Las Vegas Sun

September 23, 2014

A history of change

Las Vegas is celebrating its centennial this year despite its history of imploding its history.

The old railroad ice house, historic casinos such as the Sands and the Dunes and numerous other sites of yesteryear have been wiped off the desert floor to make way for the growth of America's foremost boomtown.

That lack of tangible history has given officials of the yearlong centennial a challenge. Much of the history of Las Vegas occurred in the latter half of the 20th century when the Strip was formed, followed by spurts of unprecedented growth that constantly changed the landscape, skyline and history.

Centennial officials are struggling to connect the valley's residents, nearly 30 percent of whom have lived here less than five years and nearly half of whom have lived here less than a decade, to events such as the revival of Helldorado, an annual Old West homage that began in 1934 and ended in 1998.

"There is a dynamic in Las Vegas trying to get people to adopt or understand a history they do not know," said Nevada State Archivist Guy Rocha, who was raised in Las Vegas and graduated from Clark High School, but has lived in Northern Nevada since the late 1960s.

"Many of today's Las Vegans grew up elsewhere or are young adults. It is going to be a tremendous challenge to get the newcomers and young natives to buy into the centennial, as opposed to communities in states such as South Carolina and Massachusetts, where populations are multigenerational."

Rocha said that except for a few old buildings such as the downtown post office that is slated to become a museum, the Huntridge Theatre and the old Union Pacific Railroad cottages, you cannot find the Las Vegas that once was.

"Las Vegas has been about reinventing itself, not about historic preservation," Rocha said. "The challenge in Las Vegas is greater because historic assets were destroyed, unlike in Old Sacramento where the earliest part of the city can still be visited.

"I applaud the centennial committee for trying and I wish them great success, but they've got a real challenge because amid growth not much has been left in terms of tangible remnants."

Michael Green, professor of history at Community College of Southern Nevada, says it's not so much the lack of the buildings that once stood, but rather the fact that "a lot of our history is newer and most of our residents are even newer than the history.

"Local populations have doubled with nearly every census, so we have a significant percentage of newer residents who understandably don't have that big of a stake in Las Vegas history, at least not yet," Green sad.

"I once gave a talk in Sun City Anthem and asked how many people had lived there a year or less. Almost everyone in the room raised their hand."

Still, Green says, centennial organizers might benefit from the fact that most of Las Vegas' growth has occurred in the last 50 to 60 years.

"You still have people here who can remember when," he said.

That's one of the things centennial officials are banking on, especially with the resurrection of Helldorado Days. Still, they are concerned about how they are going to get people to embrace it as a must-see event.

"One of the questions we have kept asking ourselves is why should Las Vegas care about Helldorado?" said Lori Nelson of R&R Partners advertising agency, which is formulating a marketing plan aimed at drawing at least 100,000 people to the event's Western Village, downtown parade and rodeo.

One answer is that "by bringing back Helldorado we give the people who are new to the area an opportunity to latch on to something that was long a part of this community and we give longtime residents something they have missed for several years," she said.

Nelson said the marketing strategy for Helldorado, a 3 1/2-week-long event that bookends the city's May 15 birthday, includes educating non-natives and younger residents on its significance, developing a lasting legacy that will make Helldorado once again an annual event and adding a modern flair to a venerable tradition.

To that end, some observers believe so many new residents will not necessarily be a deterrent to success because of perceived apathy but rather will be a transfusion of new blood, curious about what was once an annual tradition here, that will revitalize Helldorado for years to come.

"There absolutely is a desire for people to learn about the place they've chosen to be their home," said Cara Roberts, spokeswoman for the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce. "Many people chose Las Vegas because they are seeking a better quality of life.

"Helldorado is a fun, unique event. That is more than enough to carry the day. The challenge is that we need to communicate, to let people know what a great event Helldorado and the centennial are."

The chamber has hotlinked the centennial to its Web site and conducted mini-workshops for businesses with fewer than 25 employees -- 85 percent of the chamber's membership -- to encourage centennial awareness, Roberts said.

"Celebrating the past is one way of moving forward," she said. "It's important to have an understanding of what came before you."

But what if that past never really was, or is otherwise exaggerated? Centering the centennial on Helldorado Days creates an interesting quandary. Historians argue that Las Vegas never was the Old West town that Helldorado celebrates.

"I think with Helldorado we are actually paying more of a tribute to our community as it was in the late 1920s and early 1930s rather than to the Las Vegas of the 19th century," said Southern Nevada historian Mark Hall-Patton of the Clark County Heritage Museum

"Did we have a 19th century presence? Yes, some mining camps and a couple of ranches. But there was no Wyatt Earp walking down the middle of the street. There was, however, in the 1930s a community that had ideals" of what a good place to live should be.

"Las Vegas basically was a cow town when Helldorado began," said Stef Purdy, longtime executive director of Helldorado Days and the son of late Helldorado Hall of Fame member Ralph Purdy, who participated in the original 1934 event. "By bringing back Helldorado we are reuniting with our roots."

Early city fathers and business leaders started Helldorado as a marketing tool to attract tourism and encourage Hoover Dam workers to settle here once that project was completed. Las Vegas' population at the time was about 5,000.

"If it remained nothing more than a marketing ploy, Helldorado would have died a long time ago," Hall-Patton said. "It instead became a fun community event.

