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The Tyrrell Historical Library Collection - Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1980)

Tyrrell Historical Library

Sound | 1980

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TAMI Tags
  •  Roger Allan Raby, stage manager at the Tower Theatre, on opening the show in Houston. Raby directed a revival of the production for the Hobby Center in 2012.  
  •  Going backstage 
  •  June Terry, who plays Miss Mona 
  •  Texas humor 
 
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  • About the video
  • PM Magazine PM Magazine
  • The Chicken Ranch The Chicken Ranch
  • Texas Locations
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In this 1980 segment for PM Magazine, co-host John Walls profiles the Houston production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. After opening on Broadway, the stage musical embarked on a yearlong run at Houston’s Tower Theatre. Walls speaks with stage manager Roger Allan Raby and star June Terry backstage. PM Magazine was a local news and entertainment television program broadcast on Beaumont’s KFDM-TV in from late 1970s to the mid-1980s. This segment aired on January 8, 1980.
PM Magazine, also known as Evening Magazine, was a local weeknight news and entertainment television series broadcast on multiple stations across the United States from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. The program combined both local and syndicated segments, with common subjects including local people and events, lifestyle and consumer tips, and human-interest pieces. KPIX in San Francisco premiered the first iteration of Evening Magazine on August 9, 1976. Station owner Westinghouse (Group W) Broadcasting subsequently introduced local versions at its other stations, before syndicating the format to other television markets as PM Magazine. 
 
The Tyrrell Historical Library Collection encompasses hundreds of PM Magazine segments broadcast on Beaumont’s KFDM-TV between 1979 and 1985. Leeza Gibbons and John Walls were the program’s original co-hosts. Gibbons went on to become a correspondent and co-host for Entertainment Tonight from 1984 to 2000. She also hosted her own daytime talk show, Leeza, from 1993 to 2000. 
 
At least ten other Texas stations produced versions of PM Magazine, including KFDA in Amarillo, KTBC in Austin, WFAA and KDFW in Dallas-Fort Worth, KVIA in El Paso, KHOU and KHTV in Houston, KCBD in Lubbock, KSAT in San Antonio, and KAUZ in Wichita Falls. Group W canceled the format in 1990, with final episodes airing on August 30, 1991. 
The Chicken Ranch is a historical brothel in La Grange, Texas, that operated from approximately 1844 to 1973. Made famous by the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, the brothel's story continues to fascinate the public due to its relationship with local law enforcement, the community, and the scandal caused by its exposé by a Houston television journalist. 
 
The brothel in its earliest form was made up of a widow, Mrs. Swine, and three young women she brought from New Orleans. They took up residence in a small hotel near the town saloon, and Mrs. Swine's rules for her girls became the norm for the brothel, upheld by all three of its madames. After the Civil War, prostitution in La Grange moved out of downtown to the banks of the Colorado River. The new madame, Miss Jessie Williams, bought a small house there in 1905 and soon after upgraded to two houses and eleven acres, which became what we know as the Chicken Ranch. Williams, following Mrs. Swine's example, ran a respectable brothel that upheld good relationships with law enforcement, donated money to the community, and only admitted politicians and lawmen; no drunkards were allowed as clients. In 1917, the ladies of the Chicken Ranch began sending packages and letters to Fayette County men serving in WWI, which furthered good relations with the community. Their war efforts, combined with automobiles allowing easier access to the brothel, created a boom in business during the 1920s. Miss Jessie maintained a working relationship with Sheriff Will Lossein, who made nightly visits to the brothel to collect information on criminals that the ladies gleaned from their clients who had a tendency to brag about their exploits. Many crimes were solved through their tips, which caused law enforcement to overlook the fact that prositution was illegal in Texas. 
 
When Miss Jessie became ill in the 1950s, Edna Milton bought the ranch and took over as madame. Her relationship with the new sheriff, T.J. Flournoy, proved just as successful as that of their predecessors. Flournoy even installed a direct phone line at the Chicken Ranch so that he could collect his nightly crime tips more easily. Milton ran the brothel just as strictly as Williams had - the girls were forbidden from interacting with La Grange residents aside from their weekly doctor visits and rotating shopping schedule in town. New employees were fingerprinted by Sheriff Flournoy before they were hired, a criminal record disqualifying them from employment. Edna only permitted white, sober gentlemen to her establishment, where cursing and drinking was not allowed. She took care of the girls' taxes, insurance, living expenses, and doctor visits, leaving them with an impressive salary, even after 75% of payment for services went to Milton. Milton also followed Miss Jessie's lead in philanthropy, becoming one of La Grange's largest benefactors, and further ensuring the goodwill of the community that otherwise may have protested the ongoing existence of an illegal and immoral institution in their town. The Chicken Ranch became a part of Texas culture, heavily visited by soldiers from surrounding military bases, as well as male students from nearby Texas A&M and the University of Texas.  
 
The Chicken Ranch continued operations until 1973 when Houston television journalist Marvin Zindler ran a week-long exposé on the brothel. He largely documented the blind eye that local law enforcement and the Texas DPS turned to the Chicken Ranch, indicting them before a very wide public audience. The attention from the television exposé forced Governor Dolph Briscoe to meet with the DPS, state attorney general, and Zindler, ultimately leading to his order for Sheriff Flournoy to close the brothel for good. Edna attempted to capitalize on the Chicken Ranch's fame by moving the house to Dallas and opening a chicken restaurant, but the restaurant remained open for less than a year. The legacy of the Chicken Ranch was fictionalized in the 1978 Broadway musical and 1982 motion picture, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.