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Simon’s Best Little Whorehouse in Texas: Sue Lovell and Disco Grandma (1985)

Laurel Powers

Sound | 1985

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  •  A representative of the pro-ordinance campaign Citizens for a United Houston introduces Sue Lovell, president of what was then the Houston Gay Political Caucus. Founded in 1975, the Caucus is the oldest civil rights organization dedicated to the LGBTQ community in the South and the largest LGBTQ political organization in Harris County. It is now known as the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. Lovell joined the Caucus’s board of directors in 1981, becoming the organization’s first female president in 1984. She served through 1985, when she narrowly lost a runoff election to future Mayor of Houston Annise Parker. In addition to her work with the Caucus, Lovell also helped found AIDS Foundation of Houston in 1982 to provide food and housing for people with HIV/AIDS. She went on to serve on the Houston City Council from 2006 to 2012.  
  •  Barbara Goldfield, finance chair for Citizens for a United Houston, appeals for donations from the audience 
  •  One of the performers gives a special shout out to Mary Thelma Hansel, affectionately known as “Disco Grandma” for her love of drag shows. Hansel supported organizations such as the Texas Gay Rodeo Association and the AIDS Foundation of Houston. She also served as Grand Marshal of the city’s first gay pride parade in 1979.  
  •  Hansel fires up the crowd 
  •  Miss Mona closes the production with the film version of “A Lil’ Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place” 
 
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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 January 13, 1985, to raise money in support of two non-discrimination ordinances proposed by the Houston City Council. A referendum considering the measures would take place the following week. In this segment, Houston Gay Political Caucus President Sue Lovell addresses the crowd during the show to encourage votes and donations. A cast member then shares a special thanks to Mary Thelma Hansel, known in the local LGBTQ community as “Disco Grandma.” Miss Mona (the stage name of Jim Deiringer) and the rest of the company close the show with the film version of “A Lil’ Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place.” Simon 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.