By: Keith Ryan Cartwright
March 25, 2016
Hoover Dam is all of 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas.
More than 1,000 heroic men – 100 of whom lost their lives – spent five years building the concrete arch-gravity dam. Construction began in 1931 – the same year Las Vegas legalized gambling – and lasted until 1935, coinciding with the Great Depression. It is believed that between 10,000-20,000 men descended upon Boulder City, Nevada, hoping for work.
Those who were hired and those who hoped they would soon be needed took up residence in the small town that was otherwise the home of only 5,000 people.
However, because of strict policies forbidding drinking, gambling and other vices, many of those men spent their rare days off in nearby Las Vegas, which featured only a fraction of the trademark glitz and glamour the PBR experiences today when it hosts its annual Last Cowboy Standing.
Nevertheless, the presence of thousands of workers and sightseers helped Vegas avoid the pitfalls the Depression would have otherwise created.
As legend would have it, in 1934 or 1935, depending upon who you believe, the City of Las Vegas founded Helldorado Days with the help of promoter Clyde Zerby as an opportunity to celebrate the men building Boulder Dam – it was only later renamed after President Herbert Hoover – combined with the Western heritage of the city’s earliest years.
Zerby is said to have skipped town in ’34 and the city teamed with Elks Lodge #1468 in 1935, to produce the first official or, as some folks see it, the second Helldorado Days.
“It’s now over 80 years old,” said Jim Buell, longtime sponsorship chairman and past general chairman of Helldorado Days, which is now the longest-running civic event in the history of the city.
Just it as grew despite the Depression era, Helldorado Days survived World War II.
For years, the men who built the dam would return for the event, which has always been held in the month of May to coincide with the city’s birthday.
“The heydays of Helldorado Days, I think it’s fair to say, were the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s,” Buell said. “By the 1980s the character of the city changed.
“During that time Helldorado Days was absolutely the event of the year. Virtually everybody in town was involved with it in one way or another.”
Casinos workers and school children alike would dress in Western attire.
There were three parades and the likes of Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Larry Hagman, Doug McClure and others served as grand marshals, while the ‘80s drew entertainers like George Strait, Alabama, Hank Williams Jr. and PBR favorite Moe Brandy.
Helldorado Days also featured a rodeo that saw legends as big as Larry Mahan, Roy Cooper, Tuff Hedeman and Joe Beaver competing in front of sold out crowds.
This year, PBR living legends J.B. Mauney, Guilherme Marchi, Silvano Alves and Mike Lee will be among the all-time great bull riders to etch their names in the folklore and longstanding traditions of Helldorado Days, which has partnered with the PBR to host its final Major of the 2016 first half, Last Cowboy Standing.
Unfortunately, as the turn of the century approached and gaming became the city’s primary business, Buell said the city felt more influence from California and it quickly grew apart from its roots as an old Western cowboy town.
Participation began to wane in the 1990s.
In 2005, the Las Vegas Centennial brought back one of the three parades and in 2009 they also brought back a PRCA-sanctioned rodeo, which the local Elks Lodge has produced.
“It’s a really important event for the City of Las Vegas, the Mayor and the council people,” said Esther Carter, who produces the annual parade and is a city employee who works on special events.
Buell added, “The purpose is to focus on our tradition as a Western town. Today you wouldn’t think of Las Vegas as a Western town although it certainly is.”
It’s precisely why they’ve partnered with the PBR, which is increasing its presence in Las Vegas, home of the now-expanded PBR Built Ford Tough World Finals.
“As the leading Western sport, PBR feels a responsibility to help revive an iconic western event in Las Vegas,” said Sean Gleason, CEO of PBR. “The inimitable adrenaline-pumping energy and excitement of bucking bulls on the Vegas strip will rank with the very best entertainment experience the city has to offer.”
The pairing is a means for Helldorado Days and Las Vegas to reconnect with the city’s Western heritage.
“(The PBR’s commitment) makes Helldorado Days bigger and better,” said Buell. “Given the marketing power of an organization like the PBR, it should go nowhere but up again.”
Carter added, “It’s been a great partnership between the city and Elks and now we’ve got another great partner in the PBR.”
That comes at a critical time.
With the rodeo facing the prospect of losing its previous home after seven years, Helldorado Days, which has always been held in the downtown area, will move locations this year to be part of the PBR Fan Zone in “the Las Vegas Village” outside the MGM Grand Las Vegas Hotel and Casino.
The village — the site of a range of fun activities for all ages – will also feature daily Bullfighters Only performances, and then the main event – PBR’s Last Cowboy Standing.
“A PBR Major, paired with a rodeo, and a giant festival, on the Vegas strip: Now that’s a destination event,” Gleason observed.
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