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In Support of Puerto Rico

Sixteen months ago Hurricane Maria, a once in a lifetime deadly catastrophic natural disaster delivered a body blow to the island of Puerto Rico, knocking it to its knees. The United States Territory has an extensive and impressive boxing history and much like Puerto Rico’s most famous pugilist, Miguel Cotto, the island’s first four-division world champion, it has picked itself up from the mat in a spectacular comeback.

“Puerto Rico is back and open for business,” Jimmy Fallon shouted to the millions who watched his “Tonight Show Live with Jimmy Fallon” on December 18 at the end of an interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the award-winning composer, lyricist and actor who created and wrote the Tony-winning “Hamilton: An American Musical,” inspired by the 2004 biography, Alexander Hamilton, by author and historian Ron Chernow.

During that interview about Hamilton, which is playing to nightly sellouts on Broadway, Miranda talked about the relief efforts in his homeland and how much more needed to be done. He then announced plans to bring Hamilton to Puerto Rico for a 17-day run as a fundraiser for hurricane relief and the island’s arts programs. That’s when Fallon announced he was also bringing “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” to Puerto Rico to promote its recovery through the eyes of Miranda and be there for the opening of Hamilton by its hometown hero, who returns to perform the lead role again.

‘The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon’ from Puerto Rico airs Tuesday, January 15 at 11:35 p.m. on WGRZ-TV Ch. 2. It is must watch TV as you will see, probably for the first time, a late-night entertainment show goes on the road for truly humanitarian reasons.

Miranda, 38, a Puerto Rico native raised in New York City and who regularly visits the island, helped raise nearly $50 million in the aftermath of Maria in disaster relief for the Hispanic Foundation. He also was quite vocal in Washington, D.C. seeking support from political leaders for an American outpost that has long felt neglected by the country that owns it and, in the aftermath of Maria, seems to have abandoned it.

The horrific Category 5 hurricane, with sustained winds at 175 mph taking direct aim at the island of 3.4 million residents for several days straight, resulted in 3,057 fatalities and $96.61 billion in total losses. Maria destroyed the island’s archaic power grids, leaving parts of Puerto Rico powerless for up to a year. Food, water and cleaning supplies were in constant demand and more than 100,000 residents left the island for mainland USA, mostly to Florida and New York with thousands re-locating near family and friends in Buffalo.

This is appreciation plaque that is on the wall to one of the orphanages

Casimiro D. Rodriguez Sr., President of the Hispanic Heritage Council (HHC) of Western New York, joined other community based Hispanic organizations to resettle the displaced Puerto Rican families in Buffalo as many arrived with just the clothes on their back and a temperature differential of nearly 60 degrees.

Once they were settled here, the WNY Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief Fund Committee joined forces with city, county, and state government support and local donations promoted by the WNY media to raise $228,000. They used $180,000 to rebuild three orphanages, install and distribute water purification systems in hospitals, schools, community centers and homes along with providing funding for solar power generators for families left with no power for many months.

Funds were also used for a human services organization that provides emotional and mental counseling for individuals suffering from depression and distress as a result of their Hurricane Maria experience.   The balance of local monies raised were used to resettle the families in Buffalo.

Caz Rodriguez of the WNY Puerto Rico Hurricane Maria Relief Fund Committee presenting a check to a representative for the orphanage in Puerto Rico | Photo courtesy Hispanic Heritage Council

Rodriguez said this was a total team effort of all community-based Hispanic organizations and its leadership and membership. “We all came together for our homeland,” he said.

“This has been an exciting week and one that we as Puerto Ricans will always remember—the premier of Hamilton at El Centro de Bellas Artes makes us very proud of our roots and heritage,” added Rodriguez, who spent four months on the island as a volunteer in the aftermath of Maria. “To have a national television show like Jimmy Fallon travel and spend days on the island to film a special illustrates to us that Puerto Rico has not been forgotten and it continues to live up to its motto as the Shining Star of the Caribbean.

