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Thunderbird, current site of Fontainebleau, made history in Las Vegas

The Thunderbird marquee circa 1967.
Blake Bolinger/Flickr
The Thunderbird marquee circa 1967.

The Thunderbird opened on September 2, 1948, just south of today’s Sahara Hotel. It made a lot of history. The T-Bird was the Strip’s fourth hotel, after the western-themed El Rancho Vegas and Hotel Last Frontier, and the more luxurious Flamingo. The Thunderbird balanced these approaches by invoking old Navajo stories and Native Americans, but offering luxury as defined in the 1940s.

The two main owners were Marion Hicks and Cliff Jones. Hicks had been involved in gambling ships off the California coast before being shut down, then built the El Cortez downtown. Jones arrived to work on Hoover Dam and became a powerful lawyer and politician. When the hotel opened, he was in the first of two terms as Nevada’s lieutenant governor.

Another top executive, Jake Kozloff, was reputed to have some dubious connections. Later, the Nevada Gaming Control Board denied him a gaming license at the Hacienda. Other co-owners included Guy McAfee and Tutor Scherer, veterans of the Los Angeles gambling scene who came to Las Vegas after a reform movement. They, too, had a lot of rumors swirling around them.

The hotel opened with seventy-nine rooms and a lot of pomp and circumstance … Four searchlights flashing into the night … A who’s who

of Las Vegas looking around … and entertainment from Ginny Simms, then a popular radio and film singer. The Thunderbird expanded numerous times over the years.

The Thunderbird was known for being a big part of the entertainment scene. Its showroom featured the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals Flower Drum Song and South Pacific, and a variety of entertainers.

But the hotel also achieved notoriety. In 1954, a series in the Las Vegas Sun reported that Meyer and Jake Lansky had hidden ownership in the hotel. The state revoked its gaming license. The owners eventually won it back, but in the important decision of Tax Commission v. Hicks, the Nevada Supreme Court made clear that the state had broad powers to regulate gaming. Cliff Jones soon gave up his Nevada gaming license to concentrate on Latin American casino investments. Hicks died in 1961, and the new boss was Joe Wells, a longtime stockholder. He added Thunderbird Downs Racetrack, and other sports like wrestling and boxing. He also is a part of Nevada trivia: His daughter Dawn was Miss Nevada, became an actress, and went on a three-hour tour … as Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island.

In 1964, the T-Bird’s owners sold their interests to Sahara-Nevada Corporation, a subsidiary the Del Webb Corporation created when it had bought the Sahara. The old and new owners oversaw a major

expansion. Unfortunately, the Thunderbird’s glory days were receding into the background. Webb sold it to Caesars World, which lost money on the hotel and sold it to an investment group that included legendary Las Vegas banker E. Parry Thomas. They sold it to Major Riddle, the onetime Dunes owner, who changed its name to the Silverbird. After Riddle died, it went into bankruptcy, and former Aladdin co-owner Ed Torres tried to revive it and an old name, calling it the El Rancho. It finally closed in 1992, suffering from a recession and competition from newer resorts. The final part of the old structure was imploded in 2000. Now it’s the site of the Fontainebleau, which is scheduled to open soon, maybe bringing back some of the old glory to a historic site.