The Best Story I Never Told

 Amargosa Opera House

Amargosa Opera House

Soon after I returned to Las Vegas to work at KLAS, I was assigned a story in Death Valley. It was beautiful. I’d never been there before.

On the way back to the station, my photographer and I drove through the small town of Death Valley Junction, California.

There is very little there. It’s easy for things to standout, easy to see the words “Opera House” painted on the outside of building.

I was unaware of the Amargosa Opera House or its long existence as an artistic beacon in the middle of nowhere.

Soon, I researched the place, learned of its history, its longtime curator and its near death.

I had to tell this story.


The story was supposed to air on KLAS in November, 2017. Due to a technical glitch, almost all of the video was lost forever.

But the script remained.

Below is a reworked version of that television script as it would have been presented then.

It remains the best story no one will ever see.

It's late October in the middle of nowhere. Opening night, at the Amargosa Opera House.

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It sits in the desert basin, Death Valley to be precise. The theatre lies at the end of a line of single-story hotel rooms. A transformed barracks from old mining days turned into a tiny, tourist oasis.

A gorgeous dusk formed above the isolation. Inside the theatre, seats filled up with one exception. Backstage, the star paced nervously.

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“I’m just trying not to cry on stage,” said dancer Hilda Vazquez, “For me, this is all about Marta and all of her people are here to see a piece of her.”

On paper, Vazquez was the star of her own performance. When the curtain rose, she would be the only one on stage, assuming a kaleidoscope of characters. Still, she knew what the capacity audience of about 100 people knew.

The real star is Marta Becket. None of this would be possible without her.

“In a real hard-scrabble environment, the desert, where you’re challenged with everything. Water. Just survival itself. Marta thrived,” recalled Fred Conboy.

Conboy remembered when he first met Becket years ago. He saw the barracks new role as a hotel and went inside the opera house for the first time, complete with its own painted audience.

"I just immediately bonded with this woman,” said Conboy, who now serves as President of the hotel’s Board of Directors, “She had done this seemingly amazing and quite improbable thing...in the desert."

The Amargosa Opera House was Becket’s canvas. Her arrival in the desert is legendary. It was 1967. The ballet dancer and artist was driving through from New York, her tire blew. She never left.

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As she explained, Death Valley Junction became, “the permanent home for characters, my dances, my painted audience and future creations."

In January 2017, Becket passed away. She was 92. Vazquez was her final prodigy. Responsible for carrying on Becket’s unique, quirky and beautiful legacy.

“A genius,” Vazquez described, “I promised (Marta) I won’t change a thing. I’ll do my best. Then, she said, ‘see you later, alligator!’ I said, ‘in a while crocodile!’

“That was it. I never saw her again.”

Becket’s passing filled the Death Valley Junction community with grief. It also opened a wound that had grown in her final years. Financial mismanagement.

“It was a bit precarious,” said Conboy.

Deferred payments and unpaid taxes rose to a crescendo that nearly brought the opera house and hotel to its knees.

“There was a time when we thought there might be a foreclosure,” continued Conboy, “We nearly went to a fire sale.”

Like any good drama, there was a savior. Conboy and others helped straighten out the books. Now a non-profit in good standing, the Amargosa Opera House aims to continue its artistic mission.

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This then was opening night. The first without Becket sitting in her chosen front row chair. On this night, it was peppered with flowers. Even though Becket was gone her presence lingered backstage as Vazquez began.

“I hear her voice,” she said, “She’s like, do this. Do that.”

Faded music played over the hushed crowd. Vazquez twirled on the rickety old stage doing what she thought Marta would approve.

The scratchy audio played Marta’s own voice introducing her successor. A population of one onstage before the curator’s closest friends and admirers.

“It was difficult to see any part of this,” said one of Marta’s former co-workers, “She’d be sitting in this chair right here and enjoying every minute of it.”

If Marta Becket danced into Death Valley by accident, friends say she is still here "dancing on sands." As long as the opera house remains, her work will never be done.

“If you miss here and you come here, you’ll find peace,” said Vazquez, “You’ll feel like you’re with her.

