THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS
background and analysis by Scott Miller
The difference, generally speaking, between movies and theatre is that theatre respects the intelligence of its audience far more than movies do. Stage and screen actor Laurence Luckinbill once wrote, “Always over-estimate the public’s intelligence. They’ll thank you for it.” And theatre tends to do that more often than movies do. Just look at the shallow movies made from intelligent stage musicals – Hair, A Chorus Line, The Rocky Horror Show, Pal Joey, Strike Up the Band, and of course, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. People who know only the movie version of Whorehouse have a terrible misconception of what it really is. And they don’t know how the story ends…
Musical theatre is one of the most powerful art forms in the world. It can move people like very little else can. Despite its reputation in some quarters as merely empty calories, that perception hasn’t been true in decades. Musical theatre can, and often does, address issues of import in terms so deeply emotional and with such depth that it can reach people in a way that movies and television never will. Arguably, musicals can do it even more powerfully and more effectively than plays that lack music because no words can ever equal the emotional power of music. Not even Shakespeare could write a speech that can move an audience like a great love song. Part of the reason The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas works so well as a musical – the reason it had to be a musical – is that it deals with people and events for which emotions cannot be openly expressed. Miss Mona would never tell anyone the depth of her regret over the choices she's made or the profundity of loss she feels in closing the Chicken Ranch. But her song “The Bus from Amarillo” can get at that depth of emotion through its music. No speech could ever convey Doatsey Mae's secret desires without feeling a bit silly, but when blended with the sweet, sad music of her song “Doatsey Mae,” those most hidden feelings take on a level of legitimacy and dignity that are very moving. The Sheriff would never say out loud that he loves Mona, so the simple, gentle waltz of “Good Ol’ Girl” does it for him.
Best Little Whorehouse tells the true story of the high-profile closing down of a 130-year-old brothel outside the small town of LaGrange, Texas in 1973. But Whorehouse isn’t really about sex any more than Fiddler on the Roof is about violins. At its most basic, Whorehouse is about how putting life on TV changes it, how it changes people, how the TV camera impacts that which it records. The show asks questions about privacy – when is it legitimate for a reporter to expose private behavior and when is it crossing the line? Does it have to do with legality (and if so, that brings up the whole issue of whether prostitution should be illegal)? Does it have to do with harm being caused? And how does one measure harm done in cases like this? Reporter Larry Connors actually entered the whorehouse in 1973 with a hidden camera in his coat. Is that legitimate and responsible news gathering? Does your answer depend on your answers to the other questions? And, ultimately, does television, both local and national, go too far in its love for “exposés.”
Also parallel to those issues, the show is also about America’s never-ending parade of moral and sexual hypocrisy. The Chicken Ranch, the whorehouse of the show’s title, had been around since 1844. Everybody knew it, and nobody seemed to care. But put it on the TV and suddenly it’s a scandal, it’s an outrage, and one denounced by politicians who had all frequented the place themselves.
After the Chicken Ranch was closed, Sheriff J.T. “Jim” Flournoy was quoted in the Austin American-Statesman: “It’s been there all my life and all my daddy’s life and never caused anybody any trouble. Every large city in Texas has things 1,000 times worse.” The editor of the LaGrange Journal wrote in an editorial, “I think it’s alright. There’s no organized crime attached to it. I’ve never seen anything bad come from it and I’ve lived here all my life. The girls buy all their clothes here, their eats. It brings in business for the community. They pay taxes same as everybody else. It keeps down rape, venereal disease. I think most of the people here are in favor of it.”
Best Little Whorehouse is about how lives are ruined by “reality TV,” about how TV can be used to destroy. It's about people in glass houses throwing lots of stones, about one group of people imposing their version of morality on others, about America's preoccupation with sex and America's determination to forever see human sexuality as “dirty.” And don’t believe that that hypocrisy existed only in 1973. It still lives today and it’s the same hypocrisy that today drives gay teenagers to commit suicide at three times the rate as straight teens.
The Birth of the Singing Whores
Texan Larry L. King (no relation to the talk show host) had written an article for Playboy in April 1974 called “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”
Actor Peter Masterson saw the article in early 1976 while acting in That Championship Season on Broadway, and the way he tells it, “It hit me: Goddamn, this is a musical!” Masterson brought it to songwriter and fellow Texan Carol Hall. In spring 1976, Hall called King. But King didn’t like the idea. He said, “Look, my ignorance of the subject is absolutely awesome. I’ve only seen three musicals in my life and didn’t care for any of them. I saw a number of dramas, but I quit musicals after three. Not my cup of whiskey.” He went on, “As a writer it irritates me when the story comes to a screeching halt so a bunch of bank clerks in candy-striped suits and carrying matching umbrellas can break into a silly tap dance while singing about the sidewalks of New York.” Hall and Masterson promised King this would be a different kind of musical. So eventually King gave in, and the three formed a tight but often cantankerous threesome, to write a musical based on King’s article and on the true story of the Chicken Ranch. None of them had ever written a Broadway show before. In October 1976, they brought some friends together and did an informal reading of an early draft in Carol Hall’s living room. In King’s subsequent tell-all book The Whorehouse Papers, he writes about hearing the opening number for the first time and thinking, “My God, that’s beautiful! This fucking thing may work!” That night, Masterson announced a workshop production at the Actors Studio in New York.
Masterson was a member of the prestigious Actors Studio and so the Studio agreed to produce a small workshop production, which ran from October 20 through November 6, 1977, a total of 12 performances. Along the way, the three collaborators fought like cats and dogs. Hall and Masterson wanted a love song for Mona and the Sheriff. King wouldn’t hear of it. The two argued that the Sheriff was too central a character to walk through the entire show without a song. King bellowed at them, “I can’t see a cussing lawman and a woman who peddles pussy for a living yowling love songs at each other like Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. That’d be goddamn ridiculous!”
