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23rd-28th September 2002
Title

Show handbillBook by Larry King and Peter Masterson
Music and Lyrics by Carol Hall
Based on: The life and times of the real "Chicken Ranch"

The best bordello in Texas dated back to 1915, when Jessie Williams purchased an old farmhouse on 12 acres on the border of La Grange, where it existed in harmony with the law and local citizens for nearly 50 years. During the Depression, the girls traded services for farm goods and livestock. So many chickens were received that hen houses were set up for poultry and egg production - hence the name Chicken Ranch. In 1960 Edna Milton purchased the property from Miss Jessie's estate and did a first-class remodelling job. It was under Miss Edna's direction that the house of prostitution reached its greatest fame. In 1973 Marvin Zindler, a Houston TV newsman, mounted a campaign to close the Chicken Ranch. Jim Flournoy, former Texas Ranger and country sheriff since 1946, cited charitable work, saved marriages, and local acceptance and refused to close it. Zindler directed his TV attack on the Governor, who called Sheriff Jim. He in turn placed the call that quietly ended the Chicken Ranch's 58-year history.

This happy-go-lucky view of small-town vice and state-wide political side-stepping recounts the good times and the demise of the Chicken Ranch, known since the 1850s as one of the better pleasure palaces in all of Texas. The rural community of Gilbert has long tolerated, secretly relished, and certainly patronised Miss Mona's cosy homelike bordello. Governors, senators, mayors, and even victorious college football teams-sponsored by an alumnus-frequented the Chicken Ranch until that puritan nemesis Watchdog focused his television cameras and righteous indignation on the institution.

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Song List

Act One

Prologue / Solo Girl Singer, The Rio Grande Band
20 Fans / Mona Stangley, the Girls, the Cowboys, Farmer, Shy Kid, Miss Wulla Jean, Travelling Salesman, Slick Dude, Choir
A Lil Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place / Mona Stangley, the Girls
Girl You're a Woman / Mona Stangley, Shy, Jewel, the Girls
Watch Dog Theme / Melvin P. Thorpe, the Dogettes
Texas Has a Whorehouse in It / Melvin P. Thorpe, the Thorpe Singers, the Dogettes
Twenty-Four Hours of Lovin' / Jewel, the Girls
Watchdog Theme (reprise) / The Dogettes
Texas Has a Whorehouse in It (reprise) / Melvin P. Thorpe, the Dogettes, Mayor Rufus Pointdexter, Scruggs, Edsel McKey, Doatsy Mae, Townspeople
Doatsey Mae / Doatsy Mae
Angelette March / Imogene Charlene, the Angelettes
The Aggie Song / The Aggies

Act Two

Bus from Amarillo / Mona Stangley
The Sidestep / Scruggs, Photographer, Mayor Rufus Pointdexter, Melvin P. Thorpe, the Dogettes, Melvin Thorpe Singers
No Lies / Mona Stangley, Jewel, the Girls
Good Ole Girl / Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, the Aggies
Hard Candy Christmas / Amber, Linda Lou, Ginger, Imogene Charlene, Ruby Rae, Beatrice
Hard Candy Christmas (reprise) / The Girls
Finale / The Company



Synopsis

THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS tells the story of a famous Texan institution known as the Chicken Ranch--so named because, during the Depression, customers were allowed to pay with poultry! The show begins with a look back in time to those days, when Miss Wulla Jean was in charge. The action then moves to the 1970’s as, two new girls have just arrived at the Chicken Ranch looking for employment. One of the girls is obviously an experienced street hooker and the other, much younger girl, has come straight from her family farm to escape her father. Miss Mona, the proprietor of the Chicken Ranch and a former Chicken Ranch girl herself, immediately sizes up both girls. She allows both girls to stay, but gives the first girl a quick makeover, forcing her to re-move her tarty blonde wig and sunglasses and change her name to "Angel."

