The Sun Valley Sin City Connection
photography Kirsten Shultz
(page 1 of 2)
At the end of the main driveway into River Grove Farm in Hailey, Idaho, standing sentry on a sculpture’s pedestal, is a swirling bronze statue comprising the form of Brentina, inarguably the greatest American dressage horse ever.
It’s not surprising to find it here, just yards away from the stable where the 19-year-old Hanoverian model for the statue enjoys her retirement. Bretina is the pride of this ranch, a centerpiece of Sun Valley equestrian life, and her legendary poise and acumen naturally inspire a monument of such magnificence.
But what few visitors probably realize about this particular work by the late American sculptor, Stephen Weiss, is that there are two of them. The other sculpture stands sentry before a very different sort of centerpiece. It has proudly greeted millions of tourists in the main porte-cochère of the $2.4 billion Wynn Las Vegas resort, an equally significant landmark for Las Vegas, but about as far as could be from the lush, sedate pastures of River Grove Farm and the calm trickle of the Big Wood River.
The common thread between the two sites is E. Parry Thomas, the 89-year-old patriarch whose life’s work as a groundbreaking banker quietly transformed the nation’s original gambling mecca from a kitschy, Mob-infested gaming town of the mid-20th century into an all-purpose destination that now fuels one of the nation’s most dynamic modern metropolises. In the process of that lofty task, Thomas also introduced the major players of Las Vegas to Sun Valley, turning the low-key ski resort alternative to Vail or Aspen, Colorado, into the unpretentious getaway of choice for dozens of Sin City’s most powerful and influential families.
“Parry Thomas is the Sun Valley guy,” said Steve Wynn, the casino-hotel visionary whose own father died when he was 20 and who has regarded Thomas as his father figure for most of his adult life. “He took me up (to Sun Valley), he took everybody up there. His children have homes there, other people have homes there because of him.”
Left Parry Thomas with Steve Wynn after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Gaming Summit in 1996 (courtesy Stephens Press); Right The sculpture of Brentina by Stephan Weiss, a gift from the Wynns, graces the entrance of Thomas’ River Grove Farm in Hailey.
Roger Thomas is Parry’s son and the artistic genius whose design aesthetic came alive in all of Wynn’s masterpieces, but especially the lush Bellagio and Wynn Las Vegas. So, in a way, Parry Thomas is responsible for transforming Las Vegas twice, with Sun Valley in the backdrop all along.
The trim, elderly man with an impressive mane of bright white hair and an easy grin sat in his rustic River Grove Farm barn office one morning last summer, nursing a cup of coffee and sharing his story. From this perch, Thomas spends hours each day watching handlers train horses in the indoor arena through a room-long glass window surrounded by equestrian ribbons and trophies.
Sun Valley first came into the Thomases’ lives long before Vegas appeared on anyone’s radar. Parry, the third of six children born to a Mormon family in Ogden, Utah, first visited as a teen in 1939. His wife, Peggy, also from Utah, spent a summer in Sun Valley waitressing at the then-Challenger Inn. Set up on a blind date by friends who knew their mutual love of horses, the Thomases first met in 1945 after Parry returned from service in Europe as a paratrooper-skier in an American intelligence unit during World War II. They wed in 1947 and settled in Salt Lake City, where he went to work—and quickly moved up the ranks—at Continental Bank & Trust Company.
In 1954, the bank moved Thomas to Las Vegas to figure out why their branch was struggling Thomas quickly realized that the desert gambling destination was actually a potential jackpot. What stifled both the bank and the city, and led the casinos to be controlled by Mob interests, he discovered, was that no lending institution in the state was willing to loan money to casino owners, who were stigmatized even in Nevada. Instead, the capital for construction and expansion had to come from tainted sources such as Mob-controlled union pension funds and the like. “The casinos were legal businesses and I said that we ought to do business with any legal business,” Parry recalled.
The first loan Thomas managed was for $750,000 to Milton Prell, then owner of the Sahara. Prell proceeded to build a 120-room hotel and showroom that the Rat Pack soon made famous. By 1961, Thomas was president of the Bank of Las Vegas and had forged what would become a lifelong business relationship with real estate investor Jerry Mack, son of bank chairman, Nate Mack. Together they would push and pull the levers of Vegas power, financing a parade of now-famous resort developments, like helping the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes buy numerous hotels owned by aging mobsters ready to cash out. The pair then influenced a big change to Nevada law, allowing public companies to own casinos in order to enable men like Kirk Kerkorian, the “Father of the Megaresort,” to jump in. Public ownership enabled Vegas “Strip” developers to access previously unimaginable sums of capital, the rocket fuel that set off the late-20th-century Las Vegas boom.
“For about 25 years, Parry Thomas was Eeny, Meeny, Miney and there was no Mo,” Wynn said. “If you wanted to build a building, if you wanted to build another tower, if you wanted to buy a casino or you wanted to get a bankroll loan for working capital, he was the one guy.”
By the late ’60s Thomas had become a mentor to Wynn, a young up-and-comer whose family had owned bingo parlors on the East Coast. The kid had a creativity and hunger Thomas found intoxicating. So when Wynn’s first casino deal played out—he had a small share in the Frontier when Howard Hughes bought it in ’67—Thomas insisted Wynn remain in Vegas and advised him on his next move. Recalled Wynn: “His exact words: ‘This is a growing town, they need young people, you’ll end up owning the place.’ I thought that was so funny. My God, that was 43 years ago.”