"Nevada's First Atomic Bomb" float. Courtesy of UNLV Special Collections

Las Vegas wasn't a great place for kids when I was growing up.  Outside of the city limits there was Lake Mead, Red Rock Canyon and winter sports at Mount Charleston, but in Las Vegas proper, most activities revolved around adults. Specifically, adults who gambled. Kids were a pain in the neck. Case in point: I was six years old when my parents made me wait outside the Golden Nugget while they gambled. Every so often my mom would wave to me through the glass. It didn't help. I felt like an orphan. A few  years later, at the Last Frontier, I saw a sign by the slot machines: NO MINORS ALLOWED. I was outraged. Why couldn't those poor men who slaved in the mines play the slot machines? I expressed my concerns to my mother who explained that MIN-ORS referred to children. Like me! I felt the awful sting of discrimination, and wished we'd never left California.

But for three days each May, Las Vegas pulled out all stops for a splendid celebration of the old west, not only for tourists but for the whole family.  Helldorado started out as a tourist attraction in the l930's, right after Boulder (Hoover) Dam was built, and was such a hit it kept on going. In l946 here was even a Roy Rogers/Dale Evans movie named 'Heldorado," filmed on location. (The producers left out the extra "L" because they didn't want HELL to appear on marquees!)

During the festivities, Vegans were encouraged to dress up in western clothes, and most went all out. My parents chose not to, of course, but  I had a red cowboy hat and a fringed vest, and a holster with cap pistols that I proudly wore to the parades. In addition to three days of parades (kids, old timers, and beauty) there was a rodeo, and a variety of contests such as "best whiskers," "best float," and Helldorado queen; a Kangaroo Court; and a full-scale carnival at Cashman Field. My parents didn't care about the kids' parade, but they dragged folding chairs three blocks to Fremont Street to watch the beauty parade, which was my favorite, as well.  Luxury hotels, like the Sahara, the Desert Inn, and the Sands would spend a fortune to win "best float." The crowd cheered and whistled as the floats passed by, one more extravagant than the next, adorned with smiling bathing beauties in skimpy bathing suits and high heels. 


In fourth grade, Miss Olive taught us to square dance so we could dress up like pioneers and dance at all the intersections for the kid's parade. I hated my bonnet, which made my head sweat, and my long, cotton skirt that got tangled up in my legs, and I detested the corny, twangy western music.  Not only was I forced to make a fool of myself in front of the whole town, but I couldn't even watch the parade.  Royce Feour, a(n) friend from Fifth St. Grammar and Vegas High, remembers dressing up like a pioneer at age eight and pulling his big sister, also in costume,  in their red wagon, which their talented dad had turned into a miniature covered wagon.  All that effort, and they still didn't win anything. Neither did Miss Olive's square dancers, which was fine with me. 

There were marching bands from all over Nevada, and rows of majorettes flipping batons and catching them with one hand. There were fat dudes in fancy cowboy suits and ten gallon hats, on saddles festooned with silver, waving to the crowd like politicians, making their poor horses prance and bow, and leaving piles of horse shit all over the street.

I was always curious about the Kangaroo Court. I was told, it was an evening activity for grownups that took place in the streets of Glitter Gulch. People would volunteer to be tried for bogus infractions, and be sentenced to stand in a cage to be subjected to ridicule. Nobody minded. It was all in good fun, and most of the participants were too drunk to take offense.

I never convinced anybody to take me to the rodeo, but I did get to the carnival, which I loved. But most of all, I loved the parades. It wasn't just the spectacle, it was standing in a crowd made up of people from our neighborhood—people I saw every day, but barely knew, and all of a sudden we were laughing, and cheering together. It was a feeling of truly belonging in a town where kids were constantly being told to get lost.

Linda Percy
11/30/2011 09:38:37 am

Oh you poor dear! I can just see you looking in the windows!


Leave a Reply.