Despite the problems and massive rewrites, the show went on. A representative from Universal Pictures happened to see a performance and immediately made an offer, not just for film rights but for stage rights as well. Universal wanted to produce it off Broadway, and maybe even on Broadway. In preparation for the off Broadway production, Tommy Tune, the up and coming young choreographer and director was hired to re-choreograph the show and co-direct with Masterson. Again, rewrites continued and songs were added and cut. There was a big, over-sexed production number called “Two Blocks from the Capitol Building” that illustrated the far more salacious goings-on in Houston while Melvin P. Thorpe was “exposing” the Chicken Ranch scandal in LaGrange. The number portrayed flashers, bestiality, and other perversions. It was cut. Other songs cut included “The Memory Song,” the girls’ “Doin’ It and Sayin’ It Are Two Different Things,” the Sheriff’s “Goddamn Everthang,” and the Aggies’ big song, “Pussy.” (No kidding.) And “The Bus from Amarillo” was reassigned during previews, taken away from the character of Angel and given to Miss Mona, at the end of Act I. It would eventually be moved to the end of Act II. Also cut was a tender dialogue scene between Shy and Leroy Sliney (forever after called only “Young Cowboy”). Briefly, a new opening number, Mona’s “You Tell Me Your Dream” was added before “20 Fans,” but it was eventually cut. The show was worked on more yet so many problems persisted – most notably, they couldn’t get the Act I ending to work – that the off Broadway opening had to be postponed twice.
But three of the seven TV stations in New York City refused to use the show’s title on the air, so commercials were created that never once mentioned the title. Some stations agreed that the word whorehouse could air as a graphic but it could not be spoken. At first, none of the New York papers would run ads with the title. Eventually, a couple independent papers relented, and eventually the other papers caved – except not The New York Times. It wasn’t until ten days before the off Broadway opening that the Times finally accepted an ad with the show’s title. Later on, when the show toured, newspapers across the country refused to print the title and so ads were run that sold tickets to “The Best Little Chicken Ranch in Texas,” “The Best Little Bawdy House in Texas,” “The Best Little Blank in Texas” (no kidding), and, most vague of all, “The Best Little House in Texas.” And the furor still continues today. Even as recently as fall 1997, a student production of Whorehouse at Wentworth Institute of Technology outside Boston was cancelled by faculty, who deemed the title “dangerous for students.”
The show finally opened off Broadway at the Entermedia Theatre on April 17, 1978, where it ran for 85 performances. Most of the critics loved it. Clive Barnes, in The New York Post, wrote, “Considering the subject matter, the show is beautifully clear-eyed and totally free of the gooey sentimentality you might have feared. It calls a spade a spade with a frankness that is exhilaratingly delicate.” Douglas Watt, of the New York Daily News predicted the show would run Annie and A Chorus Line out of town, calling it, “a lively, genial, unassuming musical.” Variety said, “For sheer entertainment, Whorehouse is one of the most enjoyable musicals of the current season.” Time magazine said, “This is the best new musical of the season.” The Associated Press called the show, “an arousing, and rousing, musical with a great deal to boast about.” Pia Lindstrom on NBC said, “This is a comedy that has all the look of a show that is Broadway bound.” Virginia Woodruff of the local Channel Ten said, “The Lone Star State got the treatment in a livewire, sassy, classy, full-of-spirit, fun musical.”
The show was a hit, and the producers moved it to the 46th Street Theatre on Broadway, a theatre just vacated, conveniently enough, by the flop musical Working, which had run only 25 performances. Whorehouse opened on June 19, 1979, where it stayed happily for 1,584 performances. Women’s Wear Daily called the show, “more fun than a beer-totin’ hayride at a Mardi Gras,” and said the whorehouse was “actually located in that vast desert between respectability and profanity.” Edna Milton, the real-life model for the show’s Miss Mona, was given two small, non-speaking roles in the show, although she drove everyone involved crazy. And Marvin Zindler, the model for Melvin P. Thorpe, was flown up to see the show, which he loved. The following January, Henderson Forsythe, who played the Sheriff, was due for a two-week vacation, so despite profound misgivings and paralyzing stage fright, author Larry L. King went on as the Sheriff for two weeks (a role he had played at the Actors Studio).
The Broadway production received seven Tony Award nominations, for Best Musical, Best Book, Best Director, Best Choreographer, Best Featured Actor (Forsythe), and two Best Actress nominations for Carlin Glynn as Mona and Joan Ellis as Shy. The show won two Tonys, though the Tony telecast butchered (through bleeping) the performance of “The Aggie Song.” Sweeney Todd won Best Musical.
Alexis Smith headed the first national tour, and Fannie Flagg took over as Miss Mona on Broadway when Carlin Glynn left. For the tour, a new song was added for Melvin P. Thorpe in Act II, “Lonely at the Top.” Both Glynn and Forsythe returned to their roles to open the show in London in 1981. The show also opened productions in South Africa (where it was heavily censored) and Australia.
In 1982 the producers got into a fight with the musicians union, and they shut the show down, moving it to Boston for a while. Eventually, they moved it back to New York to the Eugene O’Neill theatre, with most of the original leads, where it ran another 63 performances. If not for the union problems and the subsequent loss of momentum, the show might have run longer. Still it was one of the longest running musicals of the 1970s and at one point had three national companies touring at once. Women’s Wear Daily, one of the top magazines of the clothing industry, credits Whorehouse for the western-wear trend that gripped America in the early 1980s.
A movie version was made in 1982 with Dolly Parton, Burt Reynolds, and Dom DeLuise, though Larry L. King had wanted Shirley MacLaine and Willie Nelson to play the leads. Masterson and Tune were originally slated to direct the film, but it went instead to Colin Higgins, who had just directed Nine to Five. The movie watered down the content, rewrote the ending (despite the fact that it was a true story) and did only moderately well at the box office. Burt Reynolds insisted on major plot changes, character changes and other rewrites, plus reducing the Sheriff’s age considerably. Dolly Parton insisted on writing some new songs. But the era of movie musicals was over and Whorehouse in its watered down state had little that was fresh or exciting about it. All that had been taken out.