“The Buffalo Hispanic Community will be tuned into Channel 2 on Tuesday night and we are extremely grateful to Jimmy Fallon and the NBC network. We sincerely hope we can return our heartfelt gratitude and appreciation by inviting Jimmy Fallon to Buffalo, the City of Good Neighbors and show him our Puerto Rico love here,” he continued.

My wife, Debbie and I have been vacationing in Puerto Rico for the past five years. Debbie calls it “the Hawaii of the East” and we just love the entire island, its people, the food, entertainment, beaches and its consistent sunny, beautiful weather. However, last January and again this year, friends would ask, “Why Puerto Rico? Didn’t Maria devastate it?”

Yes, we would tell them, Maria did knock it to the mat, and it was a bloody mess. But it slowly rose and today it is standing tall and proud even though the recovery effort has a way to go and each fall another hurricane season begins.

From our vantage point, NBC spared no expense in fulfilling Fallon’s wish to support his good friend, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s quest to raise money and awareness for Puerto Rico relief efforts. While watching the Tonight Show from here last week we heard Fallon enthusiastically promote they were coming here for Tuesday’s show.

That prompted me to quickly put on my Clark Kent outfit and learned they were staying down the beach from us at the iconic El San Juan Hotel, a gorgeous property recently opened after nearly $80 million in renovations from Maria. There were rumors Presidents Obama and Clinton and their wives were coming to Puerto Rico for the exclusive opening of Hamilton this past Friday evening. We thought they were staying at the El San Juan Hotel when we saw a parade of black SUVs and several black eight-passenger vehicles, all with tinted windows, pull up to the hotel.

Jorge, Jimmy Fallon’s driver and personal security while he was in Puerto Rico

One of the drivers told me quietly they were hired for three days by NBC on an extremely top-secret assignment with The Tonight Show cast, staff and network officials, including Jimmy Fallon and his house band, The Root’s co-leaders, Tarig “Black Thought” Trotter and drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who were classmates at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts.

The buzz around the hotel Friday and Saturday was “Have you seen Jimmy Fallon?” Hotel staff were sworn to secrecy, its in-house security was increased and food and beverage directors from other Hilton properties were called in to assist as the hotel is also housing the cast and crew of Hamilton.

With Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer and co-leader of The Roots, house band for The Tonight Show

I saw Questlove a couple of times and plenty of staff, wearing Tonight Show lanyards, were moving around, but no sight of Jimmy Fallon. Knowing Sunday was their final day on the island I arrived early and went into the beach front restaurant to see who was dining. There was plenty of staff and Questlove was having a quiet meal, but again, no Jimmy Fallon. A member of the food and beverage team said the restaurant’s top brass was working in the kitchen preparing Fallon’s specially requested breakfast with security leading the delivery to his ultra-private residence on the property.

Realizing the quest to see Jimmy Fallon live in Puerto Rico was over, I made my way to the hotel lobby’s coffee bar for my daily Green Tea and honey. While ordering, Questlove stepped up with an order to go. After complimenting him on the great sounds of The Roots Band during the nightly show, he agreed to a photo, grabbed my phone and he took a selfie of us.

Jimmy Fallon walking to his van on Sunday morning

Heading outside I saw Jorge; the driver and personal security assigned to Jimmy Fallon while he is here and realized the Tonight Show host was still in the house. Sitting on a parking lot bench adjacent to the black SUV assigned to the star of the show, I watched van after van depart with members of the production, sound, lights and make up teams there for the taping of Tuesday’s show.

NBC Tonight Show lanyard

Finally, HE emerges from a side door, smiling as he always does, wearing dark sun glasses, blue and white stripped shirt, neatly pressed jeans and sneakers.

“Jimmy, looking forward to Tuesday night’s show and thank you for all the attention you will bring to this island,” I said as he passed by.

“Thank you. That is exactly what we hope the show will do—to help them in their recovery efforts, to show the amazing beauty on this island and to encourage tourists to return,” he responded.

“I’m from Buffalo, NY and we love The Tonight Show,” I added as he got into the back seat of the vehicle. Hearing that, he steps out and says, “I love Buffalo” before agreeing to a photo (lead image). And off they went.