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One October

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    The memorial is just a block or so away from my home.  Even in scalding heat, the walk is not too far.  A right here, a left there, then straight for a couple of blocks.  Follow the bus lines on Casino Center Drive, ignore the empty lots, cheap apartment buildings, bail bond offices, stray couches and it appears.  The Downtown Healing Garden.

    58 names are stapled to a rickety wooden framework of mourning.  Pictures and cards and flowers benefit from the lack of rain and linger in the desert air.  Or, at least they have since last October.

    It is the open reminder of Las Vegas’s pain tucked into an area few need to visit.  The memorial is miles from the reason it exists.  City leaders planned to make it a park.  Instead, it is the sore that, so far, has not completely healed.

    In truth, the memorials in our minds and our hearts last longer than the ones on the street.  They sit readily accessible for better and for worse.

    For those subjected to the horror at the Route 91 Harvest Festival on October 1, 2017, I cannot comprehend the memorials that are tucked into their lives.  I can only recollect the one down the street.   

    And the one created by my own experience.

    The conversation was proper journalism.  In the newsroom at KLAS, producer Alan Squires and I were crafting the 11 p.m. newscast.

    An hour before the show, we debated what was the story of the day: the release of O.J. Simpson from a Nevada prison.  Specifically, we discussed whether to use video of him at a nowhere rest stop being hassled by a cameraman.  Personally, it wreaked of tabloid news.

    In the end, we agreed not to use the video and prepared to move forward finalizing the newscast.  At about 10:20, it all became insignificant.

    I’ll never forget what I saw and heard.  Alan abruptly stood up from his desk, police scanners in both hands.

    “Umm, I’m hearing more than a dozen people shot on the Strip,” he hastily, but coherently stated.

    You don’t believe it.  You assume it’s a mistake or a drill.  You quickly realize it’s not.

    Other police scanners lit up with breathless panic and urgent calls for help.  Phones in the newsroom chirped relentlessly.  They heard the shots.  They saw the panic.  They heard a rumor of this or made assumptions of that.

    One of our station’s producers was right in the middle of the festival grounds.  Her heartbreaking call confirmed the worst.

    It was only as I hung up the phone the fifth or sixth time I realized Alan and I were the only ones in the newsroom as the deadliest night in Las Vegas history unfolded.  A man had turned a suite at the Mandalay Bay hotel into a perch for carnage.

    Our only reporter and photographer were called and sent to the scene.  I sprinted into the sports department.  The anchor and reporter were doing very little.  I asked politely if they could answer the phones.  We needed to get on the air.

    It was frantic.  It was determined.  Bosses were told to call in the cavalry.

    By 10:40, I walked briskly into the studio and barely said a word to anyone.  I’ve never been so focused.  In my subconscious, I knew an evil event had taken place and I felt a responsibility to get it right.

    Within moments, we were on television.  Just me, our reporter who was in her first week or so on the job and a battery of cameras from the state.  It wasn’t much, but it’s all we could do.

    Information trickled in.  So did reinforcements.  I anchored alone for about two hours, then was joined by lead anchor Dave Courvoisier.  In total, I was on the air for five hours of unscripted, haunting, moving and simply tragic television.

    Then the numbers came in.  Two, then 20, then more than 50 dead.  The first-hand accounts.  The social media posts of the shooting itself.  There really was little to add aside from guiding viewers through it all.  In a way, I was probably guiding myself too.

    At 4 a.m., we were relieved by the morning crew.  In the time I was in the studio, I was oblivious to what was happening outside those four walls.  All I knew was the information I was fed and the task I had to fulfill.

    By then, the newsroom was full.  Boxes of donuts were stacked high giving sustenance to a crew that knew we were in for long days.  My news director and general manager hugged me and asked if I was okay, then told me to go home.  I’d been at work for 14 hours.

    Like any journalist with a reasonably long career, I had covered tragic events.  But this went deeper.  This was my adopted hometown, where I went to high school, where my family has lived for more than 20 years.  This one hurt.

    Comparing the relative safety of a television studio to the unrivaled trauma at the Route 91 Harvest Festival would be unbelievably foolish.  My connection to One-October is not meant to be a comparison, merely a recollection.

    Reluctantly, I left the newsroom knowing I would be back at work a few hours later.  I left my car in silence and let the empty air act as a mental pause button.  I drove towards downtown, past the shady motels and fenced off reminders of failed business.  The ten minute journey drifted next to an empty lot I’d seen before and I’ve seen dozens of times since.

