Leaning down at my friend’s bedside at UMC last month, I heard distressing words:
“What did I really do that was worth anything?” Anthony Del Valle asked me, understandably depressed as illness wracked his body and doubt clouded his mind. “All I did was criticize people.”
Looking back over his years as the dean of this city’s theater critics, that is the only egregiously wrongheaded critique he ever issued.
Underscoring that was the crowd of local theater and media people gathered at Las Vegas Little Theatre on June 15 for a memorial to remember Del Valle. The longtime critic and columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Las Vegas CityLife—whose pull-no-punches reviews were the barometer for community performers and affected box-office sales throughout the city—died May 21 at age 60. Among those on hand were Smith Center President Myron Martin, former Rep. Shelley Berkley, local actors TJ Larsen, Erik Amblad and Lysander Abadia, Onyx Theatre co-owner Michael Morse and colleagues from the R-J and CityLife.
Organized by local playwright/director Paul Thornton and Las Vegas Night Beat publisher Bill Schafer, the 45-minute salute opted for celebration over mourning. Setting the tone were musician Bill Fayne and actress Kellie Wright, performing a witty paean to the love-hate relationship between critics and actors.
Tributes, both touching and funny, followed from friends and admirers, including CityLife’s arts & entertainment editor Mike Prevatt, ex-film editor Anthony Allison and myself. Tearing up, actress Amanda Kraft read a letter from actor/director Brandon Burk, Del Valle’s close friend who is imprisoned at the Southern Desert Correctional Center for causing a man’s death by driving drunk in 2007.
Citing Del Valle’s tradition of bestowing his annual “Tony awards” in CityLife and the R-J, Schafer announced that he still plans to establish similar honors in the late critic’s name, despite some controversy over the value of performance awards on Facebook recently.
Wrapping up the remembrance, Wright and Fayne led a sing-along to “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
In the days following my friend’s passing, Facebook posts poured in praising Del Valle’s encyclopedic theatrical knowledge, his impact as a champion of community theater by dint of his honest and insightful assessments, and his one-on-one kindness and encouragement to local performers, playwrights and directors.
All true, yet the appreciation likely would’ve surprised him, given that critics are respected but rarely cherished, and antipathy toward his uncompromising style often grew intense. Yet unlike in cities such as New York and Los Angeles, where he would be one among many influential critical voices, here in Vegas he emerged as the brand name for theater passion. (No offense to other local critics, including myself, who toiled beside him.)
In an American culture where the creative nourishment of live theater is regarded as an entertainment afterthought, my friend’s life’s work in this city was damn near heroic, his contribution priceless. It should always be remembered that way.
What did I really do that was worth anything? I can still hear him say in that hospital room.
Had he been hovering in spirit as songs were sung in his honor, admiration and affection were expressed and funny Tony stories were swapped, he’d have to concede that just this once, others had the better critical perspective.