A stage sequel was attempted by most of the same creative team in 1994, called The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public. It ran 15 performances and Universal Studios lost about seven million dollars on it. The original Whorehouse was revived in 2001 for a national tour starring Ann-Margret and Gary Sandy, but it was missing all the bite and grit of the original.
It Was the Nicest Little Whorehouse Y’Ever Saw.
The whorehouse now known the world over as The Chicken Ranch first opened its door for business in 1844 in what is now LaGrange, Texas. Over the years, a succession of women managed the house as it moved from location to location, and a succession of sheriffs looked the other way. One could look askance at that fact, or one could realize that every time elections for sheriff came up, the citizenry of Fayette County had the option of electing a sheriff who would not look the other way and who would shut the Chicken Ranch down. Even though prostitution was illegal in Texas, the voters of Fayette County never did that.
The first proprietress of the place was a woman known in the history books only as Mrs. Swine, so called for her personal appearance and odor. In those days, customers did not take off their clothes, but merely undid what required undoing. Most men reportedly preferred the girls to be on top. Most of the girls who worked there were there because they came from extreme poverty and ignorance, many heavily pockmarked, many severely retarded or with other profound disabilities. Many came from families in which incest was a way of life. And though most of them would have loved to escape “the life” through marriage, it was rare a man who would find them attractive. Still, it did happen, especially in the 1800s when women frequently died during childbirth and men sometimes went through three or four wives in their lifetimes. Mrs. Swine may have lost an employee or two in those situations, but she also made a tidy profit in her role as paid matchmaker.
Jessie Williams (born Faye Stewart) took over the house in 1905, coming from Waco, where she already had been a successful “working girl.” She had started in Waco at age fourteen as a maid and serving girl, but she studied the ways of her rich employers and learned how to act like a proper young woman. Eventually she went to work in Waco’s most popular brothel and rose to the top. Within a few years, she had bought her own place and employed three girls. Soon after, she moved to LaGrange and took over what would soon become the Chicken Ranch. One of the town’s periodic “cleanup crusades” might have threatened Miss Jessie’s success if she hadn’t made such good friends with local law enforcement, and if they hadn’t been such good and regular customers. With a comfortable amount of advance warning, Miss Jessie sold her land in Waco and bought eleven acres and a house just outside the city limits, and just a couple blocks off the interstate. Miss Jessie made a deal with the sheriff that she and her girls would get suspicious looking strangers to open up to them and then pass along any pertinent info to the sheriff, aiding him tremendously in cutting down crime and establishing an outstanding law enforcement record.
During the Great Depression, business was just as bad for the Chicken Ranch as it was for all other businesses. A “regular date” (no perversions or improvisations of any kind were permitted) cost $1.50, but it wasn’t always easy for a boy to come up with that kind of cash during the Depression. So Miss Jessie soon made a compromise – “one chicken for one screw.” A chicken was easier to come by than $1.50, although it seemed that chicken stealing increased during the period. Soon the house had been nicknamed The Chicken Ranch. When President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration set up a Civilian Conservation Corps camp right near the Chicken Ranch, things started looking rosy again.
By World War II, the girls were giving their all for the war effort again. And things had changed for whorehouses. As one book puts it, “the quality of the average whore was upgraded considerably when self-reliant young women entered the profession by choice, free of guilt and a fear of ostracism.” During this period, lots of female students at the University of Texas paid their tuition by working at the Chicken Ranch during the summers. (They say that one young woman who did this earned her MFA in piano performance while working her summers at the Ranch, and became one of the top classical pianists in America.) It was during the 1940s that the boys at Texas A&M discovered the Chicken Ranch, and began making regular trips. Soon, wealthy alumni would treat the football team to a night at the Ranch if they won the Big Game against Texas University. Edna Milton took over the place in 1961. Not only did high profile politicians frequent the Chicken Ranch; so did a wide assortment of clergy. Miss Edna delicately put it this way: “We had Catholic priests come to my place late at night, and since they’d took a vow not to screw they’d ask to eat us and jackoff and stuff.”
A former Texas Ranger and the inheritor of a long family tradition of lawmen, Sheriff Flournoy was the real life model for Whorehouse’s Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd. He had been elected sheriff of Fayette County in 1946 at the age of forty-six and was seventy-three at the time of the Chicken Ranch scandal. There are lots of monuments in Fayette County, mostly for war heroes, but there’s one there now for Sheriff Flournoy. An estimated 4,000-5,000 criminals were arrested and imprisoned on Flournoy’s watch, giving him one of the best records in the state. He was the first Sheriff to install a direct phone line from the Chicken Ranch to his office in the courthouse building, to keep track of any trouble out at the Ranch and to more easily get any information the girls had collected from customers each night.
KTRK-TV’s consumer affairs reporter Marvin Zindler and reporter Larry Connors (now a news anchor in St. Louis) always claimed that they began their 1973 “exposé” after receiving an anonymous tip about the Chicken Ranch and another less famous brothel. (Why Zindler needed a call to tell him about the already legendary Chicken Ranch was never explained.) At the time, many speculated that they chose the Chicken Ranch at that particular time as nothing more than a ratings grab. After all, Zindler had only been at KTRK for six months, after being fired for his excessive zeal as a Harris County deputy sheriff in charge of consumer fraud. Years later, Zindler changed his story about the anonymous tip, now claiming that Texas Attorney General John Hill called him and asked him to do a story because Sheriff Flournoy wouldn’t close the place down.
Larry Connors is quoted on KTRK’s website: “[Cameraman Frank] Ambrose stayed in the van as a third member of our party and I went inside. I was carrying a small scope camera in my coat pocket. I was getting what pictures I could inside, while Ambrose filmed customers. Nearly three dozen came and went in a little over an hour. At one point, one of the girls spotted my camera. I was sent outside, but told I could return without the camera. I kept asking if I could buy pictures of the girls, but my request was denied.”
