Although we may not have a history that extends as far back as other large cities, Las Vegas can still lay claim to traditions and events that carry a sense of community nostalgia. Chief among these are the Helldorado parade and rodeo that take place every May. Black-and-white photos of the very early celebrations from the 1930s tell the story of its colorful origins at a time when Las Vegas was a town of fewer than 10,000 residents.
Las Vegas’ first Helldorado was organized by an Arizona promoter in April 1934, and unlike future celebrations was more of a Western-themed carnival that provided amusement for Boulder Dam workers. The Las Vegas Elks Club took over the event the following year, adding parades and then a rodeo as a way to attract tourists and residents alike by promoting the town’s Western heritage.
Western-style clothing was de rigueur for both men and women when attending Helldorado’s events, and men also grew beards to participate in the Whiskerino contest, where they were judged on style and length. In addition to parades and rodeos, early Helldorado celebrations featured a “Kangaroo Court,” where the city’s leading citizens were tried and “jailed” for a good cause with their “bail” donated to charity.
As Las Vegas grew, so did its Helldorado celebrations, and the magnificent hotel floats and marching bands of the 1940s to ’60s were a sight to behold. Yet as the decades passed, continued population growth led to the loss of the small-town feel that had fed the Helldorado spirit, and Las Vegas’ international reputation meant the promotional side of Helldorado was no longer needed. The huge costs to produce the celebration helped it become a shadow of its former self by the late 1990s. In 2005, the city’s centennial saw a renewed interest in our community history, and the Helldorado parade and rodeo were revived for a new generation of Las Vegans to enjoy.
Photos courtesy of UNLV Special Collections
Su Kim Chung has been immersed in the history of Las Vegas since she began work in the UNLV Libraries Special Collections Division in 1999. She is the author of multiple editions of the book Las Vegas Then and Now.