- Associated Press - Sunday, December 4, 2016

LA GRANGE, Texas (AP) - Ask the delicate question in this pleasant little town on the banks of the Colorado, and, depending on who’s answering, you’d think that marvelous Marvin Zindler himself, blue eye-shades and all, had risen from the grave and swaggered over, yet again, from Houston.

Here’s the question: Should Fayette County commemorate the Chicken Ranch - aka “the best little whorehouse in Texas” - with a state historical marker?

The Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/2eZU7mY) reports the marker proposal has roiled residents for the past few weeks, ever since the owner of the old Chicken Ranch property on the edge of town mentioned to members of the county historical commission that he was thinking about applying to the Texas Historical Commission for a marker. The notion doesn’t sit well with some local residents, particularly those of a certain age who remember when you’d mention La Grange and people would invariably grin and make a joke.

It’s been 43 years since KTRK-TV’s crusading consumer affairs reporter (“Slime in the ice machine!!”) rolled into town with a cameraman to bust the unassuming, little country brothel that had flourished just beyond the city limits for more than a century.

Zindler’s over-the-top theatrics not only resulted in the demise of the brothel - and the reporter’s own beat-down at the hands of the local sheriff, Big Jim Flournoy - but also set in motion the media cavalcade featuring Larry L. King’s famous “Playboy” article, the subsequent Broadway musical and the movie version starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds.

“‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ remains one of the most infamous brothels ever to operate in the United States, if not the world,” says Jayme Lynn Blaschke, author of the newly published “Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch: The Definitive Account of the Best Little Whorehouse.”

The front parlor of the rambling, old frame house ended up in Dallas in 1976, reconstituted as a combination disco and chicken-themed restaurant on Greenville Avenue. “Lots of men showed up thinking it was still a brothel,” a former waitress told Blaschke. The owners hired Miss Edna, the Chicken Ranch’s last madam, to act as hostess, but she couldn’t draw the (fried) thigh and breast trade the way she could in La Grange. The restaurant lasted less than a year.

Back in Fayette County, a Waco used-car salesman named Mike McGee acquired the Chicken Ranch property in a 2009 swap with a Houston businessman. “I didn’t know what I got when I traded for it,” McGee told me by phone earlier this week.

What he got were the ruins of an old house surrounded by mesquite, huisache and prickly pear on a gravel road less than a mile off state Highway 71. Vandals, the weather and the travails of time have done their work, and by now the house is too far gone to restore. Last month McGee began the process of applying for a state historical marker at the suggestion of the local tourism board. “There’s so much interest in the Chicken Ranch, they wanted a place they can send people to, so they can look at something,” he said.

A few influential folks were not pleased, said Blaschke, who helped McGee with the application. “I’d say 45 percent of the population think it’s part of Texas history, and they should exploit it,” he said from his office at Texas State University, where he’s director of media relations. “Another 45 percent don’t give it any never mind. And maybe 10 percent of the population just about spews blood out of their eyeballs if you even mention it.”

Among the more adamant opponents - and the most influential - is longtime County Judge Ed Janecka, whose Czech ancestors settled the nearby community of Dubina in the 1850s. At 69, he’s lived in the county most of his life.

A former stand-up comedian who’s still quick with a cutting quip, the judge’s crusty exterior belies his abiding affection for his Czech heritage, his Dubina church (one of Fayette County’s painted churches) and his rural and small-town constituents. As we sat in his third-floor office in the magnificent, old courthouse on the La Grange town square, I asked him about his memories of the Chicken Ranch. He laughed. “Put down that pen,” he said, “and I’ll tell you about a rite of passage for the boys of Fayette County.”

It wasn’t just country boys, he said. Aggies, Longhorns and soldiers found themselves sitting on Saturday nights in that parlor that ended up in Dallas. Janecka recalled that the fellow who ran the local Gulf gas station made a little money on the side by renting civilian clothes to soldiers, who weren’t allowed to visit the brothel in uniform. Everybody knew about the Chicken Ranch; before Zindler, nobody gave it much thought.

Janecka wishes it were that way today. He wants to turn tourists’ attention to La Grange’s superb Texas Quilt Museum, the painted churches, Monument Hill & Krische Brewery State Historic Site, the friendliness of the people - even as he acknowledges the continuing interest in the bordello.

“It is what it is,” he said. “It’s history, and when somebody comes in from somewhere else, they ask about it. It’s amazing to me that people around the state are just fascinated with it.”

Pat Johnson, an artist who lives in nearby Fayetteville and who serves on the county historical commission, begs to differ with the judge. “I thought (the marker proposal) was pretty timely, actually,” she said. “It’s Fayette County history, some of the best. Today that kind of story doesn’t seem so scandalous to me.”

Pat Good, who sells Chicken Ranch photos and T-shirts at Hengst Printing on the square, agrees with Johnson. “It ought to be a little museum,” she said. “It would draw a lot of people.”

Gary Prause is a fourth-generation family member who runs Prause’s Meat Market, on the square in La Grange since 1904. He’s been cutting meat and smoking barbecue since 1966.

“When I first started working in here, Grandma would make pies and cakes and take ‘em out there,” he recalled. “You could always tell how many girls were working out there by how many steaks they ordered from us. If they ordered 28 steaks on a weekend, there were 28 girls working. That’s what Daddy used to tell me.”

Prause has no problem with a historical marker - “Why not?” he said - but the judge is unmoved. “I’m making this statement for people in their 60s, 70s and 80s, for people who’ve lived here for a long time,” he said. “Back then they’d go somewhere and tell people they were from La Grange, and all they’d hear was the Chicken Ranch. It was embarrassing.”

He can imagine lines of historical-marker traffic disturbing residents who live along the gravel road. He can see rowdy college kids ripping up the marker almost before the concrete sets and hauling it back to a dorm room or frat house. He has veto power over the marker application.

For now the issue is moot. The deadline for applying was Tuesday, the 15th, and McGee decided, respectfully, to hold off. “Let them have the decision, since I’m an outsider,” he said. “It’s their town, their county.”

He might try again next year. “I’m very careful where I step,” he said, “but it’s not over with yet.”

___

Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com


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