Zindler interviewed District Attorney Oliver Kitzman. Zindler asked, “Are you aware of the operations of two bawdy houses that are operating both in Sealy and La Grange?” Kitzman said, “I think most knowledgeable people in this community have heard about those places.” Zindler asked, “As District Attorney have you ever tried to close these places down, either in a civil injunction or by a criminal raid of any kind?” He replied, “No, sir, frankly we have never had any indication by anyone that these places are a problem to law enforcement or otherwise.”
Soon the story had gotten big enough that Johnny Carson was making nightly jokes about it on national television. After the scandal broke, Flournoy circulated a petition to keep the Chicken Ranch open and collected several thousand signatures, but the governor eventually ordered Flournoy to shut it down. The Chicken Ranch was closed down permanently in 1973. A year later, Zindler returned to LaGrange for a report on how the Chicken Ranch’s closing had affected the town’s economy. The Sheriff forcibly ejected him and Zindler sued. Zindler won the suit but Flournoy bragged, “You know, my people here in this town raised the money to pay him down to the penny. He never got one goddamn nickel out of my pocket, by God!”
Jim Flournoy finally retired as Fayette County Sheriff in 1980 and died in 1982 at the age of eighty-two. After his death, he was honored by the Governor for having solved every murder and bank robbery committed in Fayette County during his thirty-four years as sheriff. Ironically, some of the information that led to those arrests came from the girls at the Chicken Ranch.
Today, one of the country’s few legal brothels, this one right outside Las Vegas, is now named The Chicken Ranch, in honor of the original, and it contains some furnishings from the original house, including some lamps and paintings. The house itself was partially dismantled and moved to be a restaurant. Only part of the original structure remains.
A Li’l Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place
One resident of LaGrange was quoted in the original Playboy article saying, “That place paid good taxes, friend. It was clean. The girls had good manners. The prices didn’t hold you up. Friend, they never so much as gave a hot check out there! I had a buddy, he was overseas during the Hitler war, and one of the girls out there, she mailed him cookies. Regular.” Another successful Texas lawyer said, “I went over there back in my law school days, and it was so goddamned proper I felt out of place. It was just too goddamned wholesome for somebody with a hard pecker hunting raunchy sin and eager to whip up his old Baptist guilts.”
The apparent truth of the matter – and one of the primary conceits of the show – is that the Chicken ranch was a home. The girls were safe there, with a warm bed and three square meals a day. They were protected, not only by Miss Edna (Miss Mona), but also by the Sheriff. Many of the girls probably felt safer and more at home there than they had anywhere else in their lives. Miss Edna had a long list of very strict, sometimes very Victorian rules that kept the place more respectable than one might think a whorehouse could be. It was a homey place where the men didn’t feel “dirty” or “sinful,” and that no doubt contributed enormously to its longevity and success
But despite its reported wholesomeness, prostitution is prostitution, and many women today can’t ever for a moment consider the sex industry in objective terms. After so many years of the women’s movement railing against exploitation of women and their bodies, against pornography and prostitution, many women sitting in the audience will have a problem with the way the business of selling sex is portrayed in Whorehouse. The show treats the whole issue as matter-of-fact, as a benign given. But for many people, the question must be asked: can prostitution ever be benign? No answer will ever be universally agreed upon. For some, prostitution will always be exploitation; for others, a place like the Chicken Ranch raises prostitution up out of the realm of disease and drugs and makes it “safe” for women to choose to sell sex. For some, it can never be a real choice and certainly never “safe,” but instead will always be something in which women are trapped; for others, the business of selling sex is just another business and the opportunity to do it safely makes it acceptable. The scene/song “Girl, You’re a Woman,” in which the other girls all “fix up” Shy for her first day of work constitutes a real conflict of emotions for many women in the audience. After all, Shy is putting on a nice dress, putting on make-up getting her hair fixed, things that usually have fun, pleasant connotations for many women, and yet she’s doing it all in order to sell herself to strange men. But isn’t that the point?
Some people will forever see Whorehouse as legitimizing something that can never be legitimate; others will disagree. And that divide in opinion will often come down between the genders.
Sex and the Single Chicken
There has always been prostitution. The Chicken Ranch was just one blip in a long history of humans selling sex to each other. But the Whorehouse story happened at a very unique time in human history, smack dab in the middle of the Sexual Revolution of the 1970s, a weird, wild, confusing time for most people, a time of open homosexuality for the first time in modern Western culture (or the second time if you count the Roaring Twenties), a time of “free love,” wife swapping and “swinging,” of a kind of openness America had tasted briefly in the 20s but had never explored to this degree, an openness upon which the door would shut just a few years later in 1981 when AIDS appeared.
It’s not surprising that the Sexual Revolution burst upon the American scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and an understanding of Miss Mona and her girls can be found in a quick look at American sexual history. America had gone through a very strange time in the twentieth century, first with World War I, then the insanity and sexual excesses of the Twenties, then the Depression, and then World War II.
In the 1950s, women were expected to be mothers and wives first, and women second. Their worth was often judged in terms of how happy their husbands and kids were. It wasn’t easy. Women were told to be involved in their children’s lives but not to smother their sons for fear of turning them into homosexuals. If women paid too little attention to their kids, they were told the kids would turn into criminals. If they paid too much attention, their kids would supposedly wind up gay. The television show Queen for a Day taught women that housework was their highest calling and that if their lives were miserable and sexless, it was all for the best anyway. At the same time, Elvis Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show thrusting his hips provocatively, inviting women across America to acknowledge their sexual desires, even though they could never act upon them.
And the women who had learned during the World War II that they could work outside the home, that they could participate actively in society, that they could have full, interesting lives outside the home while their men were away, were all now thrust back into the roles of wife and mother after the war. After having discovered genuine independence and freedom, they were now put back into their old repressive roles. A newly repressive government, cranking out new enemies and fears every day, tried to forge a parallel in a renewed sexual repression. After decades of social chaos and after profound freedom during the war, the already puritanical American society became even more repressive to try to restore the pre-war social order, desperate to find some kind of calm, some kind of safety and predictability, trying to return to the Victorian moral standards of the previous century, putting women back in the home, back in the kitchen, back in proverbial chastity belts, and back on repressive pedestals, all of which was, of course, impossible. The genie could not be put back in the bottle. As there had been during other times of social upheaval (like the turn of the century and the Depression), there was a real friction between the demands for conformity and conservatism, versus the instinctive human need to express oneself, made even worse by the taste of freedom women had gotten while their husbands and boyfriends were off fighting the war. Of course, while they were tasting freedom, their husbands and boyfriends were frequenting prostitutes both in Europe and in the South Pacific. In Honolulu, for instance, prostitution was a ten million dollar a year industry during World War II.