"People have always been looking for fun things to do with their kids. They want wholesome, family kinds of things."

Purdy, a Helldorado historian, said the 1934 event was not quite the wholesome celebration it became in subsequent years.

He said Arizona carnival barker Clyde Zerby, Helldorado's first promoter, put on, as part of the festivities, a show featuring "hoochie-coochie dancers" to draw in the rollicking dam workers who were looking to raise a little hell.

"Zerby left after the first Helldorado and was never heard from again," Purdy said. "The Elks (Lodge No. 1468) ran Helldorado after that with more of a community feeling to it."

Community wholesomeness was on the mind of Hollywood censors in 1946 after cowboy star Roy Rogers came to town to film a Western-themed movie around the Helldorado celebration.

Although in the film signs on Las Vegas streets point to "Helldorado," Hollywood censors forced the filmmakers to change the title of the movie to "Heldorado" because the word "hell" on a movie marquee was considered improper for a wholesome, family cowboy movie.

As the years went by, Helldorado relocated from downtown to other venues, including Sam Boyd Stadium in its later years.

Plagued by high production costs, Helldorado was streamlined in 1997 to a rodeo and the Western Village, as Elks officials canceled the parade and carnival.

The next year, the Elks entered into a two-year contract with a private promoter, GEM Entertainment, to defray costs and guarantee proceeds.

When the private promotion company lost money on the 1998 event, it canceled the 1999 show but maintained the rights to the name "Helldorado."

In 2000, the Elks started talking about reviving Helldorado. Elks representative Duane La Duke said during the hiatus the Elks conducted a two-year study to determine whether to bring back the event.

La Duke said his organization would not have even considered doing that unless Helldorado were run professionally, avoiding exorbitant costs that in later years caused it to lose money hand over fist.

"One of the big reasons (for Helldorado's demise) was the cost of the rodeo," said the Las Vegas resident of 55 years. But, he added, without the rodeo -- the core event of Helldorado -- there could be no Helldorado Days celebration,

La Duke said that livestock and other expenses were so burdensome that the price of tickets could not remain competitive enough to draw a crowd large enough to offset expenses, making it difficult for the Elks to fund the numerous charities that were long supported by proceeds from the event.

The rodeo expense, La Duke said, will not be a an issue this year because Helldorado has joined forces with the Pace Picante ProRodeo Chute Out Rodeo, May 12-14 at the Orleans Arena.

"What the Elks decided was that we are going to run this Helldorado as a business or not run it at all," La Duke said, noting that expensive-to-produce past Helldorado events such as the carnival and the beauty queen contest might not be part of the 2005 festivities.

However, new events are planned, including a charity poker tournament at the Plaza hotel-casino downtown and a trapshooting tournament at the Las Vegas Gun Club. And popular, cheap-to-produce events will remain part of Helldorado, including the "Whiskerino" beard contest and a chili cook-off.

Another reason Helldorado was considered for resurrection is that it arguably is the one defining Las Vegas promotion that truly links the modern city to its rustic past -- an event that despite its unceremonious disappearance still holds a warm spot in the hearts of longtime residents.

"During a planning session two years ago, we handed out scraps of paper to the 17 people there and asked them to write down what events should be considered for the centennial," Las Vegas Centennial Director Stacy Allsbrook said. "Everyone wrote down the return of Helldorado as one of their ideas."

About $800,000 will be spent on Helldorado -- $300,000 in non-taxpayer-generated revenue from the city and $500,000 from the Elks, she said.

The decision was made to go ahead with Helldorado's revival despite the fact that the promotion traditionally has not been a factor in bringing in tourism -- the life's blood of the Las Vegas economy.

R&R's Rob Dondero, who is in charge of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority account, says the event's resurrection also is not likely to attract much tourism, if any.

But Dondero also is a longtime Las Vegan, and he, like many locals, simply misses Helldorado and welcomes it back.

"Helldorado has always encouraged us to take pride in Las Vegas," Dondero said. "We need this."

Dondero said it is encouraging for Helldorado that all 178,000 tickets to the National Finals Rodeo last month were sold -- a sign, he said, that there is strong interest in Western-type events locally.

"I hope with Helldorado we are able to promote Las Vegas as a place with a history and a legacy," Dondero said. "And we'd like to see Helldorado again become an annual event."

Other major Las Vegas Centennial events planned for this year at a combined cost of more than $2.2 million include:

However, the jury is still out on whether all or any of those events will draw great support.

"It's up to the centennial committee to try to stimulate interest," Rocha said. "The committee has to somehow make it engaging. And while the celebration is still about the city's history, having events that are family-oriented and fun is a good marriage with that history."

Fellow historian Green agrees that the organizers' marketing and promotion efforts have to be unrelenting for the attractions to draw significant numbers.

"Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman can motivate a snail to win a horse race, so if anyone can get the people to come out it would be him," Green said. "Still the centennial can be one tough sell.

"There is interest out there, but the extent of it is just too hard to know at this time, given other factors that could become involved. For example, on May 15, 1905, it was 110 degrees in Las Vegas. We are less hardy souls today. If it is brutally hot, that will affect the turnout."

Roberts said Las Vegas was built by entrepreneurs who were up to the challenge of carving a life out of the desert -- people who would want that struggle to be remembered.

"We are celebrating our history at a time when we are sill making history," she said. "Our story has just begun in Las Vegas."

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