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Old-time Helldorado is hot, in a cool way

Special to The Times

In MANY ways, the Helldorado Days Parade, held on a recent Saturday night, could have been witnessed in any small town. It was hosted by the Las Vegas Elks. An honor guard of firefighters took the lead in dress uniforms with flags. There were high school marching bands, chanting Girl Scout groups, the Shriners in their little buggies and community groups that I had never heard of, such as the Nevada Gay Rodeo Assn.

The parade claims to be the oldest tradition in Las Vegas, boasting a 103-year legacy. Of course, like most truths about Vegas, there is some fudging around the edges. For example, the parade was discontinued for a while in the ‘90s, has been moved and downsized and, finally, perhaps to attract more people, shifted to the evening (thus negating the heat-braving attitude implied in the very name).

And, like everything about Vegas, Helldorado was invented as a publicity stunt to lure tourists by celebrating the town’s Western heritage. The modern Helldorado Days was started in 1935 after completion of the Hoover Dam (and, the departure of thousands of workers who built the project) caused the city fathers to fear that Vegas was in peril of becoming a ghost town.

These days, no one worries about Las Vegas being forgotten by tourists. And indeed, as the parade was being celebrated downtown, today’s Western heritage was being celebrated in a different way on the Strip with the Academy of Country Music broadcasting its awards show from MGM’s Grand Garden Arena.

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But few of the country music lovers on the Strip wandered down to see Helldorado. Nowadays, Helldorado is the rare Vegas event definitely geared to locals. The wooden sticks given to thousands of parade-goers to fan themselves urged support for a local judicial candidate. Many local candidates for judge were in the parade. “I like to see the politicians,” Monica Patalong told me as she monitored a group of four children watching the festivities. “I like that they moved it to the evening instead of during the day. The history is important, and in Las Vegas it is always good to have something you can bring kids to.”

In fact, families and seniors lined much of the parade route, making up the majority of spectators. Carol Layland, 70, told me she has come to more Helldorado Days Parades than she can recall.

“This brings back many memories,” Layland said. “It used to have a much longer parade route. It used to be much bigger. But I still enjoy it every time.”

Mayor Oscar Goodman showed up, bearing a super-sized version of his trademark martini. After waving to every person he could find, Goodman explained his take on the meaning of Helldorado Days Parade in 2008: “This is what Las Vegas is all about, a sense of community. It is absolutely a locals’ thing.” And, yes there was a pink Cadillac with an Elvis impersonator.

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Visiting monks stay on task

Tezin PHENTSOK was not a typical visitor. Phentsok, a Tibetan monk, was in town as spokesperson for a group of 10 monks based in a monastery in India who passed through Las Vegas as part of a cultural tour. In traditional robes, the monks, over the course of five days, created a mandala sand painting at a Las Vegas library. To create the elaborate design with brightly colored sand, the monks worked in groups and sometimes individually in shifts that one library worker told me typically lasted 10 hours straight.

So what do Tibetan monks make of the world-famous Strip? “The Strip? What do you mean?” Phentsok had never heard of it. Apologetically, he offered: “We are staying at the Thai Temple. After finishing here we go back to the temple.”

But surely while ferrying back and forth he must have noticed something unusual about the skyline that did not exist in, say, Atlanta and New Orleans, which the monks also have visited. At this, he nodded: “On the road we saw many lights, disco-lights kind of thing. The first time we see millions of lights in different designs. There is no words.”

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But did the monks have any desire to examine the inside of the buildings that had all those lights? “No,” Phentsok said. “We don’t have time. We are on a tight schedule.”

So each night after work, the monks took notice of the Strip without ever going to see it. “We see the beautiful big buildings and the lighting manifestations. But we need to finish the mandala sand painting to pour blessings into the world.”

Phentsok was referring to the moment when the completed mandala is destroyed and those present could have some of this consecrated sand. At least one Las Vegan, perhaps jokingly, wondered if the precious sand might help her luck on the slots.

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For more of what’s happening on and off the Strip, see latimes.com/movable buffet.


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