Originally created 04/08/06

Fate and luck in Las Vegas for Louisiana singer

LAS VEGAS - The condominium is plush with marble and hardwood, but the residents are still living out of suitcases.

Clothes drape off chairs, and CDs and photos litter shelves. The clutter is reminiscent of the detritus - in better-than-average surroundings - that might accompany those who've fled a hurricane.

These refugees, though, have fared better than most.

Sarah Todora, an unassuming 18-year-old with a Louisiana drawl, has landed a gig at the Sahara hotel and casino on the Las Vegas Strip. And thanks to a mysterious benefactor, Todora and her father-promoter, Phil, 44, stay for free at a three-bedroom 2,825-square-foot condominium in a high-rise luxury tower where residences sell for up to $9 million.

It's an upbeat twist of fate in a city known for its second chances. And the show-business community's embrace of their plight is a world removed from the cold devastation the pair faced when Katrina blew ashore.

"I know it ain't me," said Todora, whose smoky presence on stage belies her shyness off it. "So yeah, got to be faith, got to be God. Something."

Three months ago, after their car was stolen and with no real prospects in Las Vegas, the Todoras were prepared to retreat to Louisiana, even after hurricanes had put New Orleans under water.

The Lafayette, La., natives had come west to promote bands from New Orleans. But two days after arriving, Katrina hit back home. It took three weeks before the Todoras could reach any of the band members they represented, by then scattered by the storms to Houston, New York and Atlanta.

"These are whole bands that got separated," Phil Todora said. "Instruments, CDs, press kits, computers, everything gone."

The Todoras spent their first weeks in Nevada at a budget motel, numb as TV broadcasts relayed the Gulf Coast's unfolding disaster. A cemetery they were familiar with was pictured under water. One of the musicians they represented, vocalist and drummer Joe Gunn, had lived just down the road.

"We kind of knew the devastation without people having to say," Phil Todora said.

Their reason for being in Las Vegas was all but gone and the money was quickly running out. But Sarah Todora had won praise for her husky vocals at some festivals in Louisiana and Washington, D.C., and wasn't quite ready to give up.

"Sarah said, 'Dad, let's go. Everybody else is back home but me and you are here. Let's go do it. You do what you do, I'll do what I do and we'll crawl out of this hole,'" he recalled.

Phil Todora approached Jerry Tiffe, a friend of a friend and a lounge singer who for 28 years worked places like the Sands and Tropicana.

Tiffe let Sarah perform with him at a neighborhood restaurant and lounge, and helped spread the refugees' story.

"Everybody at the time, all of Las Vegas, no matter who you called for help, everybody wanted to help," Tiffe said.

"We had a lot of benefits on Saturday nights to raise money for them," he said. "Helping them is one thing. You know, you give them a few bucks every day. But that's not enough. They needed work and a place to live."

Then, thanks to a call from Tiffe, the Sahara's director of marketing and entertainment, Ron Garrett, dropped by to catch the act.

In the show, the willowy blonde segues from covers of Tracy Chapman and Norah Jones to an original song inspired by her encounter with a fast-talking Nashville promoter. In a guttural performance of "Too Young for Nashville," she tells how she gave up aspirations to be the next LeAnn Rimes so she could sing the blues.

"First of all she was very good, and I thought it would be nice to have something like that here at my Casbar Lounge," Garrett said. He invited the Todoras in to talk.

That's when their car, a 1986 Honda Accord with 180,000 miles on it, was stolen.

Their misfortune was reported in a newspaper story in the Las Vegas Sun on Dec. 8 along with mention of a benefit at a downtown club. Sarah was to perform with another Louisiana performer to raise money for themselves.

The benefactor, a businessman who wishes to remain anonymous, showed up with an offer of help - they could stay at his place for $1 a month for six months. They moved in January.

Across the street, Sarah could see the bright lights of the Sahara casino as she looked out her bedroom window.

Garrett signed her for a week, starting Feb. 1, with three daily afternoon performances.

"The response was phenomenal," he said. "So I extended her for a second week."

By early March, Sarah had a regular evening slot, performing two weeks every month.

"I think everything that's happened... has just been such a blessing," the young singer said.

A live CD of her Sahara performance is in the works. And the House of Blues at the Mandalay Bay casino resort down the Strip plans to book her in May and June, her father said.

Tiffe says helping the Todoras has changed his life.

"When you're an entertainer, you're always trying to make it," he said. "When you stop thinking about yourself, it feels good for a change."


On the Net: Sahara Hotel & Casino: http://www.saharavegas.com/shows/casbar-todora.html


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