The following article was posted by Jim on the old Prodigy Board on
On September 1st, 1948 the fourth hotel and casino opened on what was to become
the famous Las Vegas "Strip".
If we look at the various research
material available we as collectors cannot determine what were the first chips issued
by the Thunderbird Hotel & Casino located in Las Vegas, Nevada. One fact that
I can tell you for sure is the first chips issued did not have the "Thunderbird"
design on them. How do I know this?
I conducted an interview with Mr. Gene
Badame who is a Las Vegas dealer in antiques and collectables. Well so are a lot
of other people. What makes Gene so special? Well his father-in-law Loyde Lowe was
the chief engineer on the construction of the original Thunderbird Hotel & Casino
in 1948. According to Gene, at the time Cliff Jones and Marion Hicks opened the Thunderbird
no design existed for an outside neon sign nor was there any "bird" on
the first casino chips put in play. The "bird" as we have come to know
it did not come until later.
In the very early part of 1949 Loyde Lowe and
Joe Wells, who later would be named on a host chip, went to Arizona in search of
the Navajo legend "The Sacred Bearer of Happiness Unlimited" - The Thunderbird.
While in Arizona, they copied the motif from Navajo totem poles. When they came back
to Nevada they designed the "bird" logo and had the outdoor Thunderbird
sign built. In addition, they had the newly designed bird made from wood and placed
on top of the previously built roosting poles that stood near the building. Finally,
the Navajo "God" was in place!
The original plans for the construction
of the hotel and casino as well as the design for the "bird" are still
in existence. Gene did not know exactly where the plans were kept but he would make
an attempt to find them. It has been alleged there were many "silent" owners
of the Thunderbird Hotel and Casino. Joe Wells being one of these owners. The allegations
and finger pointing had gotten so bad that by 1964 Del Webb stepped in and purchased
the Thunderbird Hotel and Casino after a series of articles appeared in the Las Vegas
Sun making allegations the Thunderbird was "mob" controlled. Was it? I
don't know for sure and no one else does either. Some claim Meyer Lansky owned it,
but no proof has ever surfaced.
In 1972 Caesars World (formerly Lums in California)
purchased the Thunderbird. The Perlman brothers had entered into a sale agreement
that featured loans of a creative nature. Not wanting to hold this property any longer
for what many believe would have been bad public relations, the Perlmans sold it
to Major Riddle in 1977. Major Riddle did a quick remodel, salvaging Las Vegas landmarks
like Joe's Oyster Bar, and renaming the hotel and casino the Silverbird. However,
even opening night lounge stars like the "Checkmates" could not keep the
Silverbird afloat. Finally Ed Torres purchased the Silverbird in 1981. He did a very
minor remodel which consisted of a new front and renamed the Silverbird the El Rancho.
By 1992 the El Rancho was in financial collapse. The doors were closed for good ending
a very interesting and historical trail of "houses". So you see the first
chips issued by the Thunderbird could not have had a bird design on them. The bird
did not come about until 1949.
What then did the chips look like? I don't
know. One thing I am pretty sure of is that they were hot stamped. My guess is based
upon the 2nd series of chips that featured the bird with it's wings down that were
manufactured with a hot stamp. What mold do you think was used on the first series
of chips? Small key - like the roulettes. I do not believe the management of the
Thunderbird would have had chips of a different mold on the tables opening night.
I believe the Chip Rack lists the small key roulettes as the 1950's - I believe it
is the late 1940's like 1948. Of course, what mold the first series of chips and
roulettes were is merely my guess. However, my guess is based upon all the facts
of what actually happened from late 1948 to early 1949 as told to me by Gene Badame.
Combine what Gene told me with my own knowledge and the result is this article I
am pleased to bring to you. I hope you enjoyed it!!!