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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Scottsdale's Safari Hotel

(Re-printed from the May 20 edition of the Scottsdale Republic)

When one looks at the busy intersection of Scottsdale and Camelback Roads in 2011, it’s hard to believe that at one time sheep were driven south on Scottsdale Road to fields in Chandler.

Those busy corners were a rural intersection in the days prior to the mid 1950s. Going east, Camelback ended at Scottsdale Road which was considered the city limits. Fashion Square was still a dream as rodeo grounds occupied the land where it now stands. It was so rural that horseback riders had the right of way over cars.

The idea of any kind of fancy resort in that area was incomprehensible. All the good motels were miles away on Van Buren and Grand. Who would want to travel fourteen miles from Phoenix to Scottsdale to stay in the middle of nowhere?

As in many stories of success, there were a couple of guys who were willing to gamble that people would make the trek to stay at “Scottsdale’s first hotel”. Their gamble paid off as the hotel became an icon in Scottsdale history known as the Safari. "At that time, there was no place to stay in Scottsdale six months out of the year," explained Safari co-founder Bill Ritter in the 1990’s. The resorts didn't have any air conditioning; they were only open in the winter. The Safari was something that was sorely needed."

Ritter was right. In November of 1956, the Safari opened to crowds who gladly drove those fourteen miles from Phoenix to see what all the fuss was about at the new desert oasis called the Safari Hotel. They weren’t disappointed as they saw a 108 room luxury resort with fine dining, dancing, shopping, salons, a cocktail lounge, and even a radio station all tied together within a jungle motif. Many visitors compared the Safari to the finest hotels on the Las Vegas Strip.

The fine dining restaurant was operated by noted restaurateur Paul Shanks. A look at an early menu lists a “man sized” filet for $5.95, chateaubriand for two for $14.50, and steak and lobster for $5.50. Would you like a nice martini with that? They were eighty-five cents! Remember, this was 1956.


Everyone went to the Safari whether they were local or from out of town. The Boston Red Sox and the Baltimore Orioles stayed there during spring training. It wasn’t uncommon to see movie stars of the day like Robert Taylor, Bing Crosby, Burt Reynolds, and Fred MacMurray. The twenty-four hour coffee shop was a good place for star gazing and in 1961, TV stars Martin Milner and George Maharis filmed an episode of their show “Route 66” at the Safari.

Unfortunately, by the late 1990’s the Safari had lost its luster to changing tastes and new competition. It was soon demolished and will probably be eventually replaced by an apartment high rise. The cocktail crowd has moved on and mention of the Safari will only bring quizzical looks from a younger generation.

Welcome to 21st century Scottsdale.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The thrill is gone

Of all the amusement parks in the New York area, the Palisades Park, located near the George Washington Bridge, was my favorite. To get there from Hoboken, I took the No. 22 Public Service Bus from the corner of 14th and Washington Street. The bus meandered through Weehawken, Gutenberg, North Bergen, and Cliffside Park, taking at least an hour and a half to reach its destination. On hot, muggy days, this ride was miserable. Exhaust fumes would fill the bus as it made innumerable stops along the way. Once you entered the park, you forgot about the long journey.

Joe Finnerty

Palisades Park featured a magnificent swimming pool. A sandy beach area bordered the shallow end. On opening day in 1942, I fell asleep there and awoke, hours later, badly sunburned, fried red. My long history of skin cancer probably began with this day’s exposure.

At the deep end of the pool, water flowed down a wall painted to resemble a mountain waterfall. Here, divers could choose from a number of boards, which varied in spring and elevation. The highest one stood about ten feet high. The first time I jumped off, it seemed more like a hundred.
My brother took me to this pool often. He could dive beautifully. His repertoire included swan dives, back dives, inward dives, jack knives, and a half-gainer, his best. He would spring straight up off the end of that ten-foot board, arching his back as if he was going to do a swan dive, but then he would twist a half turn, and pierce the water perfectly, his pointed toes seemingly glued together. He made me feel proud but envious, as my diving skill never came close to matching his.

My favorite ride, The Virginia Reel, featured an open, circular car in which as many as eight riders could sit. Each person would grip the peripheral handrail to keep from spinning off the seat. A cable pulled the car up a track to the top of the ride where it entered a building through swinging doors. At that point, the car began its descent, spinning clockwise and pitching over at an angle of ten or twenty degrees, then suddenly reversing both direction and rotation. The car would swerve, reeling, back and forth six or eight times before hurtling out at the bottom through another pair of swinging doors. The enclosed surrounding helped to magnify the riders screams and yells of delight and fright.

One day an Orthodox Jewish man, his son and daughter sat in the car with my brother and me. As the car spun, the man lost his grip, slid off the seat and wound up sitting in the center pit on top of our feet. "Get up, papa!" implored his kids. "I can't!" He was laughing. The man was having the ride of his life, enjoying his misfortune, but his kids were embarrassed. My brother and I howled with joy.

The Fun House, with its crooked floors, crazy mirrors, and room mazes, made for great entertainment. Teenagers loved this place as much as the Tunnel of Love, and for the same reason. Kissing abounded within its crooked walls.

The roller coaster was exciting to ride, never more so than the day Jimmy Kennedy and I rode together, seated in the first car. When we reached the bottom of the first incline the hold-down bar across our laps accidentally unlatched, causing us to pitch forward. We were lucky not to have fallen out.

Candied red apples, bumper cars, a shooting gallery, Palisades Park had it all and it always remained my favorite venue, but it did not enjoy a monopoly. There were other amusement parks at Rye Beach, Rockaway Beach, and of course, Coney Island.

