Thursday, October 30, 2014

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Swinging Sanctuary

PHM0314Flash-4Now a world-class resort, John Gardiner's Tennis Ranch on Camelback Mountain courted the rich and famous during the sport's 1970s boom.

Most of us know the phrase "if walls could talk," but if the ceiling of the recently renovated Jade Bar at Sanctuary Resort and Spa in Paradise Valley could talk, the walls would listen along with the rest of us. That's because the wooden slats overhead came from the courts of the John Gardiner Tennis Ranch, which stood on the site of what is now Sanctuary until 2000.

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Tough Hooker

Wrestler Lou Thesz's AZ connection.

Back when professional wrestling was considered more sport than theatrics, the man to beat was six-time world champion Lou Thesz. A strong, lightning-quick athlete who learned wrestling from his Hungarian father, Thesz made his professional debut as a teenager in St. Louis in 1932. Five years later, he became world champion and was famous for "hooking," or stretching his opponent with painful holds. Sensing the sport's evolution, he tweaked his grappling style for television but kept his dignity. "My gimmick is wrestling," Thesz wrote in his autobiography, Hooker.

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Punch Drunk

Tony DeMarco's fame as a former world boxing champ made his lounge on Camelback Road a thriving hangout in the 1970s.

Messing with the bartender is seldom a good idea, but it's especially inadvisable when the guy mixing cocktails was an illustrious prizefighter with a legendary left hook. Not that renowned welterweight Tony DeMarco ever used it at the Living Room Lounge, his now-defunct Phoenix piano bar. Known for his friendliness and charm, DeMarco spent 15 years ensuring his nightclub lived up to its motto, "Where Good People Meet."

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Victory Laps

Some of the most famous names in racing have taken the checkered flag at Phoenix International Raceway. Here’s a handful.

1966: Mario Andretti wins his second IndyCar championship
1970: Steve McQueen wins the Arizona Region SCCA race
1990: Dale Earnhardt wins the Checker 500 NASCAR Winston Cup Series race
1997: Tony Stewart wins his first Copper World Classic
2007: Jeff Gordon wins the SUBWAY Fresh Fit 500
2009: Jimmie Johnson wins the Checker Auto Parts 500

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Decades of Thunder

PHM0214Flash-2-4Turning the corner on 50, Phoenix International Raceway looks back on its long lap from nowhere to NASCAR.

These days, Mike McComb only sees Phoenix International Raceway on TV – every March and November, when NASCAR rolls into Avondale and splashes the picturesque foothills of the Estrella Mountains across the screens of every sports bar in America. “It’s crazy now,” he says. “I see them do the fly-over shots on TV, and I can’t believe how big it’s grown. I don’t know if I could handle the crowds.”

But back in the ‘80s, when it was surrounded by more tumbleweeds than tailgaters, McComb lived at Phoenix International Raceway. Literally. “I lived in a trailer in the parking lot outside of turn one,” says the Tempe firefighter, who worked as the track’s maintenance man and facilities coordinator from 1982 to 1994. “I swept the track and made sure everything was good for the drivers. Then when they built the suites near turn one, they gave me an apartment in that building, and I lived there for about eight years. It was real nice!”

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Goldwater’s Firewater

Prohibition created classy Phoenix speakeasies like the Arizona Biltmore’s Mystery Room – and also rough and tumble gin joints like the Joyland and Palms dance halls near 35th and Van Buren streets, then outside city limits. These notorious “pleasure resorts” were raided by undercover federal agents for “dispensing liquor to young women and getting them debauched,” according to a 1927 Arizona Republican article. Despite such raids, speakeasies continued to proliferate.

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Clandestine Cocktails

The Arizona Biltmore’s Mystery Room recreates the Prohibition-era speakeasy where Jazz Age resort guests once secretly raised their glasses.


O n the heels of the Gatsby craze, the glamour and booze-fueled exuberance of the Roaring ‘20s are back in full swing at the Arizona Biltmore, where the resort’s long-derelict speakeasy reopened this past summer after an 80-year hiatus. Whispering the secret phrase opens the door to a hidden space located in the resort’s main building, where Prohibition-era guests surreptitiously swilled liquor from a bar masquerading as a bookcase.

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