Distant Vegas road stretches from Strip pioneer's legacy

Herb McDonald would have laughed about the dedication of a street in his honor located so far from his beloved Las Vegas Boulevard.


After all, that spot in the valley's far northwest nether reaches was nothing but cactus and cattle skulls back when he started touting Las Vegas.


But Herb would also have been proud that his Vegas dream had blossomed even farther than most eyes could see.


Those who assembled recently on a crackling clear morning to commemorate McDonald's street could see the Strip he helped invent gleaming way off to the southeast. Herb's street marks the entrance to a KB Homes project that's rising closer to the mountains than the site of the old El Rancho, where McDonald generated headlines and began his legendary career just after World War II.


Ever the quipster, Mayor Oscar Goodman said not only did McDonald have vision when he came to promoting Las Vegas, but it took real vision just to find the street that now bears his name.


"I feel like Columbus coming up here," Goodman said.


It would take more than one column to list all of McDonald's adventures, innovations and big ideas. His family and friends tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade him to put his life's tall-but-true tales into a memoir.


He was a man who played gin rummy with Benjamin Siegel (and won), is credited with creating the first casino buffet, was on the ground floor for the Las Vegas News Bureau's early promotions, came up with the working plans for the old Las Vegas Convention Center rotunda, created convention space at the Silver Slipper, was one of a handful of men who brought the National Finals Rodeo to town, and was the driving force behind Las Vegas Events. Those are the people who have given us everything from hydroplane races to tennis tournaments.


Herb managed the Chamber of Commerce back when Las Vegas wasn't much more than a speck on a map. He even helped book the Beatles at the Convention Center in 1964.


The NFR deal alone would be enough for a Las Vegas legacy. The stampede into Las Vegas of thousands of cowboys saved the casino action in December, which was a notoriously slack time at the tables. Not anymore. You might say Herb McDonald saved Christmas.


Those trying to keep a New Year's weight-loss resolution can partly blame McDonald for the city's endless buffets. The El Rancho "Chuckwagon" was necessitated by gamblers who got hungry while pitching dice long into the night. As a craps table is no place for a salami-and-cheese on rye, the "Chuckwagon" gave players a place to call a quick timeout, refuel, and pay peanuts for an expanding variety of victuals.


Herb, you cost the whole community a pants size.


Goodman called McDonald "one of the gentlemen who made us what we are." And the mayor didn't just mean chubby people who wear cowboy hats in December.


As a kid, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority President and CEO Rossi Ralenkotter attended a Beatles concert and finds a remarkable irony in the recent popularity on the Strip of "Love" and other Beatles tributes. Ralenkotter came to befriend McDonald, who died in 2002, and admire his ability to create buzz and stage events that generated big headlines for Las Vegas.


Ralenkotter considers McDonald "one of the first branding people," who "understood the importance of the image of Las Vegas" at a time in the '50s when much of the gaming and tourism world was still trying to find us.


Added McDonald's pal and protégé, 87-year-old Harvey Diedrich, who has spent recent years working to secure his friend's legacy: "I think it's appropriate and a long time overdue. I hope this is the beginning of the recognition he deserves. He saved a lot of jobs, Herb did. People forget that there was a time most people didn't know the name Las Vegas. It was almost entirely creativity that made Las Vegas what it is today. We had to beg movie stars to come in and stay a few days."


Now we can't keep them from dancing on the tables.


Herb McDonald Street is a long way from the Boulevard he helped dream up, but that distance shows just how far we've come.




• John L. Smith's column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal's Opinion page. E-mail him at smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.

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