    On October 2, the memorial hadn’t been built yet.  Just the one in my mind.

A Name in Lights

In every way possible, it is an unnatural and impossible way to work.  The body is not designed to operate at its peak when most of the world is sleeping.  And yet, that is exactly my new task at KLAS, morning co-anchor.

The sleep is rarely deep.  If it is, it’s rarely long enough.  My colleagues call it a constant state of sleep deprivation.  Battling off a plague of yawns while on television is a new skill I am learning.

The alarm goes off at 1 A.M..  Work starts about an hour later.  By 4 A.M., the show is underway and does not stop for three more hours.  In that time, you’re expected to be a friendly face while at the same time rewriting scripts, following the news, talking with producers and simply staying up to speed.

Like most other aspects of journalism, it is the surrounding team and co-workers that make an unnatural lifestyle beyond bearable and tolerable.  Instead, it is rewarding and enjoyable.  

As strange as the hours are, as odd as habits can become and as disrupted as life now becomes, pride and responsibility overshadow it all.

So big deal.  I have a promotion.  There'll be promotions and pictures and all sorts of reminders to the public that now, I have a new job.

That's far from the most interesting reason for a blog.

What IS interesting is one part of the new job.  A 10 minute sliver of this city showcasing what most of Las Vegas never sees or chooses to ignore.

It’s Las Vegas Boulevard between downtown and, roughly, the enormous Convention Center.  The drive is stark.  Almost no one is on the sidewalk or the road.  Lower the windows and the gentle hum of covert activity is faintly heard.

Darkened figures that do happen to be awake shuffle along, destination unknown or non-existent.  One imagines their past, or more tragically, their future.  

Closer to the Stratosphere and the occasional tourist is evident by flashier clothes.  Their night is ending as my morning begins.

This is not the Las Vegas Boulevard lined with massive casinos and bright lights.  This is the street speckled with cheap wedding chapels, motels, convenience stores and fenced off remains of failed business.

It will be the commute everyday, a strange reminder of the hopeless and nameless every city contains and Las Vegas consistently moves beyond.

An urgent need to find out their stories rises within on each commute to work.  Perhaps, the fact their story isn’t told is a tale itself.  From that anonymity is one of the city’s truths.  Names in lights will always mean more.

The Bandwagon

Their presence is easily identifiable by the sporadic cheering.  Hoots and hollers from the bowels of Channel 8, not coincidentally, at the same time as a Vegas Golden Knights game.

In this case, it was a matchup with the Anaheim Ducks.  A true test of the expansion team, which through the first half of the season, has passed nearly every exam.

A young core of the technical staff at KLAS are among the first, charter members of the Golden Knights’ bandwagon.  If game night and work are the same, the small room normally used for editing video and tuning in live shots becomes a closet-sized viewing party.  

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Don’t worry, the work still gets done.

On this occasion, I joined the small gang of flat-brimmed hat wearing, jersey donning Golden Knights supporters.  The idea of in-depth hockey discussion in the desert is no longer strange, even for a relative local.  

Carlos and Jeff, like myself, play the game.  Ryan is slowly learning the sport.  Jonathan on the assignment desk is a, shall we say, passionate Los Angeles Kings fan nonetheless enthralled by the newcomers.  Conversations bounce between whether the team will trade its assets and plan for the future, to whether Vegas can make the playoffs.

The December game with Anaheim eventually found its way into overtime before Vegas, as they seem to do like clockwork, won again.  An brief eruption of shock could be heard from the station’s core as the small group of us celebrated.  But beyond that, it’s another striking reminder of the grip the team has on Las Vegas.

If it’s not in a darkened corner of a television station, the same enthusiasm can be found at the restaurant at City National Arena, where the Golden Knights practice.  On game night, the place is packed.  When the national anthem is sung, everyone stands.  When the team scores, chants start spontaneously.

One is well aware Las Vegas’s hockey fan base is not as large, or even as passionate, as other established cities.  Comparing the desert to Montreal or Boston would be ill-advised.

Comparing the newest NHL market with Phoenix, or Carolina, or another relatively recent addition to the league shows how fast this franchise has been embraced.  Winning has a lot to do with that, and the Golden Knights seem to win frequently.  It’s also the valley’s first major, professional sports team.  

