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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.


James said...
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