The El Rancho Hotel and Casino was a hotel and casino that operated on the Las Vegas Strip in Paradise, Nevada from 1948 to 1992. It was known as The Thunderbird Hotel from its opening to 1976, and The Silverbird from 1977 to 1981.
On September 1, 1948, the Thunderbird Hotel was the fourth resort to open on the Las Vegas Strip. The resort was built by developer Marion Hicks and owned by Lieutenant Governor of NevadaClifford A. Jones. The resort had a Native American theme and featured portraits, a Navajo-based restaurant, the only bowling alley ever on the Strip, and a showroom. In 1955, articles surfaced in the Las Vegas Sun saying that Meyer Lansky and other underworld figures held hidden shares in the hotel.
In 1964, the casino was purchased by Del Webb for $10 million. He ran the resort until 1972, when he sold it to Caesars World, owner of Caesars Palace, for $13.6 million. A $150-million, 2,000-room resort called the Mark Anthony was planned for the site, but Caesars was unable to find financing, and sold the property four years later to banker E. Parry Thomas at a loss of $5.7 million. Thomas later sold it to Major Riddle, owner of the Dunes Hotel, who renamed the resort as the Silverbird in 1976.
The Thunderbird has the distinction of being the resort where singer Rosemary Clooney made her first appearance in Las Vegas in 1951, and where Judy Garland made her final Vegas appearance in 1965.
The Silverbird opened on January 1, 1977. Four years later, Major Riddle sold the resort to Ed Torres, who also owned the Aladdin Hotel and Casino. Torres renamed the Silverbird to the El Rancho, named after the nearby El Rancho Vegas, which burnt down in 1960.
On August 31, 1982, the El Rancho Casino opened its doors. According to the Gaming Control Board, Torres had close ties with some of the most notorious crime characters of the time. However, this did not restrict him from owning a gaming license.Rodney Dangerfield opened the "Rodney's Place" comedy club inside the El Rancho in 1982.
The El Rancho Casino closed on July 6, 1992. For several years the marquee claimed that Countryland USA would be coming soon, which called for two, 20-story cowboy boot-shaped hotel towers. That project never came to be and the property was sold to Las Vegas Entertainment Network Inc. They failed to reopen it and sold it to International Thoroughbred Breeders Corp., founded by notorious penny-stock operator Robert E. Brennan. Other plans for the site have included a project slated as Starship Orion, a Star Wars-like casino-resort, but all the proposed projects fell through, or were not approved.
In December 1999, local news channel KVBC News 3 was granted access to the El Rancho after being invited by two unnamed workers. KVBC conducted and aired an investigation of the resort's structures. Asbestos and exposed wiring were reportedly found throughout the buildings, as well as corroding chemicals which covered the floors. Rats and bugs were found to be inhabiting the resort. While most of the structures were decomposing, another section of the El Rancho was found to have been renovated with working slot machines, which had been lended to the owners by Bally Gaming three years earlier to showcase to potential investors for the Countryland USA project. After the investigation aired, the property's owners were fined for health and safety violations by the local building and fire departments, as well as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
In February 2000, Turnberry Associates acquired a six-month option to purchase the El Rancho, which Turnberry described as "an eyesore". Turnberry was in the process of developing Turnberry Place, a series of luxury high-rise condominium towers directly east of the El Rancho. Later that year, Turnberry purchased the resort from International Thoroughbred Breeders for $45 million. On October 3, 2000, the resort was imploded. The site later became part of the land used for the Fontainebleau Resort Las Vegas.
^Spears, Darcy (February 23, 2000). "El Rancho Eyesore". KVBC.