Nowhere was the role of women more evident than in the person of rock and roll’s first female superstar, Janis Joplin, a fiercely ambitious, independent, ground-breaking rock artist who rejected old-fashioned definitions of beauty, femininity, sexuality, and gender roles. Joplin represented one of the biggest changes in America – women’s independence. After women found out during the war that they could work and make money, they also discovered that gave them profound independence. They no longer had to get married to survive in the world. They no longer had to have sex with a man they didn’t find attractive in exchange for him bringing home a nice, regular salary to pay for food and clothes and shelter. They found, in short, that they didn’t need men, and as a corollary, that they could play with men. Their financial independence brought with it sexual independence. There ceased to be a punishment for sexual promiscuity. An affair no longer meant the loss of security. None of this was being talked about yet, but it was happening. By the 1960s even something as seemingly trivial as women’s role in social dancing had changed, morphing from the ballroom dancing of the 50s in which a woman needed a man, to the Twist in the 60s in which a woman could dance with herself if she wanted, where independence was the norm, where men were optional.
In 1948, Alfred Kinsey had published his world shattering Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, which declared that more than 90% of American men had masturbated, more than half had had affairs, 69% had used prostitutes, and 39% had reached an orgasm with another man. Not surprisingly, his book was an overnight bestseller. Kinsey hadn’t changed sex in America; he had just told us what we were all doing, especially the things no one talked about. Suddenly, almost overnight, Americans were talking about sex – in detail – over their kitchen tables. Politicians immediately denounced all this as immoral and shocking and announced that it would mean the end of The Family (just as religious extremists in the 1980s and 1990s declared that gay marriage would destroy The Family). Needless to say, none of these folks were happy when Kinsey published his next book in 1953, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. This study revealed that 33% of American women were not virgins when they married, 13% had had sex with more than six partners, and 69% of unmarried women who’d had premarital sex had no regrets about it.
Inspired by this new sexual honesty in America and in response to the reinforced efforts at sexual repression and demonization, Hugh Hefner published the first issue of Playboy in 1953, with a then unknown Marilyn Monroe on the cover and naked inside. In 1962, Harper’s Bazaar published a full page color ad featuring the famous model Christina Palozzi, completely nude. Perhaps the Powers That Be could have tamped all this down a bit had it not been for the explosion of rock and roll which took America by storm in 1954 and the years following.
Teenagers became more promiscuous than ever but had not learned enough about birth control. Twenty percent of teenage girls who had sex were getting pregnant. But in 1960, the world changed forever with the invention of The Pill, the first oral contraceptive. For the first time, women had control over when they got pregnant, which allowed them to enjoy sexual experimentation outside of marriage with no dire consequences. Though condoms and diaphragms already existed, the pill was much more easy, safe, and convenient, and it changed the way women had sex. Within its first six years, five million women began taking the pill. In 1962, Helen Gurley Brown wrote her great, subversive sex manifesto, Sex and the Single Girl, also a bestseller, which said it was okay to have sex outside of marriage and, even more subversive, that it was okay never to get married at all. A whole generation of woman were desperate to explore and celebrate all the things their mothers had condemned as dirty and disgusting, as improper and un-ladylike. The conventional wisdom on sex and the female body was being called into question in big ways. And at the same time, Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique persuasively and controversially attacked the myth of the “happy homemaker.” In 1966, William Masters and Virginia Johnson, two sex researchers, published Human Sexual Response. Until then, many people honestly did not know what the clitoris did. So Masters and Johnson told them (most notably in a 1969 Playboy interview) and it changed everything yet again. By the end of the 60s, many states had stuck down their adultery and sodomy laws, and eight million women were taking the Pill.
Another interesting phenomenon of the 1960s was a sudden renewed interest in the ancient Indian text, the Kama Sutra, which became a runaway bestseller. This ancient religious text, describing in great detail every possible sexual pleasure and position, was a blatant and joyful rejection of everything our repressed, sometimes fanatically Christian nation thought about sexuality. American was a nation born of Puritans, a nation that believed that sex was for procreation only (if that), and the Kama Sutra challenged all that.
In 1967, Hair changed the extent to which musicals could talk about sex. And of course, in 1973, when the Chicken Ranch scandal broke, The Rocky Horror Show was just opening in London, soon changing forever the way musical theatre would deal with and portray sexuality, clearing the way, just a few years later, for a musical about the Chicken Ranch. It was into this world, in which half the adults were now terrified of the new sexual freedom and the other half were leaping into sexual experiments like pigs in mud, that Marvin Zindler’s exaggerations, misrepresentations, and scare tactics came spewing out onto the public airwaves.
Filthy, Dark Details and Carnal Lust
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is a reversal of the usual. In the stage show (unlike the film), the women are not objectified, even though that seems that’s what a show like Whorehouse would do. The women are rarely seen in any state of undress. Instead, the women are the ones who have an objective, relatively sane (though some might argue not entirely healthy) perspective on sex, and the men are the ones who are wildly oversexed. It’s the men who need sex, who can’t stop thinking about sex. And when the locker room scene is done with partial nudity, as some productions do it, that also sexualizes and objectifies the men in a way usually reserved for women. In contemporary movies, female nudity has gotten relatively commonplace but male nudity is still somehow shocking. With a nude locker room scene in Whorehouse, the reverse is true. The women now are in the position of sexual control, and the men are being objectified.
