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In the Cigar Box, Al Latta found a venue with the reputation he needed to get noticed. He also found a waitress to provide his act with plenty of broken-heart material.
Both Latta and Darlene Leto are guarded about their relationship, but the love affair has been chronicled in property-tax records and late-night barroom tales.
"It was a wonderful act," Leto says. "It wasn't anything to woo me. I loved everything he did. I loved all of his songs. I would sing behind the bar and bartend and just keep that pounding in my heart with all his songs. It was so good."
After closing time, he and the busty brunette, ten years his junior, had breakfast dates at an all-night diner inside Harrah's Casino.
The relationship got serious fast. They got together on Valentine's Day in 2000, then eloped to Vegas, Latta says. Leto got pregnant, and their son, Michael Valentino, was born in December that year. They bought a house in Blue Springs in January 2001, a two-story brick-and-shingle home within earshot of a nearby elementary school.
Latta never missed a night at the Cigar Box. He could drink three Mandarin and Sevens 30 minutes before hitting the stage and still hit all of his notes. But with domesticity, he couldn't get a break. One night, he ran over the couple's cocker spaniel by mistake. Twice.
"Entertainers lead very different lives," Latta says. "We work weekends and nights. We try so hard to make so many people happy that you forget to make the most important people happy. She'd wake up, and I'd be talking like Wayne Newton. She never knew who she was sleeping with."
"It was a good ride," she says. "It was a four-year ride. It was a thrill ride that I'll never forget. That's for sure."
One night last spring, he came home and Leto was gone. She had taken Michael Valentino and left for Vegas.
A few days before this past Christmas, Latta bellied up to the bar.
He was 40 pounds lighter than he'd been six months earlier --the result, he says, of being bitten by a brown recluse spider at another hotel.
He'd been contemplating a flight to Vegas to see his ex-wife and son. Maybe she'd come pick him up. Maybe not.
"What a scene in the movie that would be!" he exclaimed. He leaned toward a nearby bartender. "Hey, Val, if my ex-wife told me to go fuck myself, does that mean she wants to see me?"
The Christmas Eve trip was a gamble. He didn't call ahead of time.
Inside McCarran International Airport, Latta called Leto from a pay phone. No answer. He says he spent 24 hours alone in the airport before flying back to Kansas City.
One day in late January, Latta is back at the bar with a legal pad. The script for his movie is almost finished, he says. It's written in ballpoint on a yellow legal pad. He tears out two pages and sets them on the bar:
Camera moving inside the club. People talking, lots of voices, band playing.
Outside the club the music still playing, car pulls up, Al gets out of car.