The Sun Valley Sin City Connection
photography Kirsten Shultz
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.”
Left Parry with Olympic champion equestrian Brentina; Middle Parry Thomas in 1969 as president of the Bank of Las Vegas (courtesy Stephens Press); Right Descending the steps at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center (courtesy Stephens Press).
Thomas’ impact seldom drew fanfare. There was a Business Week cover in the ’70s with the headline, “Frank Sinatra Gives Las Vegas Its Glitter, Parry Thomas Gives It Its Gold.” In 2000, the Las Vegas Review-Journal included him as one of the 100 most influential Nevadans of the 20th century. Then, in 2009, Thomas was the subject of a biography, “The Quiet Kingmaker,” the result of his own children lobbying him to share stories of his role in the rise of Las Vegas. Thomas gave it the okay despite his long-abiding belief that the relationship between a banker and borrower ought to be as confidentially ironclad as that of a doctor and patient or priest and confessor. Yet most Las Vegans today only know the Thomas name because of the Thomas & Mack Arena, where the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) basketball teams plays. They have no idea that he and Mack assembled the land and raised the money to get UNLV off the ground.
There is another memory wynn prizes from those early days—his first Sun Valley sojourn with the Thomas family. Peggy and Parry Thomas began bringing their five children to horseback ride and ski in the early ’60s, buying one of the first Cottonwood units. Other families who bought in that round of development included, according to Roger Thomas, the Pritzkers, the DuPonts and the Fords. The Thomases became close personal friends with, among others, Olympic skiing superstar Gretchen Fraser and her husband Don. “We were the first Las Vegans to go there a lot and spend a lot of time there,” Roger said.
Miney and there was no Mo.”
It was customary for the Thomases to bring important Vegas movers and shakers to their Sun Valley digs, and it was on the slopes of Baldy and Dollar Mountain in January of ’68 that Parry introduced Wynn to the Nevada inner circle. “I ended up there for the first time in ’68 at age 26, with Hank [Greenspun], Bud [James] and Herb [Jones],” Wynn said, referring to a trio that included the state’s most prominent real estate and media magnate, a gaming executive who’d go on to become chairman of ITT Sheraton, and the most influential attorney in Las Vegas.
“They’re in their mid-40s, I’m 20 years younger, but I’m there at the invitation of Parry, who was the most important person there,” Wynn recalls. “I was hanging out with the parents,not the kids. And that really was the most important moment in my introduction to the Las Vegas society and its power structure.”
And yet, Sun Valley was decidedly a place where Vegas business did not—and still does not—get done.
“We never talked business when we were here,” Parry Thomas said. “That’s not why we came here. We came here to ski and get out of the heat, to enjoy ourselves.” In fact, in 1977, when Bill Janss needed to sell Sun Valley Resort, Thomas contemplated buying it. His wife, however, shot those plans down. As Peggy explained, “I said, ‘No, if you buy Sun Valley, it becomes a business. It won’t be a place to go on vacation, it’ll be a work place.’ I wouldn’t let him think about it.”
Instead, the following year the Thomases bought the 80-acre riverside spread known as River Grove Ranch from real estate developer and occasional llama raiser, Dale Donnelly, and rechristened it, “River Grove Farm.” The Thomases’ only daughter, Jane, was enthralled by horses (having gotten her first, “Beau Valentine,” at age 9) and competed in hunter-and-jumper competitions. So the Thomases persuaded Bob and Debbie “the First Lady of American Dressage” McDonald, who had been coaching Jane and Peggy in Southern California when the Thomases summered there, to move to Hailey and help them build a barn and stable.
As Peggy became more interested in dressage, a discipline of intense obedience, sometimes referred to as “horse ballet” (and one of just three Olympic equestrian events), so, too, did Parry. By the late ’80s, with his banking career winding down in Las Vegas—he sold his holdings to Bank of America in 1992—Parry started spending more time in Sun Valley and hired Olympic equestrian medalist, Hilda Gurney, to train Peggy. He followed that up by deciding to buy German Hanoverian horses, in hopes of developing a world-class dressage program at his Sun Valley property.
Their greatest triumph, of course, was Brentina, the Hanoverian mare they bought at auction in Germany in 1994. By then, the Thomases were so well known at the auction and on the equestrian circuit that when the hammer came down and they had outbid all other contenders for Brentina, the auctioneers played a rousing version of “Viva Las Vegas” in tribute. Debbie McDonald and the chestnut-coated mare would go on to become the greatest American dressage partners in recent history, earning, among countless other honors, a bronze medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.
In “The Quiet Kingmaker,” two of Thomas’ older sons express surprise that their father chose to retire to an equestrian life of summers in Hailey and winters in Las Vegas and Del Mar, California, saying they expected their dad to enjoy his dotage by boating. But Roger Thomas disagreed with his brothers: “Mom and Dad met on horseback, basically. As soon as my sister started riding competitively, Dad took to it maybe even more aggressively than his boats. The boating turned into a solitary thing for him. When it came to horses, it was always my mother and father with my sister.”
Indeed, Parry Thomas explains the decision this way: “I loved being on the boat and on the ocean, but the reason we went into horses is because it was something Peggy and I could do together. Peggy and I have been married 63 years now. We’ve had a wonderful, wonderful marriage. When we were about 60, we started wondering what we’d do. And we decided to concentrate on horses because we could do it together.”
Parry and Peggy, once inveterate skiers, no longer hit the slopes; doctors warned Parry that his aging bones couldn’t withstand a crash and Peggy decided “It’s no fun doing it without him.” The couple spends at least five months a year in Sun Valley now, minding the farm and living in a house near their daughter, Jane, whose family also lives on the property. They’ve thrown numerous fundraisers to benefit the arts and civic programs in the region, most notably the Sun Valley Pavilion.
Yet there was one special summer evening in August of 2003 that topped them all and brought together so many facets of the Thomases’ lives in a magical way.
Parry and Peggy hosted an extraordinary fundraiser for the Sun Valley Summer Symphony at River Grove Farm in which the full orchestra played patriotic music as Debbie McDonald and Brentina performed a six-minute dressage routine. The farm’s indoor arena was decorated with mammoth chandeliers (that still remain) for an elegant dinner enjoyed by hundreds of patrons and, of course, the Thomases’ closest friends from Sun Valley, Las Vegas, and the equestrian world. Steve Wynn was the master of ceremonies.
The performance was flawless and is said to have been the first time in America that a full orchestra had accompanied a dressage performance. Everything felt right, and in perfect alignment for Thomas.
“That was what Sun Valley is about to us,” Parry Thomas recalled fondly, as he looked at the Brentina statue the Wynns gave them shortly thereafter. “It was a magnificent evening, everything was lovely.”
Visit www.quietkingmaker.com for more on how Parry Thomas helped build modern Las Vegas.