Book Review: Quiet Kingmaker of Las Vegas

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.

Author: Dave

Director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and author of several books, including Roll the Bones: The History of Gaming. Also Gaming and Hospitality editor for Vegas Seven magazine.

14 thoughts on “Book Review: Quiet Kingmaker of Las Vegas”

  1. This is an exciting review of a long awaited story.

    I can hardly think of anyone else who has such a great perspective on LV history, except for possibly Kirk Kerkorian (and since future-oriented Kirk isn’t the type of person to think too deeply about the past, he might not even remember all he’s lived thru, much less take time to get it written down).

    It’s good to hear that Thomas understands the historical importance of his life and is passing on his story for others to analyze, understand and learn from.

    Though (El Cortez’) Jackie Gaughan’s autobiography is probably no longer able to be told…I hope that other famous Las Vegas VIPs like Steve Wynn (and even Maloof and lots of others) will think about having more of their histories written out.

    The Golden Nugget Boys'(Tom Breitling’s ‘Double or Nothing”) is a great read and an important book.

    A story on the making of the Hard Rock Casino would be a great book. There’s no need to wait decades to tell a story. They are all potentially fascinating. I hope more insider’s start telling their tales, while they still remember them.

    In the meanwhile, I can hardly wait to get my hands on a copy of this Thomas book.

  2. Glad you approve – I’ve had the book sitting on my desk for two weeks and haven’t cracked it yet. Sadly, no Kindle edition so my primary reading method is a no-go here.

    There are some cool photos in there too, BTW.

  3. To follow up on an earlier comment – who else would you want to see bios from?

    Steve Wynn and Kirk Kerkorian obviously. I think a Bobby Baldwin book could be really interesting, contrasting MGM and Mirage, then and now. Sheldon Adelson, maybe.

    Roger Thomas probably has some great stories.

    I’m not sure how interested I would be in a Gary Loveman book.

    Bob Stupak?

  4. Among living people:

    1. Steve Wynn
    2. Elaine Wynn
    3. Bobby Baldwin/inside story of City Center
    4. Jack Binion
    5. Stupak’s would be a blast to read. I’ve interviewed him, and he’s got some great stories and is a very vivid personality.

    Those no longer with us:

    1. Jay Sarno’s bio is coming along well, and there is some neat stuff in there, though I’m biased.
    2.Moe Dalitz would be great, if someone could get the right sources/interviews
    3. Jack Entratter–the guy who put together the Rat Pack and made the Sands THE place
    4. Claudine Williams
    5. Carl Cohen–one of the best casino managers of the 50s and 60s

  5. A Gary Loveman book is on the top of my wish list. Especially with lots and lots of pictures. Believe me, Hunter… if the right person did a Loveman bio, it would be THE AWESOMEST BOOK IN THE WORLD. I wonder if anybody has oral history’d him yet?

  6. One of the best gaming biographies I ever read was called ‘I Want to Quit Winners’ by Harold Smith (of Harold’s Club in Reno).

    The Dune’s Major Riddle also had a good autobiography (if I remember correctly).

    As for people still alive…I was thinking Bob Stupak’s autobiography (or his Vegas years 1974-2006) would be a good book…especially if he talked a concentrated on just getting the Stratosphere built….and a little about his plans for the Titanic Casino.

    Yeah. Elaine Wynn would have a fascinating tale to tell if she spoke real honestly.

    Bobby Baldwin could talk about any 5-year-stretch in his life and it would make a good read.

    A week-in-the-life of Steve Wynn would be a great book or TV reality show.

    Alan Feldman must have some good tales to tell.

    Any period of Kerkorian’s life….even his teen years up till he was 25 would be very interesting..(his year’s as a newsboy, boxer and car wash owner in Fresno)….or his Vegas years from 1955-1974.

    Kirk’s associate (whose name I can’t spell) who is now doing the Tropicana thing.

    George Maloof’s making of the Palms (even just two years of that period) would be an interesting read.