Tonight Show staff organizing who goes where on Sunday morning

After Googling Jimmy Fallon in Puerto Rico I saw a live video of him from the van explaining they were on the way to Toroverde, which has the island’s longest zip line (www.toroverdepr.com). The search also revealed several articles about Tuesday’s show and Fallon sightings on the island.

The Los Angeles Times said the show will highlight Puerto Rico’s culture as well as what it still faces in the aftermath of Maria. It said Fallon and guest rapper Bad Bunny, a Puerto Rico native, will perform his hit single, “Estames Bien” (“We’re Fine”)

The Orlando Sentinel said Jose Feliciano will appear with Ozuna and perform “En Mi Viego San Juan” (In my Old San Juan) and Humanitarian and renown Chef Jose Andres will discuss ongoing work of the World Central Kitchen in Puerto Rico, which he spearheaded to feed residents after Maria.

Fallon will also be at the theatre doing a skit with the cast of Hamilton and he will be joined by Miranda on a tour of the island.

Fallon, Questlove, Black Thought, Shonda Rhimes and Chernow were among the distinguished guests at the exclusive opening of Hamilton on Friday night where guests paid $5,000 per ticket for the show and an ultra-private reception with the cast afterwards. All proceeds from ticket sales went to the foundation created by Miranda, which hopes to raise $15 million from the Hamilton performances.

Dr. Raul Vasquez – President & CEO of G-Health Enterprise & Greater Buffalo United Accountable Healthcare Network based in Buffalo, New York. This was his ticket to see Hamilton.

Dr. Raul Vasquez, President & CEO of G-Health Enterprise and Greater Buffalo United Accountable, travelled from Buffalo to see the performance on Saturday, which was his birthday. “We saw the show at Shea’s in Buffalo and it was terrific but to be here and see Lin-Miguel return as Hamilton in Puerto Rico was phenomenal,” Dr. Vasquez said. “The energy level in the theatre was amazing. This was a once in a lifetime experience and hopefully the appearance of Jimmy Fallon will help bring more people and resources back to Puerto Rico.”

Puerto Rico native Raul Russi, a former Buffalo Police Department hero who has recovered from a near death shooting in 1980, and his wife, Rody, a native of Santurce, PR were here on vacation this weekend. Russi, who does amazing work for Hispanics in New York City and Buffalo, is excited about Tuesday’s Tonight Show, saying “I sincerely hope it results in all the United States citizens surrounding this island of the forgotten citizens of the United States with the same love they show one another. We need it here.”

Hernando A. Cruz, AIC, a public insurance adjuster and a native of Colombia, attended the University of Connecticut and has worked in Florida and Puerto Rico for the past 30 years, added, “This is a very important moment for Puerto Rico. I am excited that Lin-Manuel Miranda is using Hamilton to bring a spotlight to the island and raise funds for the local artists and cultural groups affected by Hurricane Maria and to raise awareness that the insurance companies need to commit to paying rightfully the insurance claims. We are a joyful community and we are thrilled to share our culture and spirit with the world as I am sure Jimmy Fallon will do on Tuesday.”

His daughter, Gabriella Cruz-Martinez, a recent graduate student in journalism from Columbia College of Chicago and English Major at the University of Puerto Rico, added, “I am hopeful the media attention will not only bring tourism back to Puerto Rico, which will boost our economy, but it will show everyone there is still much more work to be done on our road to full recovery.”

Many of the Puerto Rico residents and natives of the island have the same wish for Tuesday’s “Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” – that the late night entertainer shows a celebration of life and the light and spirit of Puerto Rico which will hopefully encourage many to select this beautiful island for their vacation spot.

Written by Michael J. Billoni

Michael J. Billoni

Former sports reporter for the now defunct Courier-Express. Former vice president/general manager of the Buffalo Bisons. Handled the promotions and publicity for Buffalo’s undefeated heavyweight boxer, “Baby Joe” Mesi. Founder and principal of Billoni Associates. Authored and managed the publication of “Robert E. Rich—Memoirs of an Innovator,” the biography of the founder of Rich Products Corp.

Mike and is wife Debbie love Western New York and always try to help others and encourage positive thoughts

View All Articles by Michael J. Billoni
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