Also, the satire at the heart of the character of Melvin P. Thorpe points out the obvious but usually overlooked point that the moralists and religious extremists are the ones who are always thinking about sex, not the people who are having the sex. It makes us ask why Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell care what gay couples do in the privacy of their own homes, and why private gay sexual practices have such a place of prominence in their work. When the heterosexual porn industry is far larger than its gay counterpart, when the heterosexual prostitution industry is so much larger, why do Robertson, Falwell, and their ilk focus so strongly on gay stuff? Why are they thinking about it so much? And similarly in Whorehouse, why is Melvin P. Thorpe so obsessed with the sexual goings-on in a whorehouse sixty miles from his TV station? While, Zindler was spending all his time and energy on “exposing” the Chicken Ranch, the torture and murder of twenty-seven young boys was taking place in Houston, Zindler’s backyard. And still Zindler went after the Chicken Ranch.
Back during the Clinton presidency, the scandal over Monica Lewinsky was an interesting parallel to the scandal over the Chicken Ranch – and it was proof that this was not a phenomenon of the 1970s but an ongoing love affair Americans have with hypocrisy. The nation was outraged that Clinton was being serviced by Lewinsky in the Oval Office. There were months of hearings about it. Prosecutor Kenneth Starr published the transcripts, which were put in book stores and became bestsellers. If it was all so distasteful, why were all the lurid details in our book stores? Why did every single newscast every night revisit the sorry affair?
Because Americans are moral and sexual hypocrites, most of us. Even though of us who don’t think we are probably really are, deep down. Americans are terrified of sex. We don’t want to talk about it, don’t want to know about it, don’t want to think about it. Many Americans would probably prefer we all just pretend nobody ever has sex.
At the same time, we’re obsessed with it. We’re constantly talking about it, thinking about it, writing about it. If we weren’t, no one would know who Monica Lewinsky is. Pornography is one of America’s biggest industries. Everyone claims it’s disgusting and immoral, that they would never ever buy or even look at porn. But somebody’s buying it. A lot of it. If it’s not you, it’s probably the person sitting next to you. It certainly wouldn’t be going out on too shaky a limb to suggest that Americans have a distinctly unhealthy and often genuinely comic relationship with sexuality, both their own and that of others.
And that’s what The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is about. Not sex itself, but the terror, hypocrisy, and insanity always swirling around sex in America. The Chicken Ranch had been operating, with the full knowledge of most of the inhabitants of Texas, since the late 1800s. But putting real life on TV always changes it, and once Marvin Zindler sent his exaggerations and misrepresentations out over the public airwaves, everything changed. Rational men became raving idiots. After more than a hundred years, the Chicken Ranch was now a very public and very “dangerous” problem that needed Action taken against it. And in the process, people’s lives were ruined. And at its core, the real beauty and intelligence of Best Little Whorehouse can be seen in the way it pushes its social and political satire to the background, to focus on the real people whose real lives were greatly complicated and in some cases destroyed by the televised circus masquerading as news. These were simple people leading simple lives in 1973, back before “reality TV” had become a parody of itself, back when television was still mysterious in many ways to most Americans, back when its awesome power was only just being discovered. Back before moral hypocrisy had become the national pastime. Any grab for power or attention – or ratings – usually leaves victims in its wake. Their story is the one this show tells.
She’s a Good Ol’ Girl
Jan Huston writes about Edna Milton the real life model for Miss Mona, in her book The Chicken Ranch, “Edna Milton’s early biography reads like a saga of the Depression. Born to a dirt-poor Oklahoma farm couple, Edna and her sisters picked cotton like any other Okies lucky enough to have a crop during the dust-bowl years. But Edna found some time to sow some wild oats when she was not picking cotton. At sixteen she was pregnant. Her family turned against her with proverbial ‘don’t darken my door’ rhetoric and Edna left the furrowed Oklahoma farm for the seamy side of Oklahoma City. The baby died.”
Edna moved up in the chosen profession of prostitution but soon got married and bought a house in Austin, Texas. In 1952, she moved to LaGrange and into the Chicken Ranch. In 1961, at age thirty-two, Miss Jessie died and Edna bought the Chicken Ranch from Jessie’s heirs. Soon after taking over the Chicken Ranch, she married her second husband Johnny Luke, but the marriage only lasted few years. As far as we can tell, Edna and Sheriff Flournoy never had a relationship, though it’s not entirely clear; and Flournoy was happily married. That part of the Whorehouse story is probably fictional, added in one of the few concessions to traditional musicals.
Interestingly, one of Miss Edna’s rules was that no black or Hispanic customers were allowed in the house, and it was often her black maid’s job to turn away minority customers. When the Chicken Ranch was closed down, it was making awfully good money. The girls turned over between 50% and 75% of their earnings to Edna, who provided them with room and board, all meals, clothes, and other necessaries. It is estimated by some that Edna was taking in about $500,000 a year gross, mostly accumulated through fifteen-dollar, fifteen-minute customers. Of course, this meant the girls were making somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,200 a month, not a bad income in the early 1970s. After the closing, Edna tried opening a new house in Nevada but gave up on it. Edna married again and moved to Gladewater, a small town in east Texas. All in all, she’d been married four times and divorced three.
The lyric for the song “The Bus from Amarillo” is one of the show’s most poignant and most truthful moments. It asks, how does a girl get to be a prostitute? Mona got on the bus with a one-way ticket, with no intention of ever returning home. She wanted opportunity. She wanted possibility. But when it was presented to her, it was too scary and she gave it up. Now, at the end of the show, she wishes she had it again. She knows her fear kept her from pursuing her dreams. Now her future lays open before her again, but now more than half her life is gone.
The song is about making choices, and it mirrors Mona’s earlier song “Girl, You’re a Woman,” which she sings to Shy. Mona understands all too well the consequences of choices. She knows her life might have turned out quite different had she stayed on the bus. She knows that Shy’s life might turn out different, too, and Mona tries to persuade Shy to leave, to take a job at the local diner. But Mona also knows that she offers a safe place, and if Shy is determined to enter this life, she might as well do it here.
