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Simon’s Best Little Whorehouse in Texas: “The Aggie Song” and “The Sidestep” (1992)

Laurel Powers

Sound | 1992

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  •  “The Aggie Song” 
  •  “The Sidestep.” The character in the stage and film production of Best Little Whorehouse of Texas is based on Dolph Briscoe, who was governor at the time of the Chicken Ranch scandal. The drag show opts to instead portray the person serving as governor at the time of performance: Ann Richards.  
 
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This home video captures a performance of Simon’s Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, a drag revue of songs from the stage and film musical. The benefit production was held at The Ranch in Houston on September 27, 1992, to raise funds for PWA Coalition of Houston, a peer organization for people living with HIV/AIDS. The show reportedly raised $5,000. In this segment, Simonya Fey (the stage name of Simon Bainbridge) invites the audience to stay for an encore. The company then reprises two numbers: “Aggie Song,” which features some lively dance moves, and “The Sidestep,” which honors then Governor Ann Richards. Bainbridge created the drag revue in 1982. The production soon evolved into a regular fundraiser for LGBTQ causes. Performed in Houston and across Texas for over two decades, Simon’s Best Little Whorehouse in Texas reportedly raised more than a quarter of a million dollars for local AIDS charities and LGBTQ organizations.
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.