Helldorado Days to feature rodeo, parade and family fun

Not that we'd ever encourage this sort of thing, but Helldorado Days, Las Vegas' longtime celebration of cowboy culture, could form the basis of a rousing drinking game.

Just find a book that recaps the history of Southern Nevada, then take a swig every time you happen across a photo from a Helldorado Days past.

Odds are you'll be lurching like an extra in a "Gunsmoke" barroom scene before you flip the final page.

That's because, ever since its creation in 1934 -- and except for a period during the late '90s and early '00s -- Las Vegas Helldorado Days has been a key thread in Southern Nevada's pop culture fabric.

Today through Sunday, the 2011 edition of Helldorado Days culminates in the incongruous confines of downtown Las Vegas with rodeo events, a parade and a slate of family-friendly entertainment offerings.

Duane La Duke attended his first Helldorado Days when he was 8 years old. Now, at 64, he runs the show as Helldorado Days executive director.

According to La Duke, Helldorado was created to keep California tourists coming to Las Vegas even after the construction of then-Boulder Dam was completed.

That first year, Helldorado was "just a bunch of dances and parties and hoochie coochie girls," La Duke said. "It was ... like, 'Come to Vegas and party.' "

The following year, Las Vegas Lodge 1468 of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks offered to assume responsibility for Helldorado Days.

Since then, Helldorado Days -- now staged each year by the Elks Lodge and the city of Las Vegas -- has served as the lodge's primary means of raising money for local charities. La Duke said the event typically raises $70,000 to $100,000 annually for youth and veterans' causes.

But the ride hasn't always been easy. Two years in a row of bad attendance and bad luck after a move to the Silver Bowl prompted the cancellation of Helldorado Days in 1998.

Then, in 2005, Mayor Oscar Goodman "called us up and said he wanted to have Helldorado back for the (Las Vegas) centennial," La Duke said. "So we went ahead and did it in a small fashion with a parade and Western Village and such."

But the resurrected event didn't have a rodeo, and "after a couple of years, we realized that it really wasn't Helldorado Days without the rodeo."

Rodeo returned to Helldorado in 2009, and the event now is a stop on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association's calendar. Rodeo events are in the Downtown Rodeo Grounds, an arena between Mesquite Avenue and Stewart Avenue constructed specifically for Helldorado Days.

Rodeo events begin at 7 p.m. today and Sunday, 8 p.m. Friday and 9 p.m. Saturday. Tonight's event will be "Cowboys for a Cure," a benefit for Susan G. Komen for the Cure featuring local competitors. Pre-show events begin at 6 p.m.

Another centerpiece of Helldorado Days is a parade, which this year begins at 7 p.m. Saturday on Fourth Street between Gass and Ogden avenues. La Duke said 100 units are scheduled to march this year.

Fireworks will follow the parade. Both the parade and fireworks show are free.

This year's Helldorado Days schedule also includes: A "hands on horse" event at 5:45 p.m. today for kids; a carnival; food and drink tents; music; more than 40 exhibitors; and a "Whiskerino" contest. (Complete information and schedules can be found at www.ElksHelldorado.com)

Last year's Helldorado Days drew about 15,000 people, La Duke said, and ticket pre-sales indicate that as many as 20,000 to 25,000 will drop by this year.

But, for many visitors, the best entertainment at Helldorado Days is simply recalling visits from years past as they amble along the grounds. Count La Duke among them.

"I've got a picture from back in 1942 of my mother and grandmother standing in front of (the) Western Village," he said.

"You'd be surprised how many old-timers there are in this town."

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@review journal.com or 702-383-0280.