“Girl, You're a Woman” a song of pride, of support, sure, but also of sadness at the road Shy has put herself on. It’s about being an adult and taking responsibility for choices. It's about how Shy is making a choice she can never un-make, and how she must understand and accept the repercussions of that choice. Every girl singing the song has been there, and they all remember that moment when they made the choice that got them where they are now. Once Shy goes upstairs with her first customer, she can never go back. Contrary to what many people think, this song is not a happy one. It does not extol the virtues of prostitution or take pride in that life; the exact opposite is true. If you listen to the lyric, it's all about dealing with hard choices and past mistakes and horrors, about accepting the indignities of life with a stiff upper lip, about not showing weakness or regret, about hiding the real feelings of loneliness and disconnection, about handling heartache and despair. It's a very sad song. Nowhere does the song glamorize prostitution.
And to underline all this, the authors chose to interrupt this song, refusing it to end neatly, by having a customer show up at the door wanting sex. Even this bonding, this display of empathy, must take backseat to the demands of the customers. Prostitution, the authors are reminding us, is a business, with no room for sentimentality.
Interestingly, “The Bus from Amarillo” was first written for Angel (then named April), but the authors felt it was too strong a statement and too central to the themes of the show to give it to anyone but Mona. Since Mona had been a “working girl” as well, the song fits her fine and when she sings it, she speaks for everyone in the house. It tries to get at the mindset that allows a woman to make the choice to enter this life, to sell her body and her (perhaps performed) love for money. It reminds us that the issues surrounding prostitution, its morality, its causes and effects, its impact on society, are complicated and messy, that there are no easy answers.
And as Mona sings “The Bus from Amarillo,” there’s additional subtext there. Maybe Mona didn’t ever realize her dreams, but she did land in a safe place at the Chicken Ranch, and she found a surrogate mother in Miss Wulla Jean. And in the years since, Mona has offered the same haven for other girls. Girls like Shy, running away from other horrors, have found a relatively safe place in this house. And as Mona sings this last song, she realizes that she has allowed that safe place to be taken away. It was entrusted to her, to continue to “save” girls like her, and now she has lost it. Now those girls who get off that bus from Amarillo won’t have a safe place to land. When this song was originally placed at the end of Act I, it didn’t have that additional resonance. At the end of Act II, that additional tragedy is palpable.
The Celebrated Cussin’ Sheriff of Lanvill County
The Sheriff, more than any other character in the show, feels great emotion and cannot bring himself to ever express it. In the last moments of the show, Mona asks him if she remembers their first time alone and together, their first taste of genuine intimacy, on the night of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. And though he does remember it, every detail, he doesn’t “do” emotion. It’s been drilled into him since childhood by his family, Texas Rangers one and all, that emotion is for sissies, so he pretends not to remember. It’s already so difficult for men and women to communicate openly and honestly, but it was even more so in Texas in the 1970s, with the baggage of old-fashioned Southern machismo thrown into the mix.
The Sheriff doesn’t handle any kind of real emotion very well, so he stalls at Mona’s question. He riffs on the topic of Kennedy, rambling away, saying anything to avoid the topic of that night that he and Mona fell in love. It’s a filibuster. But the show goes further and deeper here than this single personal moment. The Sheriff isn’t just talking about anything; he’s talking about Kennedy, the man who, for Americans of that generation, meant hope, safety, possibility. The Kennedy era represents for Mona and the Sheriff an idealized, half-remembered youth, a time when choices and circumstances had not trammeled all the other possibilities. When the Sheriff goes on to talk about Kennedy’s death, it represents, here at the end of Whorehouse, the death of hope and possibility, the end of a kind of innocence.
This scene is about role-playing, about all the rules changing and the Sheriff being unable to play a new role. The sheriff is realizing his impotence, this inability to protect the woman he loves. It’s strange and painful, and humiliating for him and he just can’t deal with it openly. And the scene also subtly ties the Chicken Ranch, one piece of Texas history, to the Kennedy assassination, another piece of Texas history. But it’s also about television – the power of Oswald’s live killing at the hands of Jack Ruby beaming across American televisions. The Sheriff doesn’t realize it, but he knew television’s power even back then; he just didn’t recognize it for what it was.
The Sheriff’s one song, “Good Ol’ Girl,” tells us even more. He never goes so far as to say he loves her. We know he does but he won’t say it. And the things he remembers about her (he’s already talking about their relationship in the past tense) is her lack of demands, her refusal to demand romance and displays of affection from him, the way she never demanded conversation from him. She understands how he is, and what he can’t offer her, and she accepts all that. That’s the true measure of love and he appreciates it. But even these words of indirect affection he offers the audience in the song are too much to say to Mona. The second verse of the song is given to the male chorus as the Sheriff calls Mona to tell her the Chicken Ranch must be shut down. We see this phone call in mime, accompanied by the chorus. It’s an unusual but highly dramatic choice for the show’s creators to make, but one that reinforces for us, the Sheriff’s inability to talk to Mona the way he would like. Here his words of love, as indirect as they are, must be given instead to a nameless chorus while he delivers the worst news possible to the woman he loves.
In that last scene between the Sheriff and Mona, he finally comes to grips with his one big failure. No matter how many criminals he apprehends, no matter how many crimes he solves, no matter how big the statue of him will be someday, he has failed Mona. It’s unbearable for him and he jumps at the chance to demonstrate a success. He brags about how he’s kept the media roped off around the property so that Mona and Jewel can leave in peace, conveniently ignoring the fact that he’s partly to blame for them being there in the first place. He tells a story of arresting Mexican kids for stealing a goat, as if that success can make up for this failure, as if that success will redeem him in Mona’s eyes. What he doesn’t understand is that he doesn’t need redemption from Mona. She forgives him. She understands better than he does the powerful forces that had lined up against them.