    Stories from the Morton family. I gave the father a cab ride once and didn’t like his vibes one single bit….and I’m an easy guy to please. He asked me if I had any thoughts about how he could increase business to his steakhouse. He got annoyed with me when I said “You guys seriously need even MORE business?!”. He didn’t tip me cuz he knew I wouldn’t take it.

    Victor Drais. He has a lot to say (I’d think). Now, he is a very nice guy. I gave him and his grandson cab rides before. He gave me (on two different occasions) his handwritten note authorizing his managers to give me ‘dinner-for-two’ and my mom and brother had a great time at his restaurant. A few months later I picked up one of his other restaurant managers and told him what a great restaurant they have and he topped Victor’s gift by giving me ‘dinner-for-three’! Victor is a great guy (frebies or not).

    I’d think the story of those Freshetti guys(sp?) the Red Rock (etc) family have some really good insights and stories.

    Is it too late for Jackie Gaughan to tell his tale?

    Then there are a whole series of doorman stories to be told.

    Now that you got me thinking I’ll eventually come up with some other people I’ve missed.

    And then, of course, there is MY tale of cab driving in Las Vegas from 1999-2006. Any one single night of out of any of my seven years would make a terrific movie. But, I’m not talking. :>))

    David G Schwartz’ autobiography would be an incredible read.
    Okay. I’m done. Have a nice week-end.

  7. Gary Loveman does have a wry sense of humor, so if he took the gloves off, it would be a funny read.

    My autobiography–not so much. I do have a few amusing anecdotes from my pre-academic careers, but pretty much all I do now is sit in an office, do administrative things, answer emails and phone calls, and write. Not a real page turner.

  8. Dave. I’m not a good writer, but I am one heck of an interviewer. I could ask you questions that would pull forth an incredible story.

    My goodness. If they could make a story out of a man who sat in prison solitude all day (Birdmam of Alcatraz), there is definitely a story worth reading about the youngest (‘gaming researcher / university director) in Las Vegas-America.

    Call it ‘The Gaming Professor’. The movie will star Matt Damon. :>)

    Just a book on your ‘Bones’ research alone, would make a good story.

    Maybe I’m nuts, but in a way, I feel everyone has a story worth hearing…if written by the proper author.

    Maybe in 20 years you’ll write yours.
    Okay. I’ll let it rest. No response required.

  9. I was half kidding about Loveman… who are we kidding? I would read any major gaming figure’s bio.

    I can’t wait for the Sarno book. The little I know about him from other sources such as ‘Super Casino’ have me intrigued. I can’t wait for the Dr. Dave deep dive.

    I’d love to have more info on Entratter.

    Yes, bios on Fertittas and Maloofs would be interesting as well.

  10. The story of Stanley Ho would make an interesting read, probably even if it were written badly.

    Yes, “A Week in the Life of Steve Wynn” would make a great show; he’s so cool, even his Charlie Rose interviews (on youtube) are fun to watch any time.

  11. Kirk Kerkorian
    Jack Binion
    Steve Wynn
    Jackie Gaughan
    Bill Boyd
    Bob Stupack (has anyone read “No Limit: The Rise and Fall of Bob Stupak and Las Vegas’ Stratosphere Tower”). I often thought about purchasing it and the reviews on Amazon are pretty good.
    Jay Sarno

    I like many of the suggestions.

    Here is one from left field, and a guy that I respect…Don Barden! He made his own way too.

  12. I agree with the Guru’s choices, they are about the best I can think of. I am a big fan of Jackie Gaughan and would like his version of events to be recorded before it is too late. I did read “No Limit”, I think I have read about all of the Casino bios of the last 10 years, or so, and thought it was pretty good. I think Stupak cooperated, so it had good info on him. I don’t recall finding him to be very sympathetic, or maybe interesting, so I had a hard time hanging with it. It was much better than “Running Scared”, IMO, which I thought was reworked news accounts, and other sourced items.

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