Perspectives in Health Magazine
The Magazine of the Pan American Health Organization
Volume 7, Number 3, 2002


Don Francisco
The host of ‘Giant Saturday’ is Spanish-language television’s
best-known entertainer, a household name throughout the hemisphere.

 PAHO PSA with Don Francisco
But Don Francisco is also the founding father of Chile’s telethon for
handicapped children and a 2002 PAHO Champion of Health of the Americas.

Gives Back

As the cameras roll, Don Francisco walks onto the brightly lit set in his Miami studio, breaks into song, then teases his guests and banters with his star-struck audience. Wearing a shiny suit and, frequently, a ridiculous hat, the best-known celebrity in the Spanish-speaking Americas appears weekly in the homes of millions of viewers, just as he has for the past 40 years.

by Bryna Brennan

 

 Don Francisco

Sábado Gigante ("Giant Saturday") is television’s longest-running variety show with a single host, Don Francisco. He fills his stage most of the time with comedy, songs, scantily clad women, and amateur and animal acts. But he also uses his pulpit to plead for a more compassionate and equitable world. He called on viewers to donate assistance to those injured or left homeless by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he denounced violence and hate in favor of peace and tolerance.

But Don Francisco’s most outstanding good works have been dedicated to health. His annual telethon for handicapped children, launched in 1978, has raised some $160 million and constructed six hospitals in Chile. In 2000, he was elected national vice-president of the United States’ Muscular Dystrophy Association for his telethon work. He has filmed public service announcements for the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) supporting blood donation, childhood vaccines, prenatal care and mental health, and denouncing drug abuse. In 2002, PAHO named him a Champion of Health of the Americas in recognition of his contributions to public health. Pope John Paul II has bestowed the Bene Merenti medal on him, the first non-Catholic to be so honored. He also serves as a special goodwill ambassador for UNICEF.

A familiar chord

Offstage and out of the limelight, Don Francisco is Mario Kreutzberger, a 62-year-old Chilean, the son of German-Jewish immigrants. In his small office at Univision headquarters in Miami, the entertainer is affable yet also shy, studied, even pensive—almost the opposite of his television personality. Kreutzberger shows a much more serious side, explaining his efforts to promote health as a way of giving something back to the people who over the years have been so good to him.

Part of his motivation is that you can’t take it with you. "It’s logical that those who have more should have the social consciousness to share with those who have less, considering that no matter how much money you have you can’t avoid death," he says. He also believes that celebrity should be put to good use. "We communicators should act as a bridge between those who have and those we can help to have a better life."

 Don Francisco in action
As a communicator, Don Francisco believes it is his responsibility to promote positive messages: love and tolerance, the value of family, perseverance and hard work, a sense of community and cultural pride.
With viewers in at least 30 countries, Kreutzberger reaches millions during his three-hour Spanish-language show, which is long by U.S. standards but a good deal shorter than its previous seven-hour incarnation in Chile. His broadcasts from Miami have helped create a sense of Hispanic community that links U.S. immigrants with people in their home countries of Latin America and even Spain.

Kreutzberger’s popularity and broad reach have led to interviews on his show with both presidential candidates in the last U.S. election, along with an engraved star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, a special issue in People magazine’s Spanish edition and an audience with Pope John Paul II.

Virtually all of today’s most noted Hispanic celebrities have appeared on the show, including Marc Anthony, Jon Secada, Ricky Martin, Cristina Saralegui and Gloria Estefan. Indeed, Sábado Gigante has helped launch a significant number of Hispanic entertainers’ careers.

In his Univision studio, Kreutzberger moves quickly, with a level of energy one might not expect from a middle-aged grandfather with diabetes, high blood pressure, a thyroid condition and arthritis. "Health has no price," he says. But an acknowledged $18,000 facelift and chin reduction have helped to keep him looking as good as he seems to feel.

Tirelessly Kreutzberger tapes commercial messages between show takes. He strides to a different studio to tape the public service announcements for PAHO’s initiative on safe blood donations. He reads the scripts quickly. He does a single practice run. And he rattles off each of seven 30-second messages flawlessly. Each delivery is utterly convincing, as if in each one, Don Francisco is making a very personal plea.

That, he concedes, is his greatest talent and appeal. "I know I strike a familiar chord with people that allows them to feel like my very close personal friends, so much so that they are willing to wait two or three hours to meet me," he writes in his recently published autobiography, Don Francisco: Life, Camera, Action!

