Safari Tales

Forty years ago, the Valley's most exotic resort put Scottsdale on the tourist map

Leopard skins, tikis, martinis. In its day, Scottsdale's Safari resort was the big bwana of Valley luxe.

Under the hotel's imposing porte-cochere, valets dodged lethal tail fins as they struggled to keep up with an endless stream of late-model gas guzzlers. In the resort's continental-style restaurant, fashionably dressed guests oohed and aahed as waiters raced around with carving carts and flaming swords. Inside the lounge (aptly billed as "The Liveliest Spot in Town"), name entertainment by the likes of George Shearing, the Ink Spots and Rosemary Clooney was always on tap. And afterward? Poolside cocktails beneath the swaying palms or a midnight snack in the hotel's bustling all-night coffee shop, home of the city's best stargazing.

Today, the flashy wheels of yore have given way to rental cars and tour buses, disgorging tourists in polo shirts and flip-flops. Dining-room specialties like "Gourmet's Flaming Dream on a Spear" and other culinary exotica have long since been replaced by a steak house with an all-you-can-eat salad bar.

And the most entertaining aspect of a recent visit to the lounge, now a popular hangout for middle-aged singles? The arresting spectacle of a 50ish blonde in a yachting cap simultaneously nursing glasses of wine, water and iced tea--while smoking a cigarette and carrying on an animated conversation with a drinking companion.

But saunter through the lobby that now resembles a walk-in disco ball. Past the zebra-striped piano. And out the patio door where a squawking parrot stands sentry. With a little imagination, it's not hard to picture the aging resort in its prime.

The Safari's figure-eight-shaped pool and towering palms are still there, much as they were when the place opened in 1956.

And give or take a coat of paint, so are the low-slung garden guestrooms, the Eisenhower-era horsey swing and the orange Safari logo splashed across the pool decking.

A tiny twist of Cocktail Nation paradise, the Safari is still a trip.
But after 41 years, the once-glamorous, now-funky northeast Valley landmark faces an uncertain future. Although one Safari spokeswoman insists the hotel is accepting reservations through the end of 1998, in March, Safari owner George Alexander revealed plans to raze the 11-acre property that stands just beyond the northeast corner of Scottsdale Road and Camelback. Scheduled for demolition early next year, the Safari will be replaced by a $200 million high-rise Marriott hotel/business complex, part of Scottsdale's Riverwalk redevelopment project.

When the onetime jungle palace is reduced to rubble, another chapter in history will enter the Valley's elephant graveyard.

Scottsdale, 1956. In an era when East Van Buren and Grand Avenue constitute the heart of the Valley's motel rows, the rural intersection of Scottsdale Road and Camelback doesn't appear to be the likeliest place to build anything--let alone a $375,000 resort complex that suggests a collaboration between Frank Lloyd Wright and Tarzan.

Camelback dead-ends at Scottsdale Road, a juncture that then represented the city limits. Rodeo grounds occupy the corner where Fashion Square will later stand, and horseback riders still have the right of way over motor vehicles on the city's mostly unpaved streets. Northern Arizona ranchers still herd hundreds of sheep down Scottsdale Road to and from warmer grazing fields in Chandler each year.

Enter far-sighted Valley motel developer Ernie Uhlmann and his neighbor Bill Ritter, owner of a local soft-drink bottling firm. Convinced the "West's Most Western Town" was heading north, the pair broke ground for an ambitious project hailed by the local press as "Scottsdale's first hotel."

"At that time, there was no place to stay in Scottsdale six months out of the year," explains Safari co-founder Bill Ritter, who sold his interest in the hotel in 1970. "The resorts didn't have any air conditioning; they were only open in the winter. The Safari was something that was sorely needed."

The Safari's design, as well as its fanciful African motif, was the work of noted Valley architect Al Beadle, who regards his first commercial assignment as "an old favorite."

So why did he opt for a jungle theme instead of something more indigenous to the Arizona desert?

"A safari's a safari," he answers dismissively. "It's about trips--there's nothing more to it than that."

In November, awestruck locals--including many who'd made the trek from Phoenix, 12 miles away--got their first gander at the Safari. Few were disappointed by the opulent tourist retreat, a six-acre, 108-room playground studded with luxurious guest accommodations, jaw-dropping dining and dancing facilities, a shopping arcade, beauty salon and even broadcast facilities for KPOK, the town's first radio station. Tying everything together stylistically? A recurring jungle motif typified by zebra-skin waitress outfits, taxidermied trophy heads, and the Safari mascot--a cartoonish silhouette of an African tribesman on the warpath.

Opening-weekend festivities included a luncheon for Senator Carl Hayden. A swimming pool "aquacade." A fashion show courtesy of Velma's Kotton Korner. And a guest appearance by Miss Arizona 1957, who had the distinction of being the first of dozens of debutantes, beauty queens and models who'd eventually be photographed capering around the Safari grounds in play suits, heels and year-round tans.

But strip away all the hoopla and the true star was the Safari itself, a grand-scale purple-and-pink oasis of luxury. Featuring a jungle-themed dining room, a "Congo Room" cocktail lounge and the northeast Valley's first 24-hour coffee shop, the strikingly modernistic building and its lushly landscaped grounds wouldn't have been out of place among the Dunes, the Sands, the Sahara and other Las Vegas strip theme hotels of the era.

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