Vegas Vic is dead.
Zack Hale Jr., the voice of the iconic neon Vegas Vic cowboy that fronts the Pioneer Club on Fremont Street, died Dec. 28. He was 87.
The native of Alexandria, La., joined the U.S. Navy when he was 17 and served in World War II. He was honorably discharged after the war and became a circus clown and moved his family to Las Vegas from St. Louis in 1968.
“He was always skinny and said he wanted to go someplace warm,” said Hale’s daughter, Gloria Quick of Las Vegas.
After working as a ringmaster at Circus Circus for a year, Hale took a walk downtown one day in 1969 “looking for a gig” and met a man who asked him what he did for a living.
“He always used to say, ‘Zack Hale’s my name, and (BS) is my game,’ ” Quick said.
The man was Jack Elardi, son of Pioneer Club owner Margaret Elardi. Soon after, Hale was asked to be the new voice of Vegas Vic, the lanky, 40-foot-tall cowboy who came to represent the Wild West — and just plain wild — image of Las Vegas.
“I think the cowboy is more of a Hollywood idea,” said Dorothy Wright, a Las Vegas historian and a director of the Las Vegas Neon Museum. “There wasn’t much of a cowboy culture out here, but the image of the cowboy came to symbolize Las Vegas.”
Vegas Vic’s roots date to 1947, when the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce ordered a sign to showcase the city. The resulting big cowpoke was finished in 1948 and located across the street from the Pioneer Club, Wright said.
That first take showed only the upper body of a cowboy with an arrow pointing across the street that said, “Here it is, the Fabulous Pioneer Club.”
Wright said the Pioneer Club paid the Chamber of Commerce for the rights to the cowboy in 1951, and that year Herman Boernge and Pat Denner, lead designers for the YESCO sign company, made a neon cowboy wearing blue jeans, a red-and-yellow checkered shirt, a red bandana, and a cowboy hat. A roll-your-own smoke dangled from his mouth.
Thus Vegas Vic was born. For the past 62 years he has welcomed millions of patrons to Downtown Las Vegas.
“I remember Vegas Vic would say ‘Howdy podner! Welcome to Downtown Las Vegas, home of the Pioneer Club’ every 15 minutes,’ ” Quick said. “The guests staying in the hotel across the street would always get annoyed.”
Quick said she remembered her father recording the famous catchphrase at a local radio station.
“The ‘Howdy podner!’ just made you feel welcome,” Wright said. “Fremont Street was really different back then.”
Another voice actor had given voice to Vegas Vic in the early days, but according to popular accounts, the big cowboy was silenced by a movie star and noted tough guy, Lee Marvin.
Fellow actor Woody Strode wrote in his memoirs that he and Marvin shot arrows at Vegas Vic while staying in town during the filming of “The Professionals,” a Western released in 1966. By some accounts, Marvin also complained about the recorded welcome keeping him awake, so the casino shut it off and didn’t turn it back on for years, until Hale provided a new voice.
Just like the free-spirited persona of Vegas Vic, Hale was described by his family as an outgoing person who loved his family.
“If anybody was about to get into a fight, he’d get in the middle of it and tell a joke,” said Earlina Hale, his wife. “He could talk forever and ever.”
Hale married her on March 18, 1954. He died three months shy of what would have been their 60th wedding anniversary.
The Pioneer Club closed as a casino in 1995, but Vegas Vic still stands tall, welcoming visitors to the souvenir shop that carries on in the building.
And just like Vegas Vic’s legacy, Hale always will be remembered. “He’ll never leave me,” Earlina Hale said.
Hale is survived by his wife, four children, 10 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Services will be Jan. 7 at 8:40 a.m. at Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City.