Safari Tales

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

Under the stewardship of the acclaimed "Architect of the Appetite," the Safari dining room (now known as Paul Shank's Gracious Dining) became a high citadel of Chateaubriand, frogs' legs, baked Alaska, cherries jubilee and other gourmet delights, virtually all of them engulfed in flames.

With Shank's guidance, the lounge became "The French Quarter"--a wildly popular quasi-New Orleans watering hole that would eventually host talent ranging from the Sons of the Pioneers to Tiny Tim.

Russ Gribbon, Safari manager from 1958-76, remembers the late food-and-beverage manager as "a helluva operator, a real innovator."

"Paul was into microwave ovens real early," says Gribbon, "long before anyone else was using them."

Jeanie Louthan, Safari personnel director for 20 years, remembers "waiting lines and waiting lines" outside Shank's restaurant. "We had a gourmet dining room," she says of Shank's restaurant, which closed in 1980. "Now they've got a salad bar--which I guess is pretty popular--but it just doesn't go with a gourmet dining room," Louthan continues. "I hear business is nothing like it used to be. When Mr. Shank had the place, it was nothing to walk in and see people like Robert Taylor, Frank Sinatra Jr., Barry Goldwater, and Sonny and Cher."

After hours, celebrities could frequently be spotted in the Safari's seen-and-be-seen coffee shop, where bleary-eyed bar hoppers lined up to eat signature snacks like the "Wayne King," a chopped chicken liver sandwich named after a then-popular bandleader.

John Forsythe, Lindsay Wagner, Jane Russell, Red Buttons, Burt Reynolds--the Safari served 'em all. Some celebrity guests even supplied their own food. Bing Crosby and Fred MacMurray regularly showed up during dove-hunting season; hotel maids from the nearby Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community cleaned and dressed the birds which were later served to hunters in the dining room.

The Safari also played crucial parts in the lives of two of the Valley's most famous murder victims. Millionaire socialite Jeanne Tovrea, found shot to death in her home nine years ago, worked at the hotel as a cocktail waitress upon arriving in Phoenix in 1961. Mere hours before he was bludgeoned to death in 1978, Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane ate his last meal in the hotel coffee shop.

With so much going on, it's no wonder that former columnist Walter Winchell frequently dropped by the hotel after retiring to Scottsdale.

During its Sixties heyday, the Safari resort often seemed less like a hotel than it did a 24-hour photo op with a reservation desk.

When a crop-dusters convention landed at the Safari, throngs turned out to watch a small plane taxi down Scottsdale Road. At Christmas, Santa and a couple of curvaceous elves arrived at the property in a sleigh pulled by a team of llamas. Soon after the 1960 expansion, daytime TV host Art Linkletter did a week's worth of House Party broadcasts from the resort. The Safari grabbed further TV exposure when Route 66's George Maharis and Martin Milner made a 1961 pit stop for an episode shot at the hotel.

Even a 1972 flood--the nearest thing to a catastrophe in the hotel's history--turned into a much-photographed adventure with staffers floating elderly guests and luggage across Scottsdale Road on inverted patio umbrellas.

Former waitress Maxine Brodt remembers working in ankle-high water in the aftermath of the deluge. "People still wanted to eat," she says. "We kept on serving until the health department finally closed us down. It was the same story when one of the toasters caught on fire. The place was filling up with smoke and nobody would leave; they wanted to watch. I said, 'Let 'em stay; what the heck.'"

Four decades after it helped pioneer Scottsdale's lucrative tourist industry (a business that had grown to $1.7 billion by 1995), the onetime "Jewel of the Desert" has lost a lot of its luster, the victim of changing tastes, demographics and a far more competitive business climate. In a cutthroat environment where even the most humble rival establishments routinely offer pillow mints, minibars and in-room movies, Scottsdale Road's eccentric dowager holds her ground with budget-priced rooms, a great location and kitschy amenities like the self-serve taco bar in the lounge.

How long the Safari can continue to rule that pricey chunk of realty is open to debate; predictions of the resort's "imminent demise" have been floating around the grounds for at least 10 years. But following the recently publicized plans to redevelop the property--owner George Alexander, president of PALS Land Company, contends "there's no way [the Safari] can compete" because it's no longer able to deliver a "quality product"--the rumbling jungle drums are getting louder.

When and if the palm trees plummet, architect Art Beadle suspects few locals will miss the hotel. Over the past 20-some years, he claims, many new arrivals to the Valley were unaware that the once high-visibility resort even existed.

"The whole place has been remodeled to be mediocre and nonvisible," he says. "[Current owners] are doing an excellent job of [making people] not notice it." The outspoken Beadle, for one, won't be sorry to see it go. "Those buildings aren't rebuildable; it's a mess," he says. "Get rid of that shit. It doesn't bother me at all."

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