Las Vegas has long been known for its visionaries. Long before Howard Hughes invaded the valley in November 1966, Arizona huckster Clyde Zerby was looking for a way to capitalize on the creation of Hoover Dam.
Eighty years ago, Zerby launched the first Helldorado Days celebration in Las Vegas in an attempt to draw workers from the dam. An eager community reacted positively and, with the exception of six years ending in 2005, Zerby’s creation, modified for families by the Elks Lodge, is one of Southern Nevada’s longest-running special events.
The old-timers of the valley still remember the good old days of Helldorado, which even included the legendary Roy Rogers filming a movie in Las Vegas in 1946. During a time when nearly everyone knew one another in Las Vegas, the city’s history was highlighted by hotel-casinos that participated in Helldorado Parades with brightly colored floats.
Billy Parker, 85, has been in Las Vegas for the most part since 1939 and was chairman of Helldorado for five years in the 1990s. He has vivid memories of the early days, and you can bet that his fellow Helldorado fans will check out this year’s new location for the event: Symphony Park.
Parker said his father, J.B., was involved in horse racing in Las Vegas, Ely, Elko and Winnemucca. He said members of Helldorado wanted to add a rodeo to the celebration.
“My dad owned the land behind the old post office on Third Street,” Parker said. “That’s where they had the first rodeo before moving it to behind the area behind the Old Frontier (on the Strip).”
Parker also recalled that Floyd Lamb’s wife, Eleanor, was Helldorado Rodeo Queen in 1946.
“Helldorado was a lot of fun in those days,” Parker recalled. “All of the hotels had floats and the parades were really good. They would close down Fremont Street where there were all kinds of promotions like beard-growing contests. It was the wild, wild West.”
This year’s Helldorado, which opened Wednesday, is an official event of the Nevada Sesquicentennial Celebration. Activities will continue through Sunday, with several new additions to the program.
The move to Symphony Park at 100 S. Grand Central Parkway offers more room near the highly regarded Smith Center. There is a new rodeo arena along with extra space for livestock, staging, parking, spectator stands, vendors and bands.
The Elks Helldorado is expected to attract more attention considering its visibility from Interstate 15.
“We’re having a larger carnival this year because we have 25 acres instead of the 10 acres we had before,” said Bobbi LaDuke, a Helldorado coordinator who handles tickets, vendors and exhibitors along with setting up kickoff and wind-up parties. “This is bigger and better than ever before. We have also worked with Discovery Museum to give out discounts to the kids.”
Other new elements to this year’s event include moving the popular Whiskerino — a beard contest that was one of the early highlights — to the Pullman Room of Main Street Station at 6 p.m. Friday.
“We’re also going to have several specialty acts as part of the rodeo,” LaDuke said. “Our new thing that we’re excited about is the Fiesta del Charro, which is a Mexican rodeo presenting Tomas Garcilazo. We’re expecting this to be a huge success.”
A Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association event begins at 8 p.m. Thursday and runs through Saturday. The Fiesta del Charro will be at 4 p.m. Sunday.
Kids who want a taste of rodeo action can find it at the “mutton busting” contests at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday in the arena.
The popular parade will be at 5 p.m. Saturday, traveling northbound on Fourth Street from Gass to Ogden avenues.
The carnival, exhibits, vendors and entertainment will be offered each day of the event.
For some, Helldorado Days are also a time to reflect on the old days.
“It was a lot of fun,” said K.J. Howe, who was director of advertising and promotions for the Mint Hotel along with serving as the head of the Mint 400 off-road race from 1970 to ’86.
“They would come and get me right out of my office,” Howe recalled. “They’d put me in a cell and keep me at First and Fremont until someone would bail me out. I had to raise a particular amount of money that was given to charity. We didn’t have cellphones in those days, so I would tell my secretary to call people and bail me out. I was always bailed out within about an hour.
“I will never forget the carnival. It was like a county fair.”
Howe praised the move to Symphony Park.
“With all of the activity that is going on in Symphony Park, this is a no-brainer,” he said. “It’s very exciting and I will definitely go this year.”
Further information regarding schedules, events and other activities can be found at www.elkshelldorado.com or by calling 702-870-1221.