Las Vegas Sun

November 18, 2018

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Strip visionary McDonald dies

The man who inspired the all-you-can-eat buffet and brought the Beatles to Las Vegas died Saturday, better known by his deeds than his name.

A visionary who helped mold Las Vegas for more than a half century, Herb McDonald, 83, was one of the first publicists on the Strip, founder of the group that brought the National Finals Rodeo to Las Vegas and an innovator in professional golf tournaments.

"He was the godfather to all of us in publicity and marketing -- he made the footprints that we follow today," said Jim Seagrave, vice president of marketing and advertising for the Stardust.

Services for McDonald will be held 1 p.m. Friday at Our Lady of Las Vegas Catholic Church. Arrangements were handled by Palm Mortuary-Jones.

McDonald inspired the buffet in 1946 more out of hunger than genius, he recalled.

One night while working late at the El Rancho Vegas, the first hotel on what would become the Strip, McDonald brought some cheese and cold cuts from the kitchen and laid them out on the bar to make a sandwich. Gamblers walking by said they were hungry, and the buffet was born. The original midnight "chuckwagon" buffet cost $1.25.

In 1964, by then director of promotion and publicity for the Sahara, McDonald attended the British Open and watched the Beatles perform at the Talk of the Town Club in London.

After the show McDonald met with Beatles manager Brian Epstein and booked the Fab Four for an August concert at Las Vegas Convention Center. The group stayed at the Sahara.

"A lot of tourists came to town because of Herb -- he could really pack them in at a time when we needed the business most," said Joe Delaney, a friend and longtime entertainment columnist for the Sun.

"He came up with the concept of bringing the world's airline workers to town each year for a big Christmas party. It really helped at a time when business is traditionally dead around here."

Harvey Diederich, a longtime colleague, said his friend was one of the town's "greatest innovators."

"No one was stronger in the early days for promoting Las Vegas than Herb -- no one," Diederich said. "He did so much to build this city."

McDonald's love of golf led to the establishment of of major tournaments, Diederich said, including the $77,777.77 Sahara Invitational PGA event in the late 1950s, where McDonald pioneered the pro-am format.

McDonald said that perhaps his greatest accomplishment was his most forgotten. In the 1950s he raised the money to have a special census taken that proved Las Vegas -- not Reno -- was the state's largest city. It changed the balance of economic power in the state.

In 1975 McDonald predicted the boom in Southern Nevada of the past two decades, telling the Sun that growth to that point was nothing compared with what he saw for the future.

"For the last 30 years I have believed in Las Vegas, and we have just scratched the surface," McDonald said. "The international desire to see Las Vegas is growing by leaps and bounds."

He was born Herbert Cobb McDonald March 15, 1919, in Edmonton, Alberta, his middle name in honor of baseball legend Ty Cobb, a fishing buddy of Herb's father.

The family moved to California, where McDonald graduated from Pasadena Junior College in 1939. He enrolled at Stanford University but quit to join the Navy and become an aviator. A lieutenant, he trained fighter pilots during World War II.

After the war McDonald began his promoting career for Music Corp. of America and early on booked acts for the El Rancho. In January 1946 McDonald scrapped plans to return to college after being offered the $125-a-week entertainment director's job at the El Rancho, which also included publicity.

In 1950 McDonald was hired to promote and open the Last Frontier Village on the grounds of the Last Frontier hotel, now the New Frontier. The area's first theme park, the village consisted of authentic Old West buildings acquired from ghost towns and featured amusement rides and a working livery stable for horseback riding.

McDonald also is credited with opening the first convention facility in Las Vegas on the second floor of the Silver Slipper, the casino that anchored the village.

McDonald became managing director of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce in 1954. During his tenure the Las Vegas Convention Center was built from a design McDonald and two others submitted following a nationwide tour of indoor arenas.

Under his leadership, the chamber also helped establish Nevada Southern University, today known as the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and started the Better Business Bureau.

McDonald underwent open heart surgery in 1975 and left the Sahara. That year he went to work with Hall of Fame golfer Jack Nicklaus promoting golf tournaments.

In March 1982 McDonald returned to Las Vegas to become director of Las Vegas Events Inc.

McDonald's coup of luring the National Finals Rodeo from its longtime home in Oklahoma City to Las Vegas was considered one of the most brilliant of his storied career. The event remains a popular December attraction for Las Vegas.

McDonald also brought or helped bring to Las Vegas the Las Vegas Bowl college football game, the nation's second largest trapshoot tournament, gun and coin shows, bridge tournaments, rugby matches, 10k runs, boat races, table tennis matches, world-class volleyball, helicopter races and high school basketball tournaments.

McDonald is survived by daughters Cheryl and Kimberly McDonald and son Greg McDonald, all of Las Vegas. He was preceded in death by his wife, Darleen.