the most isolated people of the Americas both geographically and culturally, had finally become Latinos and could recognize ourselves as such.

Sábado Gigante's biggest credit in its two incarnations, first as a Chilean and then as a Latino landmark show, was precisely community-building: the meeting of a disaggregated family. That ethos is inextricably linked to the man behind Don Francisco: Mario Kreutzberger, the Chilean-born son of Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Germany. From his own experience, he knew discrimination, loneliness and the challenge of trying to belong in a country where you are forced to start from zero. Television was the tool by which he expressed himself: with jokes that help people forget adversity, or by championing charitable causes, he promoted cultural integration.

The Saturday afternoon fever that lasted 53 years is now over. The piano does not play anymore. The stage has now been disassembled. In the studio, there is both darkness and light.

But light, I believe, prevails.

A Spanish version of this op-ed was published in T13, Sábado Gigante's original TV station in Chile.