Ordinary Vegas


Guest blogging Kathy Esqueda

Nearly every year my husband and I take a trip to Las Vegas, Nevada. We don’t gamble, eat from the giant buffets, or see a spectacular show. We’ve “been there, done that” many times during the ten years we lived in Vegas. There is natural beauty only a few miles from the bright lights of the “Strip.” But more important are the beautiful people we call “friends.”

Some of our California friends don’t understand how we can see any good in the Vegas life. That’s because they don’t know the people who live there—the families who go to church together, play sports, and organize carpools to the many selections of schools offered. How could Vegas be a good place to raise a family? And who would want to retire there?

Mark and Joan Massagli
Mark and Joan Massagli

Our Vegas friends originate from all around the U.S. One couple, Joan and Mark Massagli, wouldn’t think of living anywhere else, though neither were born in Nevada. They met while working as musicians. Joan was part of The Sawyer Sisters, a trio that included her cousins, not sisters. They were a well-known act in Reno Nevada as vocalists and instrumentalists when the trio recorded with Dynasty Records, singing a song Joan wrote called “Here I Am.”

“Here I Am” is sold online along with other tunes of the 1950’s era. Joan receives no gratuities from the sales. The song was a hit, but their agent was not honest, and while the trio was performing at the Holiday Hotel and Casino, the profits were being spent by the agent. This was not an uncommon situation during the 1950’s (not only in Nevada). The girls were still being chaperoned by family, and the agent was replaced. In 1956 the Sawyer Sisters worked the Nevada circuit, which included Lake Tahoe, Reno and Las Vegas. They were booked into Casinos in Las Vegas, such as the Flamingo, Tropicana, Riviera, Dunes, and the Frontier. Las Vegas became home to the Sawyer Sisters, and their family. The Sawyer Sisters story was recently written in a book by Claytee D. White who interviewed Joan for The Boyer Early Las Vegas Oral History Project.

The band leader handed Mark Massagli an electric bass and told him, "Just play it like a stand-up, only sideways."
The band leader handed Mark Massagli an electric bass and told him, “Just play it like a stand-up, only sideways.”

There are few people who leave such a lasting, positive impression as Mark. He is the perfect match for a beauty like Joan. They met when Mark was playing bass for a well-known headlining act at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas where the Sawyer Sisters were also booked. Through the years they would “bump” into one another while on the Nevada circuit. Joan was smitten with the Italian, and he certainly had an eye for her. In 1963 they were married, and eventually had two sons. Joan retired from show-business, and took up painting. (I met her when we were art students at Clark County Community College. Joan has a Bachelor Degree in Fine Art from U.N.L.V.) Mark went on to become president of the local musician’s union, and later president of the American Federation of Musicians. He is a modest man, and his story has not been formally written. However, anyone who knows him finds it easy to understand why he was elected to represent his fellow musicians. He truly cares about people, and is honest in his dealings. He was born in New Jersey, moved to California as a child, and through his travels as a musician he chose Las Vegas as his home. He and Joan now live in Blue Diamond, which is on the way to Vegas. Joan designed the home, and most of the place was built by family. Few of her paintings hang on the walls. Modesty runs in this family.

In order to discover the “real” Las Vegas, a person has to meet the people that love Nevada. The town has provided work for thousands, maybe millions of people through the years—musicians, chefs, waitresses, hospitality professionals, hotel management, school teachers, professors, hairdressers, seamstresses, lighting specialists, dancers, and the list could fill this page. They are all ordinary people—or maybe not. I would not call my friends, Mark and Joan, ordinary. Talented, yes, but most of all “down to earth”. Isn’t that crazy? People who work and live in and around a place built for entertainment, fantasy and glitz can be just like you and me.

I was once one of those Las Vegas people. And even though I prefer to live in my native California, I will always love the people I met in Nevada.

Next time you visit, take a drive out to the new Red Rock Visitors Center, Calico Basin, and Bonnie Springs, an animal rescue. Wild donkeys roam this area. You will see God’s creation in every form. Visit Blue Diamond at the south/west end of the strip. The once remote town is now surrounded by new housing and shopping. Visit the new museums near a newly renovated “Old Strip”. Drive around Henderson, a family oriented town with tracks of houses. Boulder City is also a small community to enjoy, home to Boulder (Hoover) Dam. Most of all, take note of the people who live in these places.