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Phoenix once had the world at its fingertips.
There were Polynesian villages, royal chateaus, and Middle Eastern oases set among the Statue of Liberty, Old Faithful, and the Alamo in a scene reminiscent of Disney’s Magic Kingdom. This mid-century assemblage of geographical whimsy consisted of motels cloaked in exotic themes along city thoroughfares that doubled as cross-country highways.
These mini-resorts featured fanciful names, make-believe buildings, lush landscaping, and colossal neon signs displaying lines of liquid fire. “A neon sign’s overall effect is mesmerizing,” Carlos Lozano, founder of the Vanishing Tucson preservation group, says. “Centuries ago, viewing religious figures in stained glass produced the same desired effect.”
But by the 1960s, motorists began transitioning from two-lane blacktops to speedy superhighways, and the old motels slowly closed, blinking out like the neon tubes on their malfunctioning signs. The few survivors had bleak futures, but one shrine to Egyptian kitsch had a miraculous resurrection.
The Egyptian Motor Hotel hyped its Arab mystique as “a mirage on the desert…come true” when it opened in 1954. Amidst towering palm trees, the 52-unit motel boasted of a coffee shop along with convenient and modern accommodations, adding, in an inadvertent double entendre that Alfred Hitchcock would indeed appreciate, that it could be enjoyed “for the rest of your life.”
The motel at 765 Grand Avenue later became part of the Phoenix-based Ranger Motel chain. In 1984, the motel was renamed the Oklahoma Hotel and Las Palmas in 1987, as its clientele transitioned from tourists to locals looking for weekly cheap accommodations.
But as Downtown Phoenix became a hip destination, it has been revived as the ultra-retro, dog-friendly Egyptian Motor Hotel with a rock ‘n’ roll vibe. The rooms are branded as “modern crash pads” where guests, from their balconies, can enjoy “a live DJ, a hot local band, or a super funny comic” performing in the motel’s 250-seat outdoor venue. Chilté Tacos food stand is opening a sit-down restaurant where the motel’s coffee shop once operated.
The motel’s grand reopening in February featured a crew of themed entertainers. Cleopatra toured with her entourage, some on stilts with firesticks and another on a trapeze above the motel’s oasis. The Snake Charmer mingled with guests with a ball python draped around her neck. The Carvin Jones Band created the musical backdrop.
Nearly 500 people attended the motel’s relaunch, according to owner Gene Kornota. “We considered our Grand Opening celebration to be an homage to the locals of Phoenix and, of course, our neighbors in the Grand Avenue Arts District, which we are now a part of,” he says. “We wanted to make the opening memorable with live entertainment, the amazing talent of Torchlight Circus to sort of unceremoniously christen the Egyptian and kick-off its new life.”
Kudos to Kornota, who has accomplished the near impossible in Phoenix, the rebirth of a classic motel.