A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from August 03, 2007
Chicken Ranch (or, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas)

The La Grange, Texas “chicken ranch” was a house of prostitution since about the 1840s; it closed in 1973. The story was fictionalized into the 1978 Broadway musical and 1982 movie (starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds) The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

The term “hog ranch” for a place of disrepute has been in American slang since the 1860s. The La Grange institution seems to have started (or at least popularized) the “chicken ranch” slang.


Wikipedia: Chicken Ranch (Texas)
The Chicken Ranch operated as an illegal but tolerated brothel from 1905 until 1973 and was located in Fayette County, just outside the city limits of La Grange. It was established by Miss Jessie Williams.

The brothel that became the Chicken Ranch opened in La Grange in 1844. Run by a widow known as “Mrs. Swine,” the brothel operated out of a hotel near the saloon and featured three young women from New Orleans, Louisiana. The ladies used the hotel lobby for entertaining and rented a room upstairs for conducting their business. The brothel was successful for over a decade, but was forced to close during the Civil War, when Swine and one of her prostitutes were forced to leave town by the Yankees. After the war, prostitution was endemic in the local saloons, but no official records were kept.

In 1905, Jessie Williams, known as “Miss Jessie,” bought a small house along the banks of the Colorado River and opened a brothel.  (...) During the Great Depression, Williams was forced to lower the prices she charged. As the Depression lingered, the number of customers dwindled, and Williams had difficulty making ends meet for her employees. She implemented the “poultry standard,” charging one chicken for each sexual act. The number of chickens at the brothel exploded, and soon the place became known as the Chicken Ranch. Williams supplemented her income by selling surplus chickens and eggs.
(...)
Prostitution is not legal in Texas. In November 1972, the Texas Department of Public Safety surveilled the Chicken Ranch for two days, documenting 484 people entering the Chicken Ranch. At the request of a member of the Texas DPS intelligence team, local law enforcement closed the Chicken Ranch down for a short time. It reopened, and in July 1973 Houston television reporter Marvin Zindler began an investigation of the Chicken Ranch. Zindler claimed for many years that he began the investigation because of an anonymous tip. Twenty-five years later he admitted that the tip he received was from the office of Texas Attorney General John Hill, who believed that the Chicken Ranch was part of an organized crime ring of houses of prostitution

Wikipedia: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is a stage and film musical, based on a story by Larry L. King. Drawing from the true-life Chicken Ranch in La Grange, Texas, the original play addresses the issue of private behavior in conflict with public law. The real events adapted for the musical involved a zealous reporter (Marvin Zindler), whose coverage led to the closing of the Chicken Ranch.
(...)
The stage musical, co-directed by Peter Masterson and Tommy Tune and co-choreographed by Tune and Thommie Walsh, opened on Broadway in 1978, with songs by Carol Hall; the original cast starred Carlin Glynn and Henderson Forsythe. Released in 1982, the movie version—which starred Dolly Parton, Burt Reynolds, Jim Nabors, Charles Durning, and Dom DeLuise—retained some of Hall’s songs and also added two others by Parton herself, most notably a two-stanza version of the immensely popular number “I Will Always Love You”.

New York Times
Marvin Zindler, 85, Crusader in ‘Whorehouse in Texas’ Case, Is Dead
By RALPH BLUMENTHAL
Published: August 2, 2007
HOUSTON, July 30 — Marvin Zindler, an antic and a populist television crusader here who became known nationally when he had “the best little whorehouse in Texas” closed on corruption grounds, died here on Sunday. He was 85.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, according to his station, KTRK-TV, an ABC affiliate.

Mr. Zindler, with his cheerfully admitted plastic surgery, closet of peacock fashions, blatant hairpieces and blue-tinted glasses, was best known for his first foray into investigative journalism, in 1973. He exposed a widely tolerated bawdyhouse known as the Chicken Ranch in La Grange. The case was the basis for the musical and movie “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”
(...)
In 1973, at the age of 51, Mr. Zindler began his career at KTRK. Exposing the La Grange brothel quickly caught his interest, he later recounted, because the local authorities allowed it to operate and Texas officials deferred to them. But he had an ally in the state attorney general, John Hill, who slipped Mr. Zindler investigative reports.

Gov. Dolph Briscoe then moved swiftly to close the Chicken Ranch, making Mr. Zindler a star, although, he said, he did not much care for his film portrayal by Dom DeLuise, as Melvin P. Thorpe. Eventually, Mr. Zindler earned $1 million a year as the KTRK celebrity newshound.

(Historical Dictionary of American Slang)
chicken ranch n. Orig. S.W. a house of prostitution. {Allegedly first applied to a brothel in La Grange, Tex., the subject of the Broadway musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.] Cf. HOG RANCH, SNAKE RANCH.
1973 in Playboy (Jan. 1974) 58: Theso-called La Grange Chicken Ranch, an east-central Texas house of ill-repute whose lineage stretches back to the 1840s,...was practically a state shrine, like the Alamo.

28 February 1972, San Antonio Express, pg. 7B, col. 1:
And the Feb. 11 “Star” devotes almost a full page of copy to the La Grange chicken ranch, Texas’ oldest and most famed house of ill repute.

STAR WRITERS Bill Boe and Peggy Meek interviewed the people of La Grange, and came forth with some breezy and interesting copy.

Boe and Meek write that, for the most part, the citizens of La Grange support the chick farm and consider it an integral part of the community.

Other observations: The ranch discriminates, since blacks are not allowed. La Grange citizens do not know who owns the house, which has been in operation since 1900. They say it could be owned by a syndicate or someone from the city.

The ranch is noted for its lack of violence. No booze is allowed. And La Grange citizens say “the folks” out at the ranch have contributed to many worthy causes. They don’t know the madam, but suspect that she is the “Mother Goose” who donated $10,000 to the town hospital fund.

2 August 1973, Dallas Morning News, news summary, section A, pg. 2:
Sheriff T. J. Flournoy of La Grange, Texas, reacts to gubernatorial pressure and closes Texas’ oldest bawdy house, the “Chicken Ranch” 42A

Posted by Barry Popik
Texas (Lone Star State Dictionary) • (0) Comments • Friday, August 03, 2007 • Permalink