Things have changed for the better since the News 3 Investigators first exposed conditions inside the El Rancho. You wouldn't know it by looking at the outside of the place, but county and state documents prove local leaders have now gone through the inside with a fine-toothed comb. LIKE A HAUNTED HOUSE, the old El Rancho generates curiosity. Richard Acosta turned down a job at the El Rancho. “I would definitely describe it as a ghost town,” he says. “Why is this still in this condition?” wonders nearby business owner, Louise Goranson. News 3 first exposed what's behind the El Rancho's closed doors and found a property falling apart. Speculation, rumor, even fear surrounds the old hotel-casino. “It looks like it's been burnt down,” speculate tourists Travis Moen and Helen Anderson. “They figure that the mob somehow is involved,” Louise Goranson comments. “It's very creepy,” business neighbor Connie Witt confesses. “I wouldn't want to be near it,” admits Travis Moen and Helen Anderson. Tourists Kimberly Carter and Raquel Twine agree. “In Vegas with all of the growth and the expansion, it's very surprising. It makes you wonder what's behind it.” News 3 first exposed what's behind the El Rancho's closed doors a few months ago at the invitation of some workers who asked us to conceal their identities. We found a property falling apart. ‘I couldn't believe when I read that the deep fryers still had the fat in them. I mean, what kind of vermin could be in there? ' —Myrna Williams Clark County Commissioner “Be careful of this register, that's about 75 pounds and one of them came down and missed me by about two inches,” a worker warned us during the tour. “There's roaches and rats running all over, a chemical room that could kill you, asbestos falling out of the ceilings, wiring that if you touch it you're gonna get fried.” “The condition of the property has been this way for the entire length that I've been employed,” another worker told us. And longer than that, according to Richard Acosta. Four years ago, Acosta was asked to inventory the El Rancho's contents. “I saw your story. It just brought back so many memories,” he disclosed. Acosta says his memories of El Rancho are dark enough for him to decline what could have been a lucrative job. “I just wasn't gonna bring my people in under those unsafe conditions, not being able to see properly, and again the exposed wiring and chemicals all over the place. It just felt very– health risks were definitely there.” he said. “I would imagine someone would be doing inspections on that place.” EL RANCHO UNDER INSPECTION Eight years after El Rancho closed its doors, that finally did happen once we brought the hazards to light and government leaders took action. Both the Building and Fire Departments inspected and drafted dozens of pages of violations News 3 had documented on video. “I couldn't believe when I read that the deep fryers still had the fat in them,” said a shocked County Commissioner Myrna Williams. “I mean, what kind of vermin could be in there, the odors, the difficulty. I mean– and the hazard– of course is number one.” Even OSHA, who had never stepped foot on the property until our investigation aired, cited and fined El Rancho for the very violations we had uncovered. They fined El Rancho especially for the live exposed electrical wires and the corroding chemicals covering some floors. “Unbelievable,” said Acosta.” One, that the El Rancho was still standing. And two, that those chemicals and the conditions were all still there.” The property managers won't let us back in to show you how much has changed, but county officials assure us the place has been cleaned up. “Things were cleaned up beyond his expectations,” says Steve Lasky with the Clark County Fire Department. “Floors were mopped, it looked like a different place.” We're told other conditions have changed too. COUNTRYLAND USA? While most of El Rancho is decomposing, we found another part had been given new life and transformed into the promise of Countryland USA and laid out for potential investors as if development was just around the corner. They even showcased new slots, in perfect working order, raising questions from long-time local newspaperman John L. Smith. “If you're not licensed, then what are you doing with the slot machines?” asked Smith. That too is the subject of speculation over investment opportunities gone bad, but our story ensured the slots could no longer be used to entice investors. Bally Gaming reclaimed the machines they had lent out three years ago and returned them to current inventory. Even so, everyone we talked to remains skeptical. “I don't understand why the county commissioners, for instance, could not exercise some of their power and condemn the place,” said business neighbor Connie Witt. “The idea of neglecting something that large speaks volumes in its silence. Are they asleep at the switch? I can only say yes,” said John L. Smith. Why has the county started clean-up but has not initiated a knockdown? County leaders say that legally, their hands are tied. But locals don't buy it. As a band-aid, Commissioner Williams has promised to contact El Rancho's out-of-state owners for the first time to begin pressuring them to erase the eyesore. The strip is in for some big changes as new development pushes north and we may have a bidding war brewing between two big wigs that could breathe new life into El Rancho. News 3 corners the county and forecasts El Rancho's future in our next report.