The Las Vegas Helldorado event began in 1934, when Arizona carnival barker Clyde Zerby saw the opportunity to make a quick buck off workers at the Hoover Dam site and the thousands of visitors who flocked to see the immense construction project develop.
The theme harkens back to the valley’s frontier roots and the Wild West. The first Helldorado was a rowdy affair, featuring a “hoochie coochie dance” show and other attractions that would let dam workers blow off steam.
In 1935, because of construction on the dam and the legalization of gaming in Nevada, Las Vegas was a booming town, and Fremont Street was burgeoning with saloons, gambling halls, hotels, shops and restaurants.
But city leaders knew that once construction was complete, the boom could end and Las Vegas could wind up a ghost town.
The local Elks lodge decided an annual production of the Helldorado Days festival could provide just the kind of community spirit that would entice dam workers and their families to stay in Southern Nevada and also encourage visitors back to experience the flavor of the Old West. The idea worked.
Under the supervision of Elks Lodge No. 1468, and with support from the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and local businesses, Helldorado Days took off. The more salacious activities were eliminated and replaced with family-friendly parades, contests and a rodeo.
Each year, as Las Vegas continued to grow, the Helldorado festival expanded in both scope and reputation. In 1946, the festival was so well known that Roy Rogers and Dale Evans filmed a movie in Las Vegas with Helldorado Days as the backdrop.
As Las Vegas grew, so did Helldorado Days. Award-winning marching bands from California and the Southwest joined local school bands in the parade, resorts competed with local businesses for Best Float awards, the rodeo drew recognized superstars and a national audience, a beauty contest was added, and contestants ranging from bartenders and construction workers to casino executives and media personalities grew long beards and unique mustaches in the spring to compete in the Whiskerino contest.
The festival was a source of community pride and inspiration. For longtime residents, it provided an opportunity for reflection and forward thinking. For newcomers, it kindled interest in the area’s history and the spirit of its past.
By the late 1990s, however, costs to produce the event skyrocketed and sponsorships dwindled. Helldorado Days disappeared. It appeared that with the valley’s emphasis on colossal resorts and international cosmopolitanism as a marketing tools, the festival was no longer needed.
In 2005, however, in celebration of Las Vegas’ 100th birthday and with help from the Las Vegas Centennial Commission, the Elks Lodge No. 1468 rekindled interest in the original spirit of Helldorado Days. The goal is to provide a fun community event for locals and area families, and if out-of-town visitors want to join, they are more than welcome. Ultimately, the festival is about getting back to the area’s roots and having some hometown fun.