It’s 6:59 p.m. Cameras are about to roll on the set of St. Augustine Tonight with Jorge Rivera. The YouTube talk show streams live every Tuesday evening through March 31. It’s now in its fourth season, and as Laurence Fishburne’s drug-dealing John Hull says in Deep Cover (check it out at your local video store), “Business is improving, from almost nothing to almost something.” Rivera, a New York-born Puerto Rican, dove headfirst into video production five years ago and has since become St. Augustine’s de facto chronicler. He can be seen at every city event with a press pass around his neck and a camera in his hand. This show is Rivera’s chance to step in front of the camera, and he relishes the opportunity.
It’s now 7 p.m. The talk-show host mounts the stage in his new, custom-built studio situated within the Corazon Cinema & Café. He’s looking dapper in a pinstripe suit. The room is filled with friends and supporters, many of whom are wearing branded merch. Action.
“My formula is easy,” Rivera told Folio Weekly before the show. “Monologue, bad jokes, three guests and a band.”
It’s the classic late-night setup, inspired by Johnny Carson. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The only difference is that instead of Hollywood stars, Rivera’s guest list comprises local artists, musicians and personalities (even the occasion alt-weekly editor).
Production values are high, but it’s been a steep learning curve. Rivera launched his production company, FirstCoast.TV, with nothing more than an iPhone, a whole lotta passion and Boricua ingenuity. The iPhone would soon be upgraded, but the passion remained. It’s the same drive that inspired Rivera to try his hand at professional acting in the 1980s and then travel the world for more than a decade. And the ingenuity, well, that’s how he’s been able to indulge his passion throughout the decades—both his artistic work and his travels have been supported by trade work and odd jobs. You name it, and he’s probably done it. Firefighter? Check. Electrician? Check. Painter? Check. Truck driver? Check. Salesman? Check.
Rivera’s youth was spent between his birthplace, New York City, and his parents’ homeland, Puerto Rico, giving him the quintessentially American experience of Anglo, Latin and African-American cultures. By the late 1970s, he was settled in Orlando, married (for the first time) and with a daughter. On a whim, he accompanied a friend to Jacksonville to audition for talent scouts representing the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. “I had done a little acting in high school,” he said. “I loved to write. I loved poetry. But I didn’t expect to hear anything back.”
Months later, however, he did. In the meantime, marriage number one had fallen apart, and Rivera’s ex-wife and daughter had split to Connecticut. New York looked all the more attractive, if only so he could be close to his daughter. He attended the academy for one year, in 1982, and spent the rest of the decade taking workshops, auditioning and working the occasional acting gig. He was even invited to audition for the uber-prestigious Actors Studio, although he didn’t make the cut. “The fact that they even gave me a shot at it was a big deal,” he said. “It gave me confidence.”
Alas, confidence doesn’t pay the rent, so Rivera supported himself with trade work. “Somehow, through a friend, I got into the New York Public Library as a helper painter, then as an electrician. I was in the union; the pay was great, and I got four weeks of vacation!” He used the opportunity to travel, making a grand tour of Europe—both West and East—in 1985. The experience expanded his community of friends and sowed the seeds of his future wanderlust. Before long, his New York apartment was a virtual hostel for international travelers, and Rivera himself would soon pack his bags.
“By 1989, my acting career was going nowhere,” Rivera said. “My friends who were doing it longer than me were still starving, too, living on deli coffee and bagels. So I sold everything, found homes for my two cats, and gave the key to my landlord.” Then, he bought a car and drove. And drove. And drove, staying with friends old and new, doing odd jobs and humanitarian work for a few weeks at a time before moving on to the next town, the next country, the next continent. “One year turned into 14.”
Fast forward to Maui, where Rivera found himself living for four years with a second wife, a French lass who eventually wanted to move closer to France. Rivera recalled the quaint village of San Agustín from his grade-school Spanish history books. It was a solid geographic compromise, and in a slight variant of the Tom T. Hall country classic, that’s how he got to St. Augustine. That was 2006. But marriages fall through, and so often they do. Within two years, Madame Rivera and their young son had left for La France. Monsieur remained in the Ancient City and worked his usual hustles to make ends meet. He assumed care of his ailing mother, who still lives with him in St. Augustine’s historic Abbott Tract neighborhood. Then he hatched his idea for a media and production outfit dedicated exclusively to his new town.
“I realized that St. Augustine was being mistreated, neglected,” Rivera recalled. “Many people don’t even know this place exists. Jacksonville media doesn’t really cover St Augustine. I love Melissa Ross; she’s one of the few that covers what happens here. So I started FirstCoast.TV with a friend: Fernando Bernall. After a few months, he felt it was too much work. He had a family to support, and there was no money in it. I was on my own, armed with only an iPhone 5s.”
Rivera styled the company “The Gentle Voice of the Community” and set out documenting local events, accumulating professional gear—and learning how to use it—as he went along. “I’ve always loved film. I’ve always had that aesthetic eye,” Rivera said. “It’s like someone who likes fashion but doesn’t sew; he knows where he wants to go but has to learn how to get there. Lots of tutorials, lots of Googling, lots of experimentation, and you just get better and better.”
In 2017, he launched the first season of St. Augustine Tonight. “The idea came about from FirstCoast.TV just meeting these incredible people,” he explained. “For some of them, their glory years were over, but they had incredible stories to tell. And some were just beginning to live their dreams. I realized we could do a tonight show featuring these personalities.”
Between his reporting for FirstCoast.TV and St. Augustine Tonight, Rivera’s work has become a digital library of city life: “I felt it was my duty to keep the city present in some sort of video format. Someone even told me, whether I know it or not, I’m creating a video archive of this city.”