Location: North Strip
2755 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
What’s There Now: The Drew
Hotel opens on September 2, 1948
Overflow hotel Algiers opens next door
Hotel undergoes extensive remodeling
Nevada Tax Commission shuts down the hotel briefly when allegations of mob involvement are uncovered
Major remodeling adds The Strip’s longest sign at 700 feet
Purchased by the Pearlman family making it a sister of Caesars Palace
Sold to Major Riddle making it a sister of The Dunes
Hotel closes and is renovated
Hotel reopens as The Silverbird
Hotel is purchased by Ed Torres, former owner of Aladdin, who remodels and renames it El Rancho
For the rest of timeline, go to the El Rancho page
The Thunderbird was the brainchild of casino magnate Marion Hicks, who owned El Cortez at the time, and Clifford Jones who happened to be the Lieutenant Governor of Nevada. As with most hotels of the era, the mafia was most likely involved in the development of the property, which started with a $2 million land purchase. They secured the acreage on the east side of The Strip across the street from what is Circus Circus today but in 1946 there were only four other major resorts: El Rancho, which was more or less across the street, the Frontier, which was across the street and south a bit, and The Flamingo, which was further to the south.
Construction started in 1947 and the hotel opened September 2, 1948.
The name and mascot were based on a Navajo legend. While the thunderbird appeared in the mythology of many indigenous cultures as a wrathful spirit who controlled the weather, to the Navajo people it was a bringer of happiness and good fortune. So naturally that should get slapped on a casino (and later a Ford). The hotel’s namesake was represented in a rainbow hued neon sign resembling a modern, angry bird on top of a three story observation tower near the porte corchere that emitted smoke from its beak. The macho design was intended to be an avian counterpoint to The Flamingo’s more feminine style.
Typical of hotels of the ear, it had a western theme. There were giant murals of scenes with cowboys and cactus surrounded by wagon wheel furniture and lots of rough-hewn wood. Restaurants and lounges were given Indian names and design motifs including the Pow Wow showroom, the Wigwam room, the Navajo room. Three big fireplaces in the main area gave the place a homey feel. The 76 hotel rooms were in a low wing that stretched back from the main building located near the street. There was a pool, several restaurants, the aforementioned showroom, and a sizeable casino.
The hotel got off to a splashy and yet nearly disastrous opening, at least for the owners. The event was attended by the movers and shakers of Las Vegas at the time including owners of competing Vegas resorts like Jake Katleman of El Rancho and Farmer Paige of the Pioneer Club in Downtown Las Vegas. They reportedly won so much money in the casino that they owned the hotel by the end of the night! Hicks and Jones negotiated a settlement with the gamblers so they could keep the place but the details of that settlement were never made public. The mob was mostly likely involved.
The hotel was expanded several times in the first couple of years and by 1950 it had 206 rooms.
In 1951 the hotel hosted the first Las Vegas appearance of Rosemary Clooney and the property became known as a mecca for great entertainment. At one point in the mid-1960s they had seven different shows running around the clock, creating a 24-hour a day experience. In 1965, they hosted Judy Garland’s final appearance.
The hotel was a hit – so much so that they were usually sold out. Instead of adding more rooms, they built a second hotel next door. It was called the Algiers and it opened in 1953. Anyone who stayed in one of its 110 rooms was treated as if they were a guest of the Thunderbird.
The front of the hotel was remodeled in 1955 to compete with upgrades and a remodeling across the street at The Frontier. The casino was expanded and a second floor was added.
A little later that year, the hotel was shut down by the Nevada Tax Commission when reports surfaced of mobster Meyer Lansky’s involvement with the property. The named owners of the resort convinced the state that everything was on the up and up and the doors opened again after only a brief closure.
The hotel was remodeled again in 1957 and expanded a few more times with more amenities thrown in to keep it exciting. By the early 1960s it had over 500 rooms and a horse racing track behind it.
The new owners did another major remodel that included getting rid of much of the western design in favor of a more modern look, expanding the casino, and adding what was billed as the biggest swimming pool in the state of Nevada. They entire front of the hotel was revamped to include a 700-foot long sign that unified the multiple buildings into one cohesive structure. At the time it was considered the longest sign on The Strip.
Over the next few years there were some changes to the lineup of restaurants, shows, and bars but for the most part the hotel stayed as is until it was purchased in 1972 by the Pearlman family who also owned Caesars Palace. They rebranded it as the New Thunderbird but didn’t actually do anything significantly new to the hotel. In fact, for a time they planned to tear it down and build a sister resort to Caesars called the Marc Anthony. Those plans never came to fruition and the hotel started declining from a lack of attention.
They finally sold the place in 1977 to Major Auterburn Riddle who also owned the Dunes at the time. He closed the property for awhile so he could slap a new coat of paint on the buildings, revamp and rename restaurants and bars, and update the room decor. It reopened in late 1978 as the Silverbird.
The property would operate under that name for only a few years. It was purchased in 1981 by Ed Torres, who had once co-owned the Aladdin down the street. He dramatically remodeled the property and named it El Rancho – an homage to the first resort that was ever built on The Strip in 1941.
You can read the full history of what happened with this hotel from 1982 forward on the El Rancho history page but here’s the short version: Torres invested a huge amount of money into expanding the hotel, it never did well financially, and finally closed in 1992. It remained a derelict shell on The Strip for the next eight years until it was finally imploded in October of 2000. The land is now home to the derelict Drew hotel.