Safari Tales

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 Dining-room specialties like "Gourmet's Flaming Dream on a Spear" and other culinary exotica have long since been replaced by a steak house with an all-you-can-eat salad bar.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.

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.

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."

In the coffee shop, meanwhile, Safari lifers like 16-year veteran Mira Bickle are taking the latest news with more than the customary grain of Sweet'n Low.

"We've heard these stories before," says Bickle. "But what we heard this time was so detailed, I think they're actually going to do something. It's sad, really."

However, a longtime gift-shop employee isn't so convinced that the Safari's over. Watching a taut-faced Connie Francis look-alike and her much-younger escort rifle a rack of souvenir tee shirts, the clerk stifles a yawn.

"I'll believe it," she says, "when I see the bulldozers pulling up in the driveway."

Somewhere in the distance, a parrot squawked.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >