In the Arena with Wayne

John Wayne at his 26 Bar Ranch in Arizona. Photo courtesy of JWE

John Wayne at his 26 Bar Ranch in Arizona. Photo courtesy of JWE

The National Finals Rodeo rides into town with ropin’, Reba and a roster of attractions for Duke fans.

Written by Constance Dunn

It might not be your first rodeo, but it is the 61st edition of the National Finals Rodeo (NFR), which is often called the Super Bowl of the sport for good reason. There’s the excitement of seeing rodeo’s greatest stars, like 25-year-old Sage Kimzey, who last year smashed records by winning his fifth consecutive NFR world championship and is gunning for the title in 2019. And finally, special exhibits in homage to one of cowboy culture’s most iconic figures: John Wayne.

Held December 5-14 at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, the NFR has been kicking it in Sin City since 1985. And there the headlining event electrifies an otherwise quiet (at least by Vegas standards) December, bringing rodeo to an often sold-out crowd of about 170,000, all eager to see the world’s champions in events like bull and bronc riding, steer wrestling, barrel racing and team roping. That, and revel in the distinctive culture of the American West, with hundreds of exhibitors and leading country music acts who perform at the rodeo and nearby venues. This year, for instance, Reba McEntire will be in concert with Brooks & Dunn at The Colosseum.

Not to miss, of course, are three spaces focused on John Wayne at South Point Hotel & Casino, home base of the NFR’s unofficial master of ceremonies and perpetual booster, Michael Gaughan. In addition to being owner of South Point, Gaughan played a key role in bringing the NFR to Las Vegas back in 1985 (for the previous 20 years it had been held in Oklahoma City), and has much to do with the tournament being the grandest prize bank in rodeo. In 2017, he was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame for his efforts. South Point, often referred to as “Vegas Cowboy Central,” will also host key events for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) immediately before and during this year’s NRF.

John Wayne’s costumes on display at an exhibit in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo courtesy of JWE

John Wayne’s costumes on display at an exhibit in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo courtesy of JWE

John Wayne’s gun holster and ammunition belt on display at an exhibit in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo courtesy of JWE

John Wayne’s gun holster and ammunition belt on display at an exhibit in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo courtesy of JWE

“We have a great relationship with Michael Gaughan, who not only owns South Point but is a big John Wayne fan,” says Ethan, the youngest son of John Wayne. “We are excited to be in Las Vegas during the NFR this year, bringing John Wayne to an audience that appreciates him.” Case in point: John Wayne: Spirit of The West, a 2,000-square-foot exhibit packed with the Duke’s personal effects and memorabilia—everything from film costumes to handwritten notes, some of them never seen by the public. Interactive elements allow guests to glean a deeper understanding of the man behind the silver screen icon, and delve into his love of the Old West, including its principles. “He really loved the West,” Ethan points out. “His heartfelt belief was that America’s frontier was, back in the day, a place of wide-open spaces where pioneering acts of heroism and adventure occurred because people were in pursuit of a better life.”

“His heartfelt belief was that America’s frontier was, back in the day, a place of wide-open spaces where pioneering acts of heroism and adventure occurred because people were in pursuit of a better life.”

— Ethan Wayne

Another attraction is John Wayne Stock & Supply, where fans can peruse exclusive John Wayne-branded wares ranging from books and apparel to glassware, leather goods and hats. The final stop is a gallery featuring the bold, intimate images of vintage rodeo scenes and classic Hollywood celebrities shot by John R. Hamilton, a U.S. Marine in WWII turned film set photographer who first captured Duke during the shooting of The Searchers (1956).

As a modern-day celebration of cowboy and Western life, South Point is a fitting place to find John Wayne, who provided the world with a glowing template of it during his 50-year screen career. He also spent much of his off-screen life in the saddle, starting in childhood, when he rode a horse to school, and through adulthood, when he managed cattle at his Arizona ranch. Wayne was, we’re reminded, born in rural Iowa, and later raised in rural California before moving to Glendale as a teenager. “From then, his entire life was focused on telling stories of the West,” Ethan says. “A horse was a huge part of his life—from a young boy to his last picture.”

The John Wayne exhibit and store will be open December 5-14 from 9am to 6pm.

John Wayne in The Sons of Katie Elder. Photo courtesy of John R. Hamilton/JWE

John Wayne in The Sons of Katie Elder. Photo courtesy of John R. Hamilton/JWE