Meanwhile, Melvin P. Thorpe, a television commentator, is about to go on the air with "Nemesis", a watchdog program that is supposedly committed to exposing social and commercial abuse, but in reality is only a front for giving Melvin himself exposure so that he can bathe in the limelight. The previous week, Melvin had scored a big hit by proving that a certain peanut bar contained fewer peanuts than advertised. This week, he has his sights set on the Chicken Ranch. With all the glitz and cheesy showmanship of a bad Broadway musical, Melvin proclaims to his audience the surprising revelation that "Texas Has Whorehouse in It." He declares that this evil must be brought to an end and calls on the local sheriff to shut the Chicken Ranch down. Back at the Chicken Ranch, however, things continue as normal. Angel is settling into her new job and, during a break, takes a moment to call her mama who is looking after Angel's little boy. Miss Mona is preparing for a big rush of business. There is a big football match scheduled, and the prize for the winning team is an evening at the Chicken Ranch. She wants to create a special Homecoming Dance atmosphere for the occasion, so she is dressing all the girls in 1950s style ball gowns (equipped, of course, with Velcro for easy removal!)

The local sheriff, Ed Earl Dodd, an old friend of Miss Mona's, decides to pay her a visit. He informs her of the local crusader's efforts to shut down her establishment, but Miss Mona laughs it off. There have been moral crusaders before, but the Chicken Ranch has always survived. The Sheriff is uneasy, however, as these previous crusaders have never had the power of television to back them up. Ed Earl's apprehension proves well founded. He soon finds Melvin setting up his cameras on the main street of Gilbert in preparation for continuing his attack on the little brothel. The Sheriff hits Melvin with a bylaw, forcing him to pack up his cameras and move out. He gives the television crusader an earful as well, using language which is, to say the least, not very polite. He has unwittingly played into Melvin's hands, however; the sheriff's performance has been caught on Melvin's television cameras and is almost immediately relayed to Melvin's decidedly conservative Texas audience. In spite of this, Ed Earl is unrepentant and swears he would do the same thing if he ever came around again.

Although the citizens of Gilbert are beginning to grow a little nervous at all this publicity, life goes on. Preparation for the football match continues, and the players have nothing on their minds but Senator Wingwoah's promise to the victors of a night out at Miss Mona's establishment (even though the senator had spent the night before on KTEX-TV denouncing such establishments--one of those little political necessities.) But the boys' night of pleasure isn't destined to go quite as well as they had hoped. The Sheriff is having coffee with Miss Mona, when all hell breaks loose. Melvin and a whole cavalcade of men with cameras suddenly break in and begin snapping pictures, and chaos soon wins the day.

Although the Governor of Texas is a master of "The Side Step," he can't silence the moral majority that Melvin P. Thorpe has galvanized into action, and is soon obliged to admit that Miss Mona’s place must be shut down. When the call comes from the Governor, it is Ed Earl who must deliver the news to Miss Mona. The girls begin packing their suitcases. Angel makes up her mind to move back home and get a normal job so that she can be with her young son. Miss Mona, however, is not so sure what her next move is. She has never forgotten a night she spent with Sheriff Ed on the evening of Kennedy's inauguration. She wouldn't call it love, but it was a special night for her, and she would like very much for things to be like they were that night. She asks Ed Earl if he remembers what he was doing the night of Kennedy's inauguration, but he says he has forgotten.

Miss Mona takes a long, hard look at her life, and as all of her girls march off with their suitcases, she sings "The Bus from Amarillo." Then, knowing that somewhere nearby the Governor is presenting Melvin P. Thorpe a plaque in honour of his services to the state of Texas, Miss Mona gathers up her own belongings and steps out into the world, prepared to start a new life for herself.


Trivia

Show History

THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS was originally produced at the Actors' Studio, New York, on October 20, 1977. It was subsequently produced at the Entermedia Theatre, New York, on April 17, 1978. This production was directed by Peter Masterson and Tommy Tune, with choreography by Tommy Tune. On June 19, 1978, the musical moved to the 46th Street Theatre on Broadway. There, it enjoyed a run of 1584 performances before closing on March 27, 1982. Carol Hall (best known for her music on SESAME STREET) wrote a fun-loving score reflecting her Texas roots. Her lyrics reflected the low-key lifestyle of the citizens of Gilbert, from extolling the virtues of the Chicken Ranch ("20 Fans"), to Miss Mona's assistance to a lost girl ("Girl, You're a Woman"), to a town waitress wishing she were less respect-able ("Doatsy Mae"). Two great upbeat numbers are "A Lil' Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place", in which Mona explains the rules of the Ranch to her newest Ladies, and "The Sidestep", the governor's dance for the media. Perhaps best of all are three songs of the Chicken Ranch residents as they see the writing on the wall: "No Lies", "Hard Candy Christmas", and Mona's reflection on how she ended up in her present situation, "The Bus From Amarillo." 