Maybe Las Vegas just wanted something to cheer for.

The "Real Season"

     This was when the real season would begin.  On the road, for three weeks starting at the end of October.  Eight of nine games outside of Las Vegas.

    Leading up to the trip was a whirlwind of acknowledging tragedy, introducing the Vegas Golden Knights to their hometown and, quite simply, winning.

    From the press box, there was undoubtedly an energy in T-Mobile Arena for the first home stand.  Even if large portions of the crowd wanted the lighter jerseys to win, the buzz was unmistakable.

    Walking the concourse during the Golden Knights game against Chicago, one sensed the joy of a winning team, but also the thrill of professional sports finally arriving in Las Vegas.

    It was like a new toy everyone in Southern Nevada wanted to play with.

    True to form, the Golden Knights were dominant at home.  Their forechecking from game-to-game was relentless.  The defense was tight, forcing attacks wide and minimizing pressure on goal.

    The easy reflex was for cynics to assume the first road trip, the journey to New York and Boston, Toronto and Montreal, that would be where the rubber met the road.

    Complicating the entire endeavor were two changes to the roster.  One, the departure of touted free agent Vadim Shipachov back to Russia, seemed inevitable.

    The Golden Knights lost star goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury October 13, concussed by a passing Detroit Red Wings forward.

    Fleury’s replacement, Malcolm Subban, only lasted a few ore games himself.  The carousel of goaltenders would have set back even the most established teams.

    “We’re an expansion team and guys are getting the opportunity to play,” explained head coach Gerard Gallant after an overtime win over St. Louis, “It’s all fresh, it’s all brand new.

    “When you get a chance, the next guy up just does the job,” he added.

    So Subban led to Oscar Dansk, who in turn led to Maxime Lagace.  For the most part, all were thrust into an unexpected position.  And all, for the most part, succeeded.

    After a 7-0 win over Colorado at home, the Golden Knights embarked on the long road trip.  The “real season” started with three straight losses to the Rangers, Islanders and Bruins.

    A victory in Ottawa was punctuated with another pair of losses, hard-fought though they were, in Toronto and Montreal.

    However, by the end of November Vegas was back at home.  Struggles against Eastern Conference teams was mitigated by a return to division and Western opponents.

    “We don’t have a very good group on paper,” commented forward Jonathan Marchessault after a post-Thanksgiving win over the Sharks, “We need to work harder than our opponents.”

    Exhilarating wins over Los Angeles and San Jose put the expansion Vegas Golden Knights into first place in the Pacific Division.  The first real test now blends into a long season full of them.  So far, expectations of failure have blended into history as well.

Hockey, Hockey, Hockey

It would never happen.  

The team, the arena.  The fans, the league.  The thought of professional ice hockey in Las Vegas seemed foreign to the point of being ridiculous.

Perhaps it was years of loving the game that infused this jaded mind.  Or the season tickets the family had for the raucous Las Vegas Thunder or the less-raucous, but still successful Las Vegas Wranglers.

It also could be tied to years of playing the game, studying the history of the NHL observing what works and what doesn’t.

The NHL in Las Vegas would never work.

Both the Thunder and Wranglers came and went.  Hockey, by and large, vanished from Las Vegas as well.  Rinks built during the economic boom went back to being the empty warehouses they were before.  

Nevertheless, someone wanted to bring professional hockey to the city.  Count me among the naysayers.

Locals don’t want to go to the Strip.

There’s no fan base.

Also…what?

But then, here they were.  A wealthy banker, a new arena and loads of season ticket holders gave birth to the Vegas Golden Knights.

Cue October 10.  The emotional component of Las Vegas’s tragedy just days earlier cannot be ignored.  The Golden Knights were ready to play its home opener and the addition of a united community looking for distraction only fueled the energy within the team.

It’s only been a month of Golden Knights hockey.  The team has gotten off to a start unprecedented for an expansion franchise.  But perhaps also unprecedented is the start for the team.  Hiccups?  Sure.  Crowds overloaded with visiting team fans?  No doubt.  

But it’s working.  It’s happening.  It’s remarkable.

Enjoy the ride.