3801 Las Vegas Blvd South
1948 – 1976
Photo from the Mark Englebretson Collection
The Fourth Hotel on the Strip
In October of 1947 Marion B. Hicks and Clifford Jones invested $2 million dollars and began constructing the 76-room Thunderbird Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. The Thunderbird was across Highway 91, and slightly south of the El Rancho Vegas. Eleven months later, on September 2, 1948, the Thunderbird opened and was financially successful, in spite of losing $145,000 to lucky craps shooters on opening night.
Named after an ancient Navajo legend “The Sacred Bearer of Happiness Unlimited”, the Thunderbird’s cocktail lounge had a western motif, with murals of cowboys, chuck wagons, and cactus. Native American portraits were on the walls of the Wigwam Room and the Navajo Room restaurants. The focal point of the decor was on the outside of the hotel. The larger, stylized neon bird that perched atop a tower above the casino entrance. A second, smaller, bird was perched on a sign, overlooking the Las Vegas Strip.
By 1950 the Thunderbird Hotel had expanded to a total of 206 rooms and a 6 unit bungalow. This still wasn’t enough to accommodate all of the prospective guests, so in 1953 a separate 110-unit motel. The Algiers, was built on the property. The Algiers had a restaurant with a bar, and the guests were accorded the full use of the facilities at the Thunderbird, including the swimming pool, which was said to be the largest in Nevada at the time, containing 360,000 gallons of water.
In 1955 The Las Vegas Sun published articles alleging that mobster Meyer Lansky and other underworld characters held hidden interests in the Thunderbird. The tax commission revoked the Thunderbirds license while an investigation was conducted. Hicks and Jones claimed that Hank Greenspun, of The Sun, tried to force them to buy advertising and threatened to shut them down if they didn’t. The hearing revealed that Meyer Lansky’s brother Jake, through a third party, had loaned money to Hicks and Jones. The courts determined that a loan didn’t constitute ownership, and the license was restored. The incident helped to lead to more oversight of gambling operations, and the development of the Nevada State Gaming Control Board.
By the 1960’s things were changing. Marion Hicks died in 1961, and newer larger resorts were offering more competition for the tourist dollars. The Thunderbird needed something that would make them stand out in the crowd. Show producer Monte Proser approached Richard Rodgers, of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame, with the idea of presenting a slightly altered version of the Broadway hit “Flower Drum Song.” The show opened at the Thunderbird in December of 1961, and it was a success, which led to more Broadway-style productions hitting the stages in Las Vegas. In 1962 the Riviera presented “Bye-Bye Birdie.” In 1963 the Thunderbird opened “Anything Goes” and “High Button Shoes.” In 1967 Caesars Palace added Neil Simon’s “Odd Couple” to the entertainment available.
Over the years, contractor Del Webb had been involved in the construction and the ownership of many Las Vegas hotels and casinos. In 1964, purchased by Del Webb for nearly 10 million, the Thunderbird underwent a major renovation. The room count was raised to 500, and the original birds were replaced with an updated version. The most visible change , however, was the new THUNDERBIRD sign that was added across the front of the building. The sign was 700 feet long, more than three times longer than the Stardust sign!
In 1964 and 1965 the Thunderbird Downs racetrack operated behind the Thunderbird Casino. I’ve tried to find more information on the track, but so far haven’t found much. I’ve seen a couple of ebay auctions for photos or postcards, but that’s about it.
In 1972 Caesars World bought the Thunderbird. They kept the Thunderbird name, but the logo was changed to a bird with outspread wings. Initially, Caesars planned to raze the Thunderbird, and build a new resort in it’s place. Plans fell through, and Caesars was no longer interested in the Thunderbird. Ownership reverted to the bank that held a $9 million mortgage on the property.
First published in the Casino Chip and Token News Magazine, Volume 20, Summer 2007 issue.
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