The audience longs for a Great Revelation for the Sheriff at the end of the show, but they don’t get it. One of the central points of Whorehouse, one of the great tragedies, is that the Sheriff never learns anything from all that has happened, that America hadn’t yet conquered television, hadn’t yet become a part of the “TV culture.” He almost gets it; he senses that the murder of Oswald grew in its power because it was broadcast live, that television gave it mythic proportion, but this is all too big for him to get his mind around. At the end, he still thinks the Chicken Ranch issue blew up just because he cussed on TV, when that's not even half the story. He doesn’t understand that, like killing, sex takes on much greater size and power when linked to the cathode ray tube. (He has an inkling of this, but he doesn’t make the connection.) Melvin P. Thorpe’s images of Texas’ beloved Aggie boys half-naked and de-flowered being beamed into living rooms across the state gave the Chicken Ranch and its “dangers” mythic proportion that could no longer be dismissed. Talking about it was one thing; seeing it in your living room was quite another.
Also, it apparently doesn’t occur to the Sheriff that if Mona had heeded his early warnings, if she had not continued with the Thanksgiving Day festivities, Melvin never would have caught the college boys in the whorehouse in the first place. The Sheriff knows from his first dialogue scene that Melvin’s “exposé” is dangerous. He begs Mona to take it seriously. She shares in the blame for what has happened, but he takes it all on his own shoulders. He believes he should have protected her, just as he always has, but the truth is he tried. There’s an argument to be made that Melvin merely talking about the whorehouse on TV might not have stirred up as much furor as he hoped. But images of (presumably) clean-cut nineteen-year-old boys running around a whorehouse naked was more than most folks – and most politicians – could handle on their TVs. Just like today, when fundamentalists attack gay Americans through the fiction of gay recruitment of children, so here Melvin knows his audience and knows that when the “loveless copulation” involves “kids,” en entirely different kind of outrage arises in many people.
As the show ends, the Sheriff is so close to understanding all these things, but he never makes the final connections. He has a very simplistic world view, still stuck in the 1950s in many ways. He doesn't belong in this new world of television and photogenic politicians. He's too simple and direct a man to understand the complexities of what has happened.
The Language of Lust
One of the most interesting and most fun parts of Whorehouse is its language. Since every major creator of the show was from Texas, and since Larry L. King was a professional writer specializing in work about Texas, the language creates a world foreign to most audiences but rich in detail and local color. The Sheriff cusses more than any other character in a musical, even more than the characters in Hair, but any fewer obscenities would have made him less real, less authentic. And in this 1973 world, before cable and satellite TV, before HBO and Showtime, cussing on television was unthinkable. But elected officials hadn’t learned to deal with television yet. Murders and other crimes did not require daily news briefings broadcast live. Sheriff Dodd is ill-equipped to deal with the power and arcane rules of being on TV. Interestingly, the Sheriff finally learns the lesson that cussing on TV is a bad idea, but too late. And even at the end of the story, he still doesn’t understand what’s really going on. He thinks all the problems could have been avoided if only he hadn’t cussed on television. He doesn’t understand the very powerful moral hypocrisy and political opportunism behind what has happened. The Sheriff is too straight-forward to comprehend the duplicity of Senator Wingwoah, the Governor, and Thorpe.
King had originally gone ever farther, writing one line for the Sheriff with the word nigger in it, but Henderson Forsythe, who played the Sheriff refused to say it. King argued that it was authentic. Forsythe argued – rightly – that once that word was spoken the audience would be lost, if not for the rest of the show, at least for the rest of the scene. Still, another line remains that refers to Mexicans as “little greasers.”
Melvin P. Thorpe, on the other hand, knows how to use the medium. He knows how to talk about “dirty” topics without offending viewers. He knows how to be salacious without using four-letter words. In fact, what Melvin says on camera is far more obscene than what the Sheriff says; it’s just that Melvin knows better which words to use. And the ridiculous song-and-dance TV show Melvin hosts (the show’s biggest departure from reality) is a prescient social satire of America’s move more and more toward news as entertainment. The phenomenon wasn’t nearly as prevalent then as it is now, when it’s often very difficult to tell news and entertainment apart. That was just beginning in 1973. Today it’s an epidemic.
Language is also an issue for Mona. When Angel and Shy arrive, Mona lays down her rules. One of the rules is that the girls aren’t allowed to use words like johns, pussy, ass, etc. Mona prefers delicate language when talking about sex. In her own way, she’s more like Melvin in understanding that offending people isn’t about content; it’s about vocabulary. As many women did at the time, Mona even refuses to talk explicitly about a woman having her period. Mona – and all her girls – calls it “the curse.” Oral sex is called “French.” The list goes on and on. But is this an example of Mona being just as hypocritical as some of the other characters, trying to whitewash human sexuality, trying to pretend that it’s something other than it is? Or is she caving in to the hypocrisy of the rest of the world? Or might we see her language choices as merely a business decision, an acknowledgement that her customers are uncomfortable with honest talk about sex?
The lyric of the opening song raises issues of language in a different way. The real Chicken Ranch was just a plain box house at the end of a dirt road, ugly in most ways, with additions added on over the years in haphazard fashion. But in the memory of those who love it, in the lyrics that open the show, it had beautiful gardens, pine trees, a painted barn, a picket fence, and other aesthetic pleasures. The song tells us that “fireflies would flicker and float in the gloom” of twilight. This is a romanticized time and place, rich with romantic images, with alliteration and rhyme, and as often happens memory has made it beautiful in ways that it never was.
And of course, the issue of language swirled around the show as well as through it, with newspapers and media outlets terrified to use the word whorehouse in public. The issue of moral hypocrisy was not just in the show but also around it.
There are two great books worth reading. Larry L. King’s The Whorehouse Papers
is out of print, but it’s hilarious and well worth finding. Amazon often has used copies for sale. Also, The Chicken Ranch: The True Story of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
is full of interesting history on the Chicken Ranch and the real people involved in the case.
Copyright 2002. Excerpt from Scott Miller's book Sex, Drugs,
Rock & Roll, and Musicals.
. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of
Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre
Deconstructing Harold Hill
Rebels with Applause
, From Assassins to West Side Story
Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR