Jack Sheehan. Quiet Kingmaker of Las Vegas: E. Parry Thomas. Las Vegas: Stephens Press, 2009. 346 pages.
Wow. That was my reaction to finding out that a biography of Parry Thomas was coming out. Thomas, the man who it said said “flipped the switch that turned on the lights in Las Vegas,” is easily one of the most important figures in the city’s first hundred years. Thomas was the banker to the casino industry during its most formative period–the 1950s to 1980s–and one of the guiding forces in the city’s philanthropy.
Let’s try to imagine Las Vegas without Parry Thomas. From the mid-1950s, no banks lend money to casinos, so they can’t grow any bigger than two or three hundred rooms. Mainstream financiers aren’t interested in investing in such dodgy joints, so its possible that, in the 1960s, there’s no influx of outside capital into the business. Without Thomas’ intervention, it’s possible that Howard Hughes doesn’t choose to stay in Nevada after Moe Dalitz tries to evict him from the Desert Inn in December 1966. Steve Wynn still comes to Las Vegas in 1967 at the Frontier, but without Thomas’ encouragement it’s entirely possible that he and Elaine decide that they’re going to return to the East Coast and try their luck in another business. At the very least, there’s no Roger Thomas to help design Wynn’s resorts (Roger is Parry’s son). In the late 1960s, there’s no one to champion the corporate gambling acts, or to persuade Bill Harrah to drop his opposition to them, so you don’t get publicly-traded companies owning casinos. UNLV is likely either crammed into 55 acres on Maryland Parkway (instead of the 400 it currently operates) or divided into several campuses throughout the valley.
There’s still a city there, and it probably has a casino industry, but it’s going to look much different, and probably not for the better. That’s the impact that Thomas had.
Onto the book itself: it’s not a biography in the usual sense, but rather a combination autobiography and oral history. Basically, Thomas talks about his life, and friends, family members, and business associates chime in. Sheehan, as an author, yields the spotlight to Thomas and the others. It’s hard to imagine that there was a better way to do this book. Thomas, like Steve Wynn, is a master storyteller, with a keen recall and an eye for detail that will gratify the reader.
There is introductory material about Thomas’ youth and young adulthood in Utah, and closing material on Thomas’ family life, but most of this book is a personal history of Las Vegas 1955-1995 or so, as told by Thomas with others adding their perspective when appropriate. As such, it might be one of the most important books about Las Vegas history that you’ll ever read. Thomas sets the record straight on many fronts and is candid about his battles with the IRS and his dealings with alleged organized crime figures.
Without Thomas, Las Vegas as we know it would not exist. It’s fortunate that he was persuaded to share the story of his life and career, both so that his contributions are not forgotten and so that students of history have a better idea of what really went on in Las Vegas as it grew into prominence.