Safari Tales

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

By contrast the glitzy Scottsdale newcomer couldn't have been more out of place in a local tourism scene then dominated by a handful of sleepy guest ranches and isolated inns sprinkled around the desert outside Scottsdale proper--all of them closed half the year.

Laughing, Bill Ritter now confesses that, technically speaking, Scottsdale Road's most famous "resort hotel" never really lived up to the definition of either word: The Safari grounds have neither a golf course nor tennis courts, and, unlike a hotel, the property is arranged in such a way that guests can park, motellike, directly outside their rooms.

"What we'd built was a deluxe motor hotel," Ritter explains. "But what we called it was a 'resort.'"

Judging from yellowing society columns of the day, Scottsdale's small-town in-crowd was so busy whooping it up at the snazzy new establishment that nobody could be bothered splitting hairs.

"The Safari was the talk of the town," says Scottsdale native JoAnn Handley. "Of course, not everyone could afford it. At the time, it was the fanciest place you could go."

Come happy hour, visiting scenesters like Rudy Vallee gathered in the sunken lounge and toasted cocktail wienies over the Safari's famous circular charcoal brazier. In the coffee shop, sports fans could ogle members of the Boston Red Sox or the Baltimore Orioles, major league teams that stayed at the Safari during spring training. Meanwhile, out in the lobby, keen-eyed rubberneckers might spot a fluke VIP like the Queen for a Day vacation winner, who showed up for her prize (as one society columnist duly noted) "along with her fine husband, a veteran who lost an arm in the service of his country."

And, of course, no visit to the Safari dining room was complete without a surprise encounter with the restaurant's unofficial greeter. When diners approached the entryway, they were suddenly confronted by a seven-foot-tall black man in ceremonial jungle garb who stepped out of a planter brandishing a sword and a spear.

The gimmick was the brainstorm of food-and-beverage manager Max Penton, a born showman. (Penton once performed a musical nightclub act with the Siamese twin sisters from the horror film Freaks.) The startling doorman was reportedly invaluable in scaring up repeat business--customers couldn't wait to return so they could watch the loinclothed savage momentarily frighten unsuspecting friends.

Did anyone involved imagine that a motor hotel--even one as exotic as the Safari--would somehow become the epicenter of Scottsdale society?

"Hell, no," says Al Beadle. "That was something that evolved through good design and good management and good food. At one time, the Safari was the place. Jesus, at the end of a football game, it was an absolute race to get from ASU to the Safari. Who came? Hell, who didn't?"

Hospitality-and-tourism-industry observers now credit the Safari--along with the nearby Valley Ho, another upscale motel that opened several months later--with helping Scottsdale become the tony tourist destination it's become today.

"When they built the Safari, everyone was telling me, 'Oh, my God, you'll have to close down,'" says veteran Scottsdale hosteler Ray Silverman. Since 1953, Silverman had owned the Paradise Valley Guest Ranch, a 13-cottage property located in then-untamed desert wilds of what is now the intersection of Scottsdale Road and Chaparral.

"Well, what happened was exactly the opposite," he reports. "When the Safari came in, our business actually grew because we were taking the business away from Phoenix. And every time a new hotel was built out here, it just brought in more people because everyone wanted to stay in Scottsdale." Silverman eventually tripled accommodations at the guest ranch before razing the property in 1980; today, he and his family operate a multistory 311-room Embassy Suites franchise on the land where the "doomed" guest ranch once stood.

"The Safari was one of the first hotels to come up with money for promotions," says A.J. Collins, director of the Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce during the city's early Sixties boom years. Working with a $6,000 budget, as well as free food and accommodations supplied by Valley Ho, Mountain Shadows and the Safari, Collins orchestrated "Cactus Capers"--a mid-Sixties campaign designed to alert the national tourism industry to the city's unique brand of Western hospitality. Remembering how 120 travel writers descended on the city during one year, Collins says, "We got a lot of mileage out of that one." Typical was the glowing coverage filed by Good Housekeeping's correspondent: "In a word, Scottsdale swings."

More popular than ever with locals and out-of-towners alike, the resort's upward trajectory reached such heights the hotel was forced to undergo a $3 million, five-acre expansion less than three years after it opened.

Zipping around the newly overhauled property on the Safari's nifty luggage tram, visitors whizzed past an additional 80 rooms, a second swimming pool, a conference center/banquet facility larger than any in town and tiki-studded landscaping right out of Hawaiian Eye.

The expansion also saw a complete revamping of the resort's food-and-beverage services--a move that further diffused the resort's prevailing jungle theme into some sort of hospitality-industry precursor to Disneyland's It's a Small World attraction.

Credit former Colorado restaurateur Paul Shank with adding cancan girls and Big Apple-style chic into the Safari's stylistically schizo stew pot.

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