In 1982, the film version of the show was released. The film featured Dolly Parton as Miss Mona, Burt Reynolds as Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd and Dom DeLuise as the television consumer reporter Melvin P. Thorpe. The film reunited Dolly Parton with her NINE TO FIVE director Colin Higgins. Parton also contributed to the score of the film, which was altered significantly from the stage version.

The True Story of The Chicken Ranch

Founded in 1844, the Chicken Ranch operated in peaceful co-existence with the law and the small town of La Grange throughout its history. In fact at the time of it’s closing, it was the oldest continually operating brothel in the nation. It got its name during the Depression when madam Miss Jessie began accepting poultry for payment. Edna Milton, renamed Mona Stangley in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas arrived at the Chicken Ranch from Oklahoma in 1952 at the age of twenty-three. She soon took over for Miss Jessie, proving herself just as capable and entrepreneurial. She established a good relationship with the new sheriff, T. J. Flournoy (Ed Earl in the musical), who put in a direct phone line to the Chicken Ranch, so he could replace the nightly visits of his predecessor with nightly calls. Edna also interacted with the community in the same ways as Jessie. Social contact between the girls and the residents of La Grange was forbidden while Edna gave enough money to local civic causes to became one of the town’s largest philanthropists.

Her generosity was possible due to the success of the ranch, which was grossing more than $500,000 at its peak in the 1960's. Even at its sixteen-girl maximum, on weekends there was a line at the door, made of students and soldiers from the nearby military bases. After giving an estimated 75 percent to Edna, the girls still made $300 a week and had no expenses since Edna took care of everything from insurance to food (two meals a day) to weekly doctor visits. All new employees were fingerprinted and photographed by Sheriff Flournoy before they could start work, and a criminal record of any kind prevented their employment. Once at the ranch, the women had to subscribe to strict rules written by Miss Edna, many of which are repeated verbatim in the song “Lil Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place.”

The Chicken Ranch continued operating successfully until mid-1973, when consumer-affairs reporter Marvin Zindler (re-named “The Watchdog,” Melvin P. Thorpe in the show) from KTRK-TV in Houston ran a weeklong exposé on the ranch. He claimed that his motive was inaction on the part of the Texas Department of Public Safety and local police to combat organized crime and corruption at the ranch. All of the attention drawn to the ranch forced then-Governor Dolph Briscoe to take action, even though his own agencies had conducted a two month surveillance of the house and failed to find any connection to organized crime. The pressure on the Governor was such that he ordered the house closed. Just as in the musical, it was left to Sheriff Flournoy to inform Edna of the situation, and by Wednesday morning of the week following Zindler's exposé, August 1, 1973, the doors of the ranch shut for good.

Although the Chicken Ranch was officially closed, the story was not over. Customers showed up for more than two years looking for the place. Zindler also came back for a follow-up story and, in the midst of an argument with Sheriff Flournoy, was pushed down. This resulted in a $3 mil-lion lawsuit against the sheriff, later settled out of court. In 1977 part of the building was moved to Dallas and opened as a restaurant named the Chicken Ranch with Miss Edna as the hostess, the building and furniture in their original condition, and a menu of mainly chicken dishes. The restaurant closed in January 1978. Sheriff Flournoy resigned in 1980 and died in 1982. He was credited with solving every murder and bank robbery in Fayette County during his thirty-four-year term. Ironically, information gathered via The Chicken Ranch had helped solve many of those cases. 

(Ref: Austin American-Statesman, August 2, 1973, January 22, June 25, 1978. Jan Hutson, The Chicken Ranch: The True Story of the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (New York: Barnes, 1980).