Buffalo people take great pride in their reputation as the City of Good Neighbors. We might not finish first, but it’s become part of the cultural ethos to be the first to reach out in a crisis.
So it seems fitting that during a global pandemic, a Western New York native would be working to help the struggling performers and artists in the tourist Mecca of Las Vegas.
Melissa Vargo, a native of Orchard Park and a Buffalo State graduate, owns a production agency in Vegas. Melissa Vargo Productions (MVP) provides professional talent — aerialists, dancers, models, etc. — for major events. She has a major partnership with the Wynn Encore, a luxury resort and casino.
Vargo moved to Vegas seven years ago to dance, after studying for a year in Beijing, China. She danced and did side gigs to make ends meet, like so many young performers. She found her way to the production world, though it was a struggle. But after sending proposals to the Wynn for three years, she finally broke through. When the new year arrived, she had three major accounts, and her business was beginning to take off.
Then the coronavirus hit. While the virus hasn’t hit the state especially hard — as of Thursday, Nevada had reported 3,321 positive COVID-19 cases and 142 deaths — the impact on the Las Vegas economy has been devastating — what Brittany Bronson described in the New York Times as “a complete halt to the beating heart of our economy”.
The Vegas economy relies on tourism, a singular and fragile industry fueled by largely “non-essential” workers. More than 200,000 casino workers were affected by mandatory closings, and there were 92,00o unemployment claims in the state in the first week after the shutdown.
Vargo understands the worker’s life in Vegas, having lived it. She knows the toll the virus is taking on the artists’ community — to their checkbooks, social life and mental health.
So she created the Las Vegas Performers Relief Fund to help alleviate the financial stress of the local performing arts community. The fund will provide tax-free funds for various hardships, such as health care, food, utilities and rent or mortgage payments.
“Las Vegas thrives on tourism,” Vargo said by phone Thursday. “People survive on other people coming here. With the casinos shut down and these shows dark, there’s no events going on, nothing going on in the city. No one’s working. I don’t know the exact numbers on unemployment, but we’re one of the highest in the country.”
“What’s sad is a lot of these professional dancers have their nightly shows, then some of them have little part-time jobs serving or bartending in the service industries. Their other jobs are shut down, too. How many options can these performers and artists really have?”
Vargo said most of the workers are independent contractors, which makes it harder to get unemployment. Many of them are from other countries and lack the family support system that many Americans take for granted.
“A lot of these artists here really don’t have that,” she said. “They moved from countries where they trained to be circus entertainers or amazing dancers. They don’t have that family background. If they don’t have the means to support themselves for an extended period of time, what do they do?”
She worries about people with gambling and substance addictions. Alcohol sales have soared in Las Vegas. Plus, there’s the loneliness inherent in having to be isolated.
“The lockdown is going to have such a negative effect on people’s mental health,” Vargo said. “I can see the suicide rate going up. I’ve already heard two stories. There was a suicide in the performing arts high school. I can only imagine when it comes to the end of May, or June, or however long this lasts.”
Mental health is a personal issue for Vargo. Five years ago, her uncle committed suicide. She saw how it shook her family members, and how reluctant many of them were to even talk about it.
“It’s such a stigma and people don’t talk about it,” she said, “and it’s such a big problem.”
So Vargo was determined to make a difference well before the coronavirus pandemic. Two years ago, she decided to start a non-profit organization.
“I bought the domain and said, ‘I’ll do this’. My business was booming. But I was always busy. I teach dance on the side, still. I don’t dance professionally anymore. I did my last show in December and my body has just kind of had enough.’
“Then when all the pandemic stuff happened, I felt it was the perfect time to work on it.”
A month or so ago, she launched the Vargo Foundation. The Performers Relief Fund is part of that. Last week, the foundation got 501-(c)(3) status, which establishes it as a non-profit organization with the attendant tax exemptions.
But her larger vision is doing a televised fund-raiser — Performers With Purpose — to raise awareness about mental health and suicide prevention, while helping shatter the stigmas and misconceptions about mental illness. She’s hoping she can do in the fall.
“So I want to do this big show,” she said. “I want it to be televised. Cirque de Soleil does a show similar to this. They raise over a million dollars for the One Drop Foundation, which gives clean water to people in third world countries.
“I want to do this on this topic because it’s something people don’t talk about. Maybe art can heal in a different way to many different people.”
Vargo will turn 30 next week. She said she never imagined having her own business when she moved to Vegas to dance in 2013. She’s grown up a lot since then. It was tough, going through the suicide of a family member. She remembers comforting her mother and thinking she would process her ownl feelings later.
How could he do this, she thought to herself? At first, she was angry and thought of suicide as an essentially selfish act.
“Now, after all the time I’ve put in researching mental health, I know when someone suffers from a depression, they’re not selfish,” she said. “It’s not like they choose that.”
Lately, Vargo has been looking around Las Vegas and seeing it as one large, mentally fragile entity. The workers didn’t choose this crisis. They need help. Like anyone from the City of Good Neighbors, she chose to make a difference.