Hotel Histories

History of the Thunderbird

First Opened September 2, 1948
Renamed the Silverbird in 1977
Renamed the El Rancho in 1982


In 1946, attorney Cliff Jones, and Los Angeles developer and Nevada gambling pioneer, Marion Hicks, invested $2 million in a 111,000 Sq. foot new complex across from the El Rancho from Guy McAfee and his associates.

It was not until October of 1947, when building restrictions were met sufficiently, to allow construction to start.

On September 2, 1948, the Thunderbird opened. Hicks had the distinction of being the only man in town who had built two resort hotels. His original venture, El Cortez, opened in 1941.

The Thunderbird's name was derived from an ancient Navajo legend - "The Sacred Bearer of Happiness Unlimited".

The walls were concrete block with the ubiquitous weeping mortar. The cocktail lounge displayed murals of cowboys, chuck wagons, and saguaro cactus. The Navajo-style Pow Wow dining/showroom, had a small stage and heavy wood trusses over the white tablecloth covered tables. The use of native stone connected The Thunderbird to the region.

The room wing imitated the Flamingo's, with a central three-story section raised above the two-story wings. In front of the main wing was the pool with a high dive, palms, and lawn. This pool was billed as the largest pool in Nevada with it containing 360,000 gallons of water.

It was the first Strip hotel covered with a porte cochere. On top of the desert tower lookout was the Thunderbird, its talons gripped onto the tower roof. Another neon mate was perched on the roadside sign.

In 1950, the Thunderbird had a total of 206 rooms and an annex. It then added a six unit bungalow and the Casino Bar.

In 1952, Thunderbird was overbooked so the owners built the 110 room Algiers on the property to accommodate the overflow. Guests of The Algiers were given the same perks and benefits as if they were staying at the Thunderbird.

In 1954, the 450 to 500 seat Terrace Room was added. It was equipped to show movies and had a public address system. A dance floor was also installed for social functions. Its ceiling domes were lit enhancing the flame-colored ceiling and its pompeliano had tinted walls.

In 1955, the Thunderbird lifted the roadside bird higher into the air on a pylon rising out of a new porte cochere. She also expanded her casino out toward the road, framing its new second floor with a rectangular box. A new porte cochere and a taller sign pole with three pennant signboards attached were added.

In 1955, The Thunderbird was closed down for a short time by the Tax Commission after articles appearing in the Las Vegas Sun alleged that Meyer Lansky and other underworld figures held hidden interest in the property.

In 1964, Del Webb bought the Thunderbird, adding a new façade south of the original entry as well as bringing the room count to 500. The thunderbirds were replaced by an updated one created by Ad-Art. The 700-foot sign stretched across the old room wings south of the entry was the Strip's biggest, over three times as long as the Stardust.

In 1966, Ken Curtis (Gunsmoke's Festus) and his bride Torrie Connelly honeymooned at the resort.

In 1972, the Thunderbird was sold to the owners of Caesars Palace, Clifford and Stuart Perlman. The new name was Thunderbird, A Division of Caesars World, Inc.

The Thunderbird saw many stars/shows perform on its stages including Rosemary Clooney, Larry Storch, Mills Brothers, Morton Downey, Orson Bean, and Dale Robertson, Kaye Ballard, Belle Barth, Henny Youngman, Breck Wall, The Treniers, Dorothy Shay Show, the Donald O'Connor Revue , Mel Torme, Dick Shawn, Frank Gorshin, Edie Adams, Jim Bailey, Marty Barris, Pete Candoli, Bobby Goldsboro, Tony Martin, China Doll Revue, Ecstasy on Ice, and Les Foley's Glacees, showcased All Star Ice Revue, Follies on Ice, Scandals on Ice with George Arnold, Sketches on Ice starring Edie Adams, and Summer Ice Revue with Sammy Shore, South Pacific, Flower Drum Song starring Jack Soo, Latin Fire '71 with Marta Cisneros, Latin Fire '72 starring Freddy Manjon, and Latin Fire '73 starring Manolo Torrente.

The Perlmans sold the hotel in 1977 to Dune's owner Major Auterburn Riddle who changed the name to Silverbird.

Silverbird’s restaurant Top Brass, advertised "the Major stakes his reputation on it." Also advertised was the Mexican restaurant La Paloma.

In 1981, veteran gambling operator Ed Torres purchased the Silverbird, added a Spanish style mission front, and renamed it El Rancho in 1982.

A new tower was built along with a 52 lane bowling center with a bar and snack restaurant, and a 90,000 square foot casino/race and sports books. The casino held seven poker tables.

The El Rancho closed in 1992. New Jersey Horseracing Association purchased the El Rancho but they couldn't get financing. The City ordered the Association to tear down the building. They commenced destruction in June of 1999, but subsequently halted the demolition.

In 2000, Turnberry Associates, purchased the El Rancho from the defunct New Jersey company.

The Thunderbird/Silverbird/El Rancho was imploded with 700 pounds of explosives in front of more than 2,000 onlookers just after 2:30am on October 3, 2000.

During the implosion, The Algiers, which is now owned by Hicks’ daughter Marianne Kifer, was draped in plastic, and suffered only a sprinkling of dust. There were no guests inside because LVI paid for all of the lodge's rooms for the night.

When the El Rancho came down, she left 10,000 tons of concrete. The remains will benefit Las Vegas when The Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Las Vegas Wash Coordination Committee decided to use her remains to reinforce one structure in a planned network of the Las Vegas Wash.

More detailed information can be found at