Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009 | 2 a.m.
When she was just 17, Sarah Todora’s talent was beyond compare. She sounded like a much older blues singer. Loaded with all that talent, looks and ambition, the teenager landed in Las Vegas determined to forge a career. Her stairway to the stars seemed like a runaway escalator.
Thanks to the aggressive backing of her father, Todora played a couple of free engagements at Capozzolli’s. She caught the attention of the head of entertainment at the Sahara and headlined for almost six months in the Casbar Lounge, made famous by Louis Prima. From time to time she performed for dinner crowds at the House of Blues.
Phil Todora, secure in the knowledge his daughter was on the right road, headed back to their native Louisiana.
Nothing was going to stop Sarah but Sarah.
That’s when her escalator started downward. She found a boyfriend, she says, who introduced her to methamphetamine.
Her dad returned to watch her open for the legendary Al Green at the House of Blues, but she was so strung out she couldn’t perform.
“I went with my dad for coffee a couple of days before the Al Green concert. He later told me my eyes were all over the place,” she says. “I weighed 103 pounds, when I’m normally 125.
“I told my father I loved him but that I was just waiting to die and that this was the last time he would see me.”
Phil Todora snatched his daughter the next day. “He called me up and said let’s go have lunch,” she says. When she got into the car her father started driving and didn’t stop until they arrived in Breaux Bridge, La.
“She detoxed in the car,” he says.
It didn’t take her long to land back on the streets, doing every kind of drug but meth.
“A few things happened that scared me,” she says. “I knew if I didn’t quit I was going to die. That’s when I called Dad and he took me to the hospital to detox again. I got into treatment.”
She describes a halfway house straight out of a Dickens novel and slipping back into drugs a couple of more times before she finally quit for good.
Inspired by his daughter’s experience, Phil Todora started a halfway house for women, the Open Hands Foundation.
“Women have it worse than men,” he says. “They become preyed upon.”
Sarah Todora decided she wanted to return to Las Vegas. Her singing career apparently over, she earned money walking the Strip as an M&M caricature. She worked in a video store and studied massage therapy.
One day she called her father in Louisiana and asked him to help her get back into music.
“She also told me she wanted to help start a halfway house here for recovering addicts,” Phil Todora says.
It’s a cause he is passionate about. In addition to his daughter’s problems, he’s a recovering alcoholic himself, 15 years sober. Last year he buried his 20-year-old nephew, who lost a battle with drugs.
Since returning to Las Vegas, the father and daughter have started Primary Purpose, a 12-step program under the Open Hands Foundation umbrella.
And Sarah Todora, 21, is singing again.
She was a guest artist at the Nevada Recovery Celebration at Cashman Field. She began performing at the E String bar in Henderson, where Jerry Lopez, founder of Santa Fe and the Fat City Horns, heard her.
Lopez, who has been a mainstay in the Vegas music scene for more than 30 years, says he was inspired by Sarah’s story, talent and her father’s efforts to help women in recovery.
“I’ve been in the music business my whole life. A lot of friends never made it back from drugs and alcohol, so I’m sensitive to all that,” says Lopez, who had his own issues with substance abuse in the ’70s. “When I was coming up, sex, drugs and alcohol were not only condoned but expected. We didn’t have a shot. Very few survived as working musicians.
“Sarah’s story is intriguing. It pulled at my heart strings — but it’s typical.”
Lopez describes Todora as a diamond in the rough and said he wants to help her advance her music career. “She needs something to set her apart, original music that speaks to who she is and everything about her,” he says.
As much as he is interested in helping Sarah, he also wants to help their project — Primary Purpose.
“I want to get some big names in entertainment to come together to find a way to help these women who have no place else to turn,” Lopez says.