The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, which comes to the Thomas & Mack Center Dec. 6-15, is like a pair of cowboy boots that have been sitting in the closet for too many months. At first, they pinch a little, but after a while, they seem to flex to fit your feet, and you notice that you kind of like the swagger they lend you.
When the cowboy hats and belt buckles first start coming out, it always feels a little bit forced. It’s hard to believe that the same casino hosts who were comping players into Andrea Bocelli earlier this month are honestly this fired up about getting them tickets to see Kaleb Driggers and Jade Corkill do some heading and heeling.
For locals—or for non-NFR visitors who chance to wander by—the makeover can be bewildering. Cowboy Christmas, a 300,000-square-foot holiday gift store for all things Western, takes over the Las Vegas Convention Center. Gary Leffew’s Legendary Buck’n Ball takes over the Gold Coast. Two nightly mechanical bull-riding contests rock Sam’s Town. There’s even a cowboy-themed pageant, Miss Rodeo America, featuring a weeklong roster of events at the MGM Grand and a horse(wo)manship competition at the Convention Center. And, of course, country acts dominate showrooms and lounges from Fremont Street to St. Rose Parkway.
That’s a lot of hat—and you might wonder if thoroughly urban Las Vegas has the cattle to justify it.
The cowboy switcheroo seems almost a little too convenient: We invite the cowboys to town in the middle of the absolute worst stretch of the year, the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas caesura when casinos—and this is no exaggeration—have a hard time giving rooms away. Even when marketers can get live bodies in the rooms, it’s pulling teeth to get them to open their wallets. Casinos needing to keep the lights on would gladly open their doors to the Golden Horde—halberds and all—as long as they swiped a credit card.
But NFR—the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s marquee annual event—is anything but artificial for Las Vegas. Cowboys have been a part of the city since the start—in fact, even before there was a Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Rancho, which Helen Stewart sold to the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, employed several cowboys, and, early on, hands from the surrounding ranches came to town; riding and roping wasn’t arena entertainment, but a regular occupation for many Vegas visitors.
Over the next several decades, those ranches were sold and subdivided, and Hollywood cowboys became more common than men who made their living tending cattle. But Las Vegas never gave up its cowboy connection, and for many years the primary reminder of our sagebrush roots was a rodeo—the Helldorado.
There was more than nostalgia to Helldorado; there was also commerce. In early 1934, work on Hoover Dam was starting to wind down. Downtown businessmen feared that, absent the flush of federal paychecks brought by dam workers, Las Vegas would wither. So the Elks Lodge sponsored a rodeo that, members hoped, would lure in tourists who would bolster the sagging economy.
Helldorado forced Las Vegas to innovate. For the first time, Fremont Street was closed to vehicular traffic for a parade. (Sixty years later, the Fremont Street Experience would make that a permanent condition.) The inaugural rodeo was successful enough that it came back the following year, with a vengeance. Lt. Gov. Fred Alward cut the ribbon to start the festivities at the “Pay Streak Trail” village on the evening of April 25, 1935, but Death Valley Scotty (whose Wikipedia entry identifies him as a “prospector, performer and con man,” really all you need to know), reigned as king of the four-day buckaroo bacchanal.
Those “Buck All Night” Hard Rock Hotel ads from a few years back might have been tame
compared to what the Elks Lodge put on that year, which
included a strip/burlesque show (“the kind that made the pioneer blood run warm”) and the 80-foot-long Last Chance bar, which served only redeye whiskey.
Helldorado became an annual rite and ritual. The concept wasn’t unique—you could find Western parades throughout the West. But the city made something more out of it: The Vegas genius has never been invention, but taking what other cities do and carrying it somewhere safely beyond all preconceived notions of size, scale and taste. Sheer verve had to compensate for the many natural failings of the region, and maybe its inhabitants.
During World War II, government-mandated travel restrictions shuttered most of the nation’s rodeos. No cowboy wanted to hang up his boots, but for the good of the war effort, many did. Las Vegas, though, wouldn’t: Sen. Pat McCarran managed to convince the right War Department functionary that Helldorado wasn’t a frivolous waste of gasoline and manpower, but a chance for overworked, overstressed Las Vegas Army Air Field (today Nellis Air Force Base) servicemen to relax. It wasn’t just something that the federal government should permit, McCarran argued—it was practically mandatory that they promote it. And that’s how Helldorado made it through World War II. Not quite the GSA living it up at M Resort, but it’s a reminder that federal employees stretching the rules in Las Vegas is nothing new.
