Las Vegas Sun

October 20, 2014

Strip says adios to El Rancho

The remains of the property that was first the Thunderbird, then the Silverbird and finally the El Rancho was imploded under the force of 700 pounds of explosives in front of more than 2,000 onlookers just after 2:30 this morning.

Several sharp explosions, each sounding like a loud shotgun blast, ripped through the 13-story, 600-room tower seconds before the building caved in on itself. The implosion took only about 20 seconds, and sent up a swirling dust cloud signaling the end of the resort that sat vacant for more than eight years.

Officials from Florida-based Turnberry Associates, developer of the $600 million Turnberry Place condominium project and owner of the property, watched the building fall from the 29th floor of the Riviera hotel-casino, where the destruction rattled windows and vibrated the hotel tower.

Turnberry bought the property for $45 million from defunct New Jersey company International Thoroughbred Breeders with the intention of demolishing the resort so as not to hinder the view of their condo buyers.

Former El Rancho floorman Steve Kennelley agrees that it was time for the old resort to come down, but he was sad to see another piece of Las Vegas history turned to dust.

"Something had to be done, and things need to change, but when a place has memories attached to it, it's tough to see it go," Kennelley said.

The memories started on the property on the north end of Las Vegas Strip in 1948 when the Thunderbird became the fourth hotel-casino to open.

The Thunderbird was built for about $2 million, and operated until 1976 when it was purchased and renamed the Silverbird by Major Riddle.

In 1982 former Aladdin hotel-casino owner Ed Torres bought the property for $25 million, dubbing his new casino the El Rancho after the Strip's first major hotel.

The original El Rancho, known for its famous neon windmill, was built in 1941 across the street from where Torres opened his new El Rancho.

Kennelley couldn't help but be optimistic as he took his position in the dice pit at the property's grand opening in 1982.

Thousands poured through the front doors past casino operations director Vic Vickery, who was decked out like a cowboy, even donning a 10-gallon hat to match the hotel's Western theme.

"We thought it would go over great, and we thought if anybody could make the new El Rancho a success, it would be Ed Torres," said Kennelley. "It went well that first night, but it never quite clicked after that.

"Pretty soon people were saying, 'just wait until the bowling alley opens,' or 'just wait until the showroom opens,' but in the end it didn't help. Another Western-themed casino opened up right around the same time as the El Rancho, and then we had Sam's Town and ghost town."

Kennelley, who now works as a casino host at the Flamingo Las Vegas, says that the El Rancho opened at the wrong time and in the wrong place.

Ten years after opening, Torres shut the El Rancho down because of mounting financial losses. The resort's age, newer and bigger mega-resorts and marketing problems all played a role in the property's demise.

Since its closure the resort's hulking shell has sat darkened on the Strip, becoming the ghost town that workers jokingly named it as business started to decline in the late '80s.

But when it opened the El Rancho rekindled memories of its famous namesake with its Western theme. Torres' property had a distinct wooden interior that was enhanced with Indian relics, antique chandeliers, trophy heads of buffalo, balconies with saddles draped over railings and paintings of Western scenes.

One of those paintings, a gift from Torres, still hangs in the Las Vegas home of Chuck Wheeler Jr., whose late father worked as the head of security at the El Rancho.

"It was just a down home, comfortable, country atmosphere inside the place," Wheeler Jr. said. "My dad loved working there and never even thought about going anywhere else. There were a lot of close people that worked there, almost like a family."

Turnberry officials have not revealed what, if any, plans they have for the property except to clear away the debris from the implosion, that LVI Environmental Services Inc. and Controlled Demolitions Inc. successfully mounted.

For safety the entire El Rancho property was fenced off, and about 200 Metro Police officers were on hand to keep crowds of onlookers out of harm's way.

Las Vegas Boulevard from Sahara Avenue to just north of Spring Mountain Road was shut down at 2 a.m. but reopened by 3 a.m.

Spectators gathered on the top floors of parking garages at the surrounding hotels and on the vacant land across Las Vegas Boulevard next to Circus Circus to watch the El Rancho's last stand.

The nearby Algiers hotel, which was draped in plastic, suffered only a sprinkling of dust. There were no guests inside because LVI paid for all of the lodge's rooms for the night.

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