In 1943, Red Burke, Eddie Anderson and Jimmy Kennedy joined with me to spend an entire day at Coney Island. Its Steeplechase Park featured wooden horses on which patrons could ride around an elevated track. The feature attraction was the famous Parachute Drop, brought in from the World’s Fair of 1939. Riders were lifted up to the top of the structure, then allowed to free-fall for a short distance until the parachute swelled out to slow their descent. It made my heart skip a beat the first time I dropped from the sky.

Steeplechase Park was also famous for its Fun House. One of its features included an array of spinning barrels you could walk through if you could manage to keep your balance. A slide carried riders on protective mats down to a flat surface where six or eight rotating wheels sent them spinning first in one direction and then the other. On this particular day, I forgot to take an orange out of my pocket beforehand. It squashed during the ride and left me icky-sticky for the rest of the day.

A clown, equipped with an electric prod, would zap people occasionally. By threatening to prod them, he would maneuver girls to stand over a small hole in the floor. He would then direct an air jet from below, blowing their skirts up, amid squeals and laughter.

Some movies have included scenes of Steeplechase Park, including one made in 1937 called, A Damsel in Distress. It featured Fred Astaire, George Burns and Gracie Allen. They tap danced through a spinning barrel before sliding onto the rotating disks. From my experience, they could have squeezed more fun out of the finale had they thought to place a few oranges in their pockets.

Palisades Park is no more, Coney Island still exists, but it is far less amusing.

Teen-age girls do not wear dresses anymore and the clown left town. So did I.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Notice to Indians: "Shut up!"

If there is one thing we have too much of in this country other than liberal Democrats, it is complainers. Now the Indians (Oh, excuse me! “Native Americans”) are on the warpath again complaining about the bin Laden raid being known by the code name “Geronimo”. These guys really need to take a step back and realize what they are b-itchin-g about. What’s the difference if we referred to bin Laden as Jesus Christ, Geronimo, or Joe Smith? The fact is we really pulled one off by getting to the rat and blowing his head off. This isn’t a time to worry about semantics. It’s a time to praise the mission and the Navy SEALS who participated.

Sensitivities have gotten out of hand. It seems like everyone has an agenda for political correctness. I don’t care what anyone says, the guy who brings my mail is still a “mailman” and will never be a “person-person.” Sorry, ladies, you came aboard too late.

As far as the Indians, they have done pretty well changing our culture to fit their needs. They have had many colleges change their nicknames and mascots because they felt Indian references were demeaning. My favorite is the genius who in 1994 forced St. John’s University in New York to change their name from “Redmen” to the “Red Storm.” The thought was that “Redmen” was demeaning to the Indian culture. Guess what, Cochise? “Redmen” referred to the color of the athletic uniforms the school wore. It had nothing to do with Native Americans. Maybe a little research might help next time!

Cesar Geronimo

Currently residing in the Dominican Republic and retired at age 63 is one of my all time favorite baseball players. He played in the major leagues from 1969 until 1983 with his best years spent playing for the Cincinnati Reds. His name is Cesar GERONIMO and so far I haven’t heard one complaint by him about the use of his name in reference to bin Laden. My guess is that since he had a lucrative career in baseball that probably allows him to sit on the beach and enjoy Margaritas during his retirement, he is more than happy to salute the country that brought down one of the worst rats in history.

Maybe when the Indians in the US look at the millions they are getting from their casinos, they should reconsider their complaints about the use of Geronimo and issue an apology. Remember, guys. You were on bin Laden’s list too! We’re waiting……

Monday, May 02, 2011

College degree no longer easy ticket to job

I recently read an interesting column by Kim Palmer of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune regarding the difficulty new college grads have finding jobs.

As an example, one male student with an engineering degree was profiled. He graduated from Colorado State University a year ago and has yet to find a job even after 200 interviews. He says the problem isn’t necessarily a lack of jobs so much as the number of people applying for them. In his case he is a rookie having to interview against experienced engineers who are out of work and desperate enough to take entry level positions. As a result, the kid has to live in the basement of his parent’s home hoping that something comes along so he can get some income and his own place.

Young student studying for her college degree. Will she be able to get a job? (Boston College)

He is not alone with his situation. Incomes have fallen, jobs are scarce, and many recent grads are buried in debt from their college expenses. I did a couple blogs over the last few years about college expenses and it surprised me what it costs to go to a school like Arizona State University. Credit hour costs are in the $400-$500 range and keep increasing. When I was in college in the 1960’s, that kind of money would cover my tuition for a full load of courses for the entire semester and leave enough for some beers.

As far as job availability, I took my Bachelor of Arts degree to several interviews after graduation and within five or six weeks had a sales job with a national company with good pay for the time and the free use of a company car. I’m not boasting since almost everyone who had a degree in those days had a ticket to the front of the job line. I was no exception and I took advantage of the situation. I shutter when I think of the poor grads today not being able to find jobs plus being buried in debt.

Palmer reports that the Economic Policy Institute says that “as of 2009, 37% of 18 to 29 year olds were unemployed, the highest share in four decades.” This has caused a migration of kids back to their parent’s homes but unlike the baby boomers of past generations where kids couldn’t get away from their parents soon enough, many kids returning home today enjoy having the amenities their parents can provide. Plus, some parents are glad to take them back in but many shake their heads in wonderment over whether their kids will ever hit the highway on their own.

I’ve never had children so I can’t comment much on the legitimacy of kids wanting to return to the nest but I never was in a situation where I had the problems of the kids today with finding employment. It’s obviously a difficult situation.