Mario Puzo (author of “The Godfather”) once referred to E. Parry Thomas as “acknowledged in most circles as having been the most powerful prime mover” during the formative years of Las Vegas. Not only was Thomas the first banker to issue loans to casino owners, but he toiled behind the scenes for years to bring in corporations and transform America’s gaming capital into something more fit for public consumption.
E. Parry Thomas was born on June 29th, 1921, in the predominately Mormon town of Ogden, Utah. Parry’s father was a successful plumbing contractor who also happened to be the largest depositor at the local bank. When the financial institute went under during the Great Depression, the senior Thomas took control and tasked his son with helping to collect outstanding debts.
This crash course in the banking business served Parry well, as did his roots with the Church of Latter-day Saints. Despite moving away from the church at the age of 14, Parry’s religious ties would later prove invaluable when dealing with Mormon businessmen in Las Vegas.
When the United States entered World War II, Parry joined the Army and received training as a paratrooper-skier. Once deployed, he served with distinction in an intelligence unit based in the European theatre.
Following the war, he returned home and attended the University of Utah, receiving a bachelor’s degree in finance. During this time he was also recognized by The Wall Street Journal, receiving an award for creating what would eventually become the university’s school of banking.
Following graduation, Parry took a position at First Security Bank in Salt Lake City, but he later migrated to Continental Bank & Trust Company in search of greater career opportunities. Bank head Walter Cosgriff also owned an interest in the struggling Bank of Las Vegas, and he dispatched Parry to determine if the business should be shut down.
Amidst the desert heat and mob-infested casinos, Parry Thomas saw a land ripe with opportunity. He was soon transferred to Las Vegas, and it was only a matter of time before his vision of the future began to take shape. “We had a road map in front of us. All we had to do was follow it.”
Arrival and Transformation of Las Vegas
At the time of Parry’s arrival in Las Vegas, banks refused to loan money to casinos for two primary reasons. First, they were concerned about possible ties to organized crime. Second, they were hesitant to loan money to businesses that relied on an element of chance to make a profit.
Parry had no such qualms, and he openly stated that he was willing to do business with any legal entity. His first loan was to Sahara owner Milton Prell for $750,000, and the money was spent to create a showroom and hotel made famous by the members of the Rat Pack.
Parry later became the president of the Bank of Las Vegas, and by this time he had forged an alliance with real estate investor Jerry Mack. The two would remain partners for 43 years, helping to facilitate the passage of the Corporate Gaming Acts, which allowed publicly-traded companies to manage and own casinos directly. They also secured additional land for what would become the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and the school’s Thomas & Mack Arena is named in their honor.
The United Way was established by Parry and others to oversee the fair distribution of charitable monies throughout the Las Vegas area. He also served as a mentor to numerous figures in the gaming industry, none more prominent than Steve Wynn, who Parry introduced to the power brokers of Vegas.
In 1954, the Bank of Las Vegas had a net worth of $250,000. By the time it was sold to Bank of America for over $1 billion in 1992, the stockholders of the business had access to over $400 million in equity.
Relationship with Howard Hughes
Billionaire Howard Hughes had been a frequent visitor to Las Vegas, but his last face-to-face meeting with E. Parry Thomas came at the Sands Hotel in the waning years of the 1950s. Hughes was interested in transforming the image of the desert community into something more elegant, and he was willing to commit a chunk of his sizable fortune in order to do so.
In 1966, Hughes arrived in Las Vegas via railroad car and set up shop at the Desert Inn. He refused to leave the hotel, prompting owner Moe Dalitz to try and have him evicted. Unwilling to budge, Hughes turned to Thomas in order to buy the property. Hughes then made the eighth floor his command center, with the ninth-floor penthouse becoming his personal residence.
According to Thomas, “Then Hughes comes here with all the publicity surrounding that, and the charisma and aura of this man, with all his wealth and fame, just lit a fire under everything. If you took all the wealthy guys in Las Vegas together, the sum total of their wealth wouldn’t have equaled that of Howard Hughes at that time. His presence and involvement gave us the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. Las Vegas was no longer just a place for old gambling guys with shaky backgrounds.”
