By Lori Lee O'Harver for PBR & Bronc Riding Nation
In a flamboyant city known for weddings on demand, the marriage of PBR and the Las Vegas Elks Lodge just combined dynamic marketing and production prowess with a legendary, local Western event to put the fire permanently back into the seventy-something year old Helldorado Days.
“We’re looking forward to adding our first produced rodeo to our great schedule of PBR events in Las Vegas, the city that’s been like a second home to us from the beginning,” PBR CEO Sean Gleason said. “We began this conversation about extending PBRs revolutionary success to the larger scope of the Western events world five years ago and are excited that we’re starting here, amid the colorful history of Helldorado Days.”
Back in 1934, a workforce of 5,000 men risked their lives out in Black Canyon on the Colorado River, building the engineering wonder that would become Hoover Dam. The spectacle attracted tourists from across the land who came to say they’d seen the world’s largest dam while the concrete was still wet. In Las Vegas proper, the entire population was just slightly over that. On Fremont Street, a handful of quickly converted casinos were open for business since Nevada legalized gambling and prohibition had been repealed.
Clyde Zerby was a man with an instinct for turning a quick buck. A carnival barker by trade, he produced the first Helldorado Days as a town festival with all of the whiskey whistles, hoochie-coochie tent bells and standard carnival fare guaranteed to separate a working man from his money. Zerby got in, filled his pockets and got out. The Elks Lodge got in to stay. They made it family friendlier, retained the wild, western flavor to honor the city’s origins and kept the tourists coming back for more.
In 1944, the Elks Club brought more bucks to town by adding rodeo to the event roster. Just two years later, as Bugsy Siegal opened his Flamingo Hotel to an adoring public, Roy Rogers, Trigger and Clayton Moore of Lone Ranger fame came to town for the filming of ‘Heldorado’. In keeping with Hollywood’s squeaky clean policy for Western movies, the spelling changed. Both the movie and the festival flourished, but 50 years later, organizers were struggling.
The lights on the famous Las Vegas Strip were dimmed the day after Frank Sinatra died in 1998. To the people who call Las Vegas home, it was the second time in a year they’d mourn the death of a legend. The spring before, after better than a half century’s run, the Elks had announced the cancellation of Helldorado Days.
“Rodeo is an expensive venture for any civic organization,” said Jim Buell, former Helldorado Days Chairman and Exalted Ruler of the Las Vegas Elks Lodge. “In small towns, civic backing of town festivals is common. In larger cities, they’re more often viewed as profit centers. Producing Helldorado Days became financially unfeasible until Mayor Oscar Goodman took an interest in 2005. It was Las Vegas’ centennial year when he made a personal and financial commitment to the historic event. Helldorado Days was back in business.”
Meanwhile, the landscape of the western entertainment industry was changing almost as quickly as the Las Vegas skyline. Rodeo’s mainstay bull riding event was repackaged and aggressively, ingeniously marketed into a global phenomenon by the visionaries at Professional Bull Riders. PBR had become the fastest growing major sports entity in the world with 35 million fans and riders from six different countries competing in the most exciting 8 seconds in sports.
Sean Gleason grew up in the cowboy culture of eastern Washington, experiencing the great rodeos like Pendleton Round-Up and Cheyenne Frontier Days. He was creating and marketing video games and looking for his next project when he found and fell in love with PBR 20 years ago.
“The original founders were still riding then,” Gleason said. “It wasn’t just the lifestyle and culture that won me, it was the level of excellence that they nailed in every detail of their business. I joined up as the Chief Operating Officer and haven’t looked back since.”
Last year, he took the reins as PBR’s chief executive officer, stepping into the really big footprint of Randy Bernard.
“When Randy landed with RFD-TV and established The American, it was a natural fit and exciting for the PBR team to help bring it to life. It felt really good to bring rodeo into and around the PBR,” Gleason said.
“There’s been a critical demise among some of our most iconic, American events. The PBR has been the tip of the spear that brought Western sports back to urban America. We feel strongly that we have a responsibility as well as an opportunity to revitalize the events that represent our values and heritage as a nation,” said Gleason.
Their first project in this new venture will be Helldorado Days.
“We’re bringing many contemporary elements to the table,” Gleason said. “We see each production as a unique event, deserving of its own specific attention and detail. Helldorado has historic facets like the beard-growing contest known as Whiskerino that have been in place since the ‘30s. We’ve expanded on the theme as well as used the Las Vegas backdrop city wide to add more events and locations from the downtown parade and golf tournament to the outdoor rodeo venue just across from the Luxor on The Strip.”
Last Cowboy Standing is the third PBR Major event and has been at home in Las Vegas in May since its inception. It’s now linked with the PRCA Helldorado Rodeo which kicks off on Friday night, May 13th with the performance on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There’s a mutton bustin’ for local kids, trick roping exhibitions, after parties and music.
Giving Las Vegas children of all ages a chance to interact with animals city kids don’t often get to play with is one of the new innovations PBR is bringing to town with Barnyard in the Boneyard. Farm critters and families in a petting zoo environment created within the famous Neon Museum will benefit Las Vegas based Horses4Heroes, the therapeutic program that uses retired and donated horses for military families to realize their equestrian dreams.
“We’re obviously committed to Helldorado Days,” said Jim Buell of the Elks. “However, as a civic organization, our focus is to make money to support the local charities we serve. The Elks and Helldorado Days committee is very pleased with our new relationship with PBR and the exciting opportunities it creates. We hope the marriage works well.”
As for Gleason and his team?
“There’s a thrill involved with launching a new venture with an event that’s deeply infused with the history of this exciting town,” Gleason said. “Beyond that? This is just PBR doing what we do week in and week out.”