E. Parry Thomas Built This City, One Loan at a Time

Courtesy of UNLV Digital Collections

Courtesy of UNLV Digital Collections

When E. Parry Thomas took control of the Bank of Las Vegas (later called Valley Bank) in 1955, Clark County had a population of about 50,000. At the time of his passing on August 26, it was home to nearly 2 million people. Thomas’ lending practices did much to mitigate that growth, and his career, as well as recent events, highlight just how critical finance is to the casino industry.

Thomas, originally from Utah, was the first banker to extend loans to casinos. Today, with gaming dominated by multinational, multibillion-dollar corporations, it seems incredible, but banks were once hesitant to lend money to gambling operations in Nevada. Thomas, as he explained in Jack Sheehan’s 2009 biography Quiet Kingmaker of Las Vegas, decided that the shaky financing of the growing Strip resort industry was a drag on the community. So, while he would be “damned careful and conservative” with his loans, his bank would “cater to the gambling industry.”

Thomas’ finances helped to get the Strip through the 1955 boom and consequent bust (see “The Long, Hot Summer of ’55,” August 6, 2015). But that was only the start. In the late 1960s, Thomas saw that the capital needs of future projects would be beyond his bank, so he championed the Corporate Gaming Acts, which enabled publicly traded ownership of casinos.

“I’m not half the guy he was, but I got to be near him. All that privilege came from him, no footnote.” – Steve Wynn

Without those acts, not only would Nevada gaming have stagnated, but it might not have spread far. Lacking the Wall Street-driven growth imperative, operators probably would not have lobbied for casino legalization in other states.

It’s no understatement that without Parry Thomas, Las Vegas would look much different today. But don’t take my word for it.

Steve Wynn speaks of Thomas as his second father; having lost his own father at 21, he was taken under Thomas’ wing at the age of 25. What does he think a Las Vegas without Thomas would be?

“Without him—it’s hard to even say—this is a radically, dramatically different place,” Wynn says. “You’d still have the Teamster money, but no Sahara, no Riviera, no Frontier, no Dunes, no Thunderbird, all of my stuff. … He helped Frank Fertitta Sr., too, so no Fertitta. Then you have all the places that Hughes purchased and cleaned up. No Green Valley, either—he helped keep Hank Greenspun afloat.”

Imagining a Las Vegas where Howard Hughes left after Moe Dalitz demanded he relinquish his Desert Inn penthouse is difficult, because Hughes’ ownership was a bridge from traditional finance to corporate control. Hughes’ biggest impact, though, was in his landholding. If not for Thomas smoothing the way, he might have taken a pass on not just casinos, but many of his real estate acquisitions, which have yielded Hughes Center and Summerlin.

Wynn has never been shy about Thomas’ influence on him. Selling out of the Frontier in 1967, he was ready to head back to Maryland when Thomas interceded, telling him, “The town needs young men. You’ll end up owning the place. This place hasn’t even started yet.”

“I didn’t see it,” Wynn says. “He saw it all.”

Thomas was right, and Wynn has always remembered; Thomas’ generosity of spirit has guided him. “I’m not half the guy he was, but I got to be near him,” he says. “All that privilege came from him, no footnote.”

There were some ways, though, to pay it forward. For the past 37 years, Parry’s son Roger has been one of Wynn’s “three musketeers” (Wynn himself, Roger, and architect DeRuyter Butler), designing and building resorts from the Golden Nugget’s first 600 hotel rooms to the just-opened Wynn Palace in Macau and beyond. Wynn recalls walking Parry around each of his properties, pre-opening, pointing out Roger’s many contributions that have earned him a place in the Interior Design magazine Hall of Fame.

“Parry would just glow,” Wynn recalls. “He’d put his arm around me and say, ‘Good job, son, I’m proud of you,’ and I would float like I was 10.” Two of his sons had found success together.

Slow progress on current Strip projects—tied to funding challenges—underlines the key role that Thomas played in the history of casinos in Las Vegas. Without such a clear-sighted and vigorous advocate clearing the way, the industry would not have become nearly as large as it did. Nor would have Las Vegas. It wouldn’t have grown steadily from the 1950s through the 1980s, and it could not have snowballed to become an international force in the 1990s.

So even if he didn’t take you on as a son (or daughter), if you live in Las Vegas, you owe Parry Thomas a sincere thanks.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.