From 1966 to 1968, Hughes purchased casinos and hotels such as the Sands, Landmark, New Frontier, and Castaways. He even purchased the relatively small Silver Slipper casino in order to have the neon slipper outside moved, as it shone through his nearby penthouse window and interfered with his sleep.
By his own admission, Parry Thomas helped Hughes spend over $300 million in Las Vegas, and this served to boost the economy and also legitimize the area in the eyes of many. By the time of Hughes’ death in 1976, America’s gaming mecca was once again headed in the right direction.
The Sun Valley Years
Parry Thomas and his wife, Peggy, have both had a longtime love of horses, and this mutual admiration was one of the topics of discussion during their blind date arranged by friends in 1945. They also shared a connection to Sun Valley, Idaho, a ski and resort community in the central part of the state. Parry first visited the area as a teenager in 1939, while Peggy spent a summer there working as a waitress.
As Parry’s influence within Las Vegas grew, so, too, did his family. By the early 1960s, the Thomas family consisted of Parry, Peggy, and five children. Looking for a place away from the hustle and bustle of the city, the Thomases once again returned to Sun Valley for its skiing and horseback riding. According to son Roger Thomas, “We were the first Las Vegans to go there a lot and spend a lot of time there,” although notable families such as the Fords and DuPonts also purchased properties during this period.
Parry often brought the business elite of Las Vegas to Sun Valley, but it was entirely for relaxation. According to Parry, “We never talked business when we were here. That’s not why we came here. We came here to ski and get out of the heat, to enjoy ourselves.”
This separation of work and play was echoed by Peggy Thomas in 1977, when owner Bill Janss was looking for a buyer for the Sun Valley Resort. Parry considered making the purchase, but his wife vetoed the idea, afraid that the beloved region would soon be associated with business instead of leisure.
However, the idea of making a strong financial commitment to the area took hold, and the following year Parry purchased an 80-acre property known as River Grove Ranch. They re-named the property River Grove Farm, and it soon became a regular getaway for the entire Thomas family.
Peggy and Parry’s only daughter, Jane, inherited their passion for horses, having owned her first at the age of nine. Since she was a regular competitor in equestrian events, the Thomases began looking for someone to continue their daughter’s training and help transform the property into a respectable equestrian facility.
Debbie McDonald was a promising show jumper who switched to the dressage event (aka “horse ballet”) after a serious fall left her with a ruptured spleen, broken ribs, and fractured neck vertebra. While competing in a show at Las Vegas, she ended up riding a horse owned by the Thomases when their regular rider was unavailable. Afterwards, she started coaching Peggy and Jane while the family still vacationed in the southern part of California.
The Thomases managed to convince Debbie and her husband to relocate to Sun Valley to assist with training and the construction of a barn and stable. They would later secure the service of Hilda Gurney, an Olympic equestrian medalist, to further improve Peggy’s understanding of dressage.
As Parry’s career in banking began slowing down in the late 1980s, both he and Peggy started spending more time at River Grove Farm. Once again spurred on by their mutual love of horses, the couple decided to create a world-class dressage program on their property.
They became regulars on the auction and equestrian circuit, often traveling as far as Germany to add to their stable. Their most notable acquisition was Brentina, a Hanoverian mare purchased in 1994. With Debbie McDonald as her rider, she met with success at the Pan American Games, Dressage World Cup, World Equestrian Games, and the 2004 Olympics. Brentina retired to River Grove Farm in 2008, while McDonald was given the moniker “the first lady of American dressage.”
The Thomases have continued to enjoy the slow-paced lifestyle of Sun Valley, and their stable includes around a dozen of their own horses, as well as those being boarded and trained for others. Their daughter lives on the property, often marking her section of the land with elaborate hand-crafted birdhouses. And every five years, Parry still gets together with a group of longtime friends to enjoy a joint birthday celebration.
A bronze statue of Brentina stands at the end of the River Grove Farm driveway, crafted by celebrated American sculptor Stephen Weiss. Appropriately, an exact copy of the sculpture stands in the entryway of the Wynn Las Vegas, forever linking the two great loves of E. Parry Thomas: horses and Las Vegas.
- “Quiet Kingmaker of Las Vegas: E. Parry Thomas” by Jack Sheehan
- New York Magazine – April 16th, 1984
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