The Real Story of a Texas Whorehouse

In 1978 a new musical opened on Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre. The musical featured singing prostitutes, dancing cowboys, a corrupt governor and a crusading television reporter and was called The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas!

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas centres around a brothel (The Chicken Ranch) which operated in Texas for more than a century. The action of the musical takes place in the early 1970s and focuses on the current proprietor Miss Mona Stangley, the local sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, and the events that unfold when a crusading television reporter, Melvin P. Thorpe, makes it his mission to close down The Chicken Ranch.

With a book by Texas author Larry L. King and Peter Masterson and music and lyrics by Carol Hall, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas could appear to be just another all singing, all dancing, musical comedy. But it is in fact based on a true story about the real-life Chicken Ranch that operated in La Grange, Texas.

The Chicken Ranch served the men of La Grange

a town of several thousand people between the Texan cities of Houston and Austin — from 1844 to 1973. The establishment had got its name during the Depression, when clients who had no money paid for the girls ‘services’ in farm produce, notably with chickens which were then used for egg production.

In 1962, The Chicken Ranch was purchased by Miss Edna Milton (renamed Mona Stangley in the stage show), a working girl who had worked at the ranch since 1952. Milton bought The Chicken Ranch for $30,000 and ran the ranch with a very strict set of rules. All of Milton’s ‘girls’ were prohibited from drinking or getting tattoos and were not allowed to go into town wearing dresses more than two inches above the knee. Milton also made sure that the ranch supported local businesses, she contributed to local civic causes, donated to local charities and supported the local Little League baseball team, she became one of La Grange’s largest philanthropists. Milton had a close relationship with the local Sheriff, Jim T. Flournoy (Sherriff Ed Earl Dodd in the stage show). Flournoy took office in 1946 and was an advocate of the Chicken Ranch until the day it closed. He maintained that his constituents wanted The Chicken Ranch and kept re-electing him to keep it there. Flournoy would visit the ranch regularly to learn the latest gossip and find out if any customers had boasted of crimes. Many local crimes were solved with information gained from these visits. In the early 1950’s, Flournoy had a direct telephone line installed at The Chicken Ranch so that he could continue gathering his information without having to travel to the brothel each evening.

The Chicken Ranch was highly successful. At its height of success, the ranch employed sixteen prostitutes. On weekends there was often a line of men, mostly students or soldiers from nearby military bases, at the door. One base supplied a helicopter for soldiers to use for transportation to the ranch. Students at Texas A&M University also made an unofficial tradition of sending freshmen to The Chicken Ranch for initiation.

Each one of Milton’s ‘girls’ would have between five and twenty customers per day. At its peak in the 1960s, the ranch earned more than $500,000 per year ($3.88 million in today’s terms), with the ‘girls’ keeping an additional $300 per week for themselves ($2,300 in today’s terms). In November 1972, The Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) observed The Chicken Ranch for two days and documented 484 men entering the ranch.

In July 1973, Marvin Zindler (Melvin P. Thorpe in the stage show), a Houston television reporter, began an investigation on The Chicken Ranch; claiming that the ranch was involved in organised crime. Zindler made local and national headlines with his crusade to close The Chicken Ranch. As well as his television reports on KTRK-TV, his story featured in an edition of Texas Monthly magazine and two issues of Playboy magazine. As a result of Zindler’s investigation, which found no evidence of a link to organised crime, Governor Dolph Briscoe ordered The Chicken Ranch to be permanently closed.

Zindler’s reports did not go well with Sheriff Flournoy, who on one occasion attacked Zindler in a fight that left Zindler with two fractured ribs, along with a snatched toupee. Reportedly, Flournoy waved the hairpiece in the air as if it were a prized enemy scalp and threw it in the street.

The actual closing of The Chicken Ranch was very painless. On August 1, 1973, Flournoy called Milton and told her that she was no longer allowed to operate. A handmade sign on the building blamed Zindler for the closing. Flournoy then went to Austin to meet with Governor Briscoe, armed with a petition opposing the closure and carrying 3,000 signatures. Briscoe refused to meet with him.

For two years after The Chicken Ranch was closed, potential customers continued to arrive.

This true story then went on to inspire the musical; The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The original production ran for 1584 performances and was directed by Peter Masterson and Tommy Tune, it was nomainated for 7 Tony Awards, and went on to win for the actors who portrayed Miss Mona and Sheriff Ed Earl. As part of her conditions for allowing her story to be told on stage, Edna Milton demanded to appear in the original Broadway production. Milton is credited as portraying Miss Wulla Jean, and was reportedly extremely difficult during the rehearsal process.

In 1982, the fim version of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was released. Starring Dolly Parton as Miss Mona, and Burt Reynolds as Sheriff Ed Earl, the film went on to be the fourth highest grossing live action musical film of the 1980s. One of the biggest changes to the film version was the addition of Dolly Parton’s 1973 hit song ‘I Will Always Love You.’ Dolly Parton re-released the song when the film came out and again it was a hit, making her the first artist ever to earn a number one record twice with the same song.

CTC are thrilled to be presenting The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas in May 2018. 

This will be the third time CTC have presented this hilarious musical. The society first performed The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas at Loughborough Town Hall in 1994 and then due to its popularity with audiences was revised in 1999 at the 600 seat venue; Barry Young’s Stardust in Coalville. CTC are looking forward to mounting this brand new production 19 years since their last version of this hilarious show.

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