Kreutzberger’s personal story, written with a ghostwriter’s help, is that of a bullied child with an artistic bent who went on to achieve stardom through hard work, a love of his medium and a determination not to miss any opportunities that presented themselves.

Born in Talca, Chile, in 1940, he was the first child of a German-Jewish immigrant couple who had fled Nazi Germany only two years earlier. His father, a tailor, was a concentration-camp survivor and his mother an aspiring opera singer whom the Nazis never allowed to perform. Kreutzberger believes her own frustrated ambitions led her to encourage her son’s talent. She had him study "every musical instrument under the sun," and when he failed to master a single one, she persuaded him to sing instead. At 10, little Mario performed Chilean folk songs at school until his older schoolmates shamed him with taunts, and he vowed to himself never to sing again.

 Don Francisco in action
The entertainer’s best talent and greatest appeal is his ability to relate to ordinary men and women. ‘I know I strike a familiar chord with people that allows them to feel like my very close personal friends.’
A shy and retiring boy, Kreutzberger had infrequent but scarring childhood encounters with anti-Semitism, including a beating by a gang of older boys when he was 14. He credits support from his school principal in the aftermath of the incident for helping him to overcome his fears and make the "180-degree shift"to the centerstage personality he shows today.

When Kreutzberger was 16, his first drama teacher taught him how to tell jokes, dance, act and sing, and "never to improvise." He dropped out of high school and at 19 traveled to New York City for training to help him run the family garment business. But when he saw his first television in a hotel room there, it was "love at first sight." He returned to Chile, found a way to get on TV and launched a 40-year career that would more than answer his father’s early concern: "How do you think he’s going to support a family by being a circus clown?"

Timed to coincide with Sábado Gigante’s 40th anniversary, Kreutzberger’s book describes his pioneering work on Chilean TV, his launching of the Chilean telethon, his move to Miami in 1986 and the quite serious ups and downs that accompanied his rise to international stardom. Mauricio Montaldo, his ghostwriter, writes in the book’s introduction that Kreutzberger "wanted to share his experiences because he was convinced that six months after he was gone, no one would remember him." True to his style, Kreutzberger is donating part of the book’s royalties to Padres Contra El Cancer, a California-based group that helps children with cancer.

Kreutzberger is clearly proudest of the more serious uses to which he has put his fame and fortune. In his book, he describes how his television career in Chile led him to establish the telethon for handicapped children.

"Despite such a long string of successes, something was still making me uneasy, and in 1977 that uneasiness made me feel a strong need to give something back to the community," he writes. Taking inspiration from comedian Jerry Lewis’s annual muscular dystrophy telethon, Kreutzberger gathered the stars and held the first show, "Let’s Make the Miracle Happen." The premier broadcast raised $2.5 million and so gratified Kreutzberger’s urge to "give back" that he soon committed himself to making it an annual event.

For Kreutzberger, the telethon has been a personal victory. Each year more funds are collected than the year before. His face brightens when he speaks about it in person, and he writes eloquently about it in his book:

Twenty-two years later, the Telethon, which has no political orientation and is based on solidarity and emotion, has produced a cultural transformation that has brought dignity and respect to the handicapped and their rights.…There is a lot to be done. We will have to grow and incorporate new rehabilitation and communication technologies. The world will change, we’ll more or less become technocrats, we’ll have less space, more or less material possessions; but a child’s smile will always be the same and hope will always survive as a value that can’t be bought or sold on any stock market.

Today one of Kreutzberger’s biggest challenges is to keep up with the International Organization of Telethon Institutions, or ORITEL, a foundation that unites 13 countries in the yearly telethon. The idea, he explains, is to raise funds to train doctors via the Internet and allow them to exchange information on ways to treat children with nerve, muscle and skeletal disabilities. In 2001, Kreutzberger signed a memorandum of understanding with the Inter-American Development Bank to expand the work being done on disabilities by Latin American and Caribbean institutions.

Kreutzberger believes in what he terms "the communicator’s responsibility," that is, to use his talent for relating to people to promote positive messages, including love, tolerance, the value of family, a sense of community, Hispanic cultural pride, personal perseverance and honest hard work.

He also believes that ordinary people can and should help each other, and that unity brings results. He returns to the topic of the telethon, saying that if every person gave a dollar, those who gave it wouldn’t miss it. On the other hand, that money could be turned into "smiles, hopes, a lot of things."

"At times, this cold, impersonal world of money can be turned into something very positive," says Don Francisco. "But for this you need the help of others. This is power."

Bryna Brennan is chief of the Office of Public Information at the Pan American Health Organization in Washington, D.C.

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