Helldorado thrived after the war ended, and by 1948 it was drawing visitors from as far away as Puerto Rico and Hawaii. For a few hours during the Old Timers’ parade each year, all of Las Vegas, it seemed, came down to Fremont Street to watch. The girlie shows had been long abolished, and in their place more wholesome events—an art exhibit, a children’s parade, and of course the rodeo itself—made Helldorado family-friendly. The event was perfectly situated to pick up in the postwar boom in all things Western.
The 1960s and ’70s gradually ate away at the city’s cowboy heritage, but Helldorado survived. In 1994, when Fremont Street closed, the parade just picked up and moved to a nearby stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard. But in 1998, the Elks finally suspended Helldorado. It looked like another casualty in the city of perpetual change.
But never underestimate the toughness of cowboy tradition. In 2005, the parade returned, and by 2009 the rodeo was back. But now the granddaddy of Vegas rodeo was a (very) little brother to NFR.
The Strip’s entertainment lineage runs more toward Broadway and Hollywood than Nashville—Frank Sinatra, not Johnny Cash, was the face of the 1960s. But Cash did play Las Vegas, and from the 1940s country acts could be found downtown and along the Strip. This continued right into the guilded aughts: In 2009, Steve Wynn (who had hired Kenny Rogers as the Golden Nugget’s entertainment director in the 1970s) brought in Garth Brooks to headline the Encore Theater. Las Vegas is always a little bit country.
Still, in 1984, when a small group of local casino owners made a bid to lure NFR to Las Vegas from Oklahoma City, which had hosted the event since 1965, there were skeptics: Turn the city into a glorified rodeo meet for 10 days? Would the high-rollers really come back when it was over?
There were also logistical problems. Individual casinos had been putting on theater spectaculars for a generation, but no one had staged anything quite like NFR before. Las Vegas Events, a nonprofit special-events agency, had been founded only two years earlier, and it was tasked with throwing a party with 140,000 guests.
The first few years were anything but a slam dunk—Sam Boyd, who’d guaranteed the purchase of major lots of tickets, actually found himself giving away NFR tickets on his casino floors in 1985 and ’86. But things turned around. By the end of the decade, NFR was a fixture in Las Vegas, and rodeo fans put themselves on waiting lists for a chance to get tickets.
Over the next two decades, Las Vegas casinos experimented with several types of customer: bargain hunters, families, international high-rollers, nightclubbers. But they could never find anyone to consistently fill the December drought but cowboys, and those who love them.
Despite the unbroken history of cowboys in Las Vegas, there’s still the idea that NFR is a late revival of long-extinct relics from Jurassic Vegas: The cowboys who once walked the Valley were swept out of town by the mob, which was then driven to extinction by “the corporations,” whose descendants still rule to this day.
This is another case where siphoning your history out of movies (Casino) and network TV (Vegas) will let you down. Although Cowboys vs. Mobsters would make an excellent video game (and it’s frankly both amazing and a little disappointing that no one’s realized that concept yet), it’s not really the way things worked. Even if we use “mobsters” as shorthand for everyone who came out to work in casinos and broaden “cowboys” to include the entire pre-1950s status quo in Las Vegas—the railroad, the merchants in the Chamber of Commerce, the politicians—there never was that much conflict with the influx of connected guys from back East. Simply put, they occupied ecological niches just distinct enough to keep them from fighting. The mobsters, real and imagined, weren’t interested in waving badges or keeping an eye on the sewer district, and the “cowboys” didn’t care who ran the casinos.
That’s not to say that, metaphorically speaking, the cowboys always bothered to clean their boots before entering one of the new carpet joints, or that the maître d’ tried his hardest to give them the best seat in the showroom. But, for the most part, Las Vegans learned to get along.
The plain fact is, the boundaries between cowboy, mobster and businessman were never quite as stark as they seem in HD. Benny Binion was an illegal gambling operator from Dallas who had gotten his start as a mule trader and did a stretch in federal prison for tax evasion. He had nothing but praise for Moe Dalitz—the quintessential casino “mobster”—and even threw a Christmas party with him at the Las Vegas Country Club every year. And it didn’t take too long for casino guys to shake the crumbled Cleveland pavement or fine Miami sand off their shoes before they started affecting cowboy hats.
Las Vegas has always shown many faces to the world. They’re all inauthentic in one sense, and fully authentic in another. We’re just as much cowboy as we are goodfella.