Format: Amazon Streaming
People, for oh so many reasons, I am absolutely baffled and stunned by this movie.
Where to start...
Begin at the beginning, I suppose
When I was a very little kid, between the ages of about 6 and 9 (1st grade to end of 3rd grade) we lived in Spring, Texas - a suburb of Houston. One of the local evening news channels featured a guy in oddly colored glasses, an obvious toupee and loud suits. He was a sort of reporter, doing low-level exposes on local outrages, but was most famous for doing restaurant health code inspection reports. His catch phrase was, for good or ill, "SLIME..! In the Ice machine!" -which turned up with weekly regularity.
This would have been around 1982 or so. The fellow's name: Marvin Zindler, Eyewitness News
|I think this is from the 90's, but you get the idea|
In high school I moved back to Spring and was looking at books in the school library and a book on Marvin Zindler - deeply yellowed and already decades old - caught my eye. I wondered - "Why would there be a book on Zindler released back in the 70's? He's the 'Rats and Roach Report' guy."
A quick perusal had the word's "Chicken Ranch" on the jacket and my eyes about fell out of my head. I didn't check the book out, but I flipped through it briefly enough to gather Zindler had made a name for himself by shutting down the "notorious" Chicken Ranch".
Over the years I picked up a lot of details by osmosis, and then when Zindler died in 2007, a few memorials made mention of more details.
The basic gist was this:
La Grange, Texas sits in a very nice spot along the Colorado River, maybe an hour and change outside of East Austin. That makes it roughly an hour West from College Station, Texas and two hours from Houston.
If the word "La Grange" is familiar, it's because - inspired by the Chicken Ranch - ZZ Top wrote one of my favorite ZZ Top songs using the town's name as the title.
The song came out in 1973, the year The Chicken Ranch was shuttered. Everyone remembers that song, but no one seems to recall what it's all about.
So - what is/ was The Chicken Ranch?
A brothel. A big 'ol brothel that was allowed to run for about 6 decades while the good people there on the edge of the Bible Belt looked the other way. For a brief history - you can actually visit a La Grange tourism website (La Grange is not exactly a destination town, even though I'll argue the area is kinda nice when you drive through. Also - you can buy a Chicken Ranch t-shirt at the link.). I do like the article on the site - it's utterly unapologetic about The Chicken Ranch or La Grange's part in keeping it around as long as they did.
Zindler, spurred on by a state official out of Austin, began a series of exposes about the Chicken Ranch, the local sheriff got up in his grill, shoving and a toupee grab may have occurred, and it was all sort of embarrassing for everyone involved. Except Zindler, who got a lifetime contract at KTRK out of the deal. Zindler claimed he was investigating ties to corruption and organized crime around the ranch, but aside from the laissez faire approach of local law enforcement in regards to morality laws, not much was ever uncovered.
I am unsure how or when I connected the dots, but, somehow I learned that The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), the movie carried by every videostore in the mid-80's, but which was *not* porn (despite the title) as it featured Dolly Parton (and - to a lesser extent - Burt Reynolds), was a true story.
What I also eventually sorted out was that The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was based on an actual Broadway musical, but not one that got a lot of revivals or played in my town, that I was aware of. In reading up on the movie, I learned that the show had been directed by Tommy Tune, a Broadway legend, native of Wichita Falls, Texas, and a UT Austin alumnus. The show was Tony nominated in a herd of categories and won for featured actor and actress in 79'.
In transforming the musical into a movie, a lot changed. Once Dolly Parton was hired to play "Miss Mona", the proprietor of The Chicken Ranch, she seems to have used her clout to make significant changes, including dropping directors and songs from the movie, getting a director of her choice and adding in her own songs. And totally changing the relationship of the Sheriff and Miss Mona to a secret romance - something not present in real life or the stage show - and absolutely central to the movie.
Watching this movie and reading up on it, I was stunned to learn that, in 1982, Dolly Parton closed out the movie with an existing Dolly Parton standard: "I Will Always Love You", a tune she'd been singing since the mid-70's (at least). 1992 would see the arrival of the Kevin Costner/ Whitney Houston starring flick, The Bodyguard, which is far more famous for Houston's cover of "I Will Always Love You" than the story or acting. I'd argue, 7 out of 10 Americans who were around at the time think "I Will Always Love You" is a song penned for Houston for that movie - because it was hot trivia to know that was originally a Dolly Parton song back in the day.
All of this is nuts, because The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas didn't flop. Although Rated R, the movie was big enough that it knocked ET: The Extraterrestrial off the top spot after 6 weeks in '82. Millions of Dolly fans and folks who had seen the movie should have known Houston's admittedly impressive take was not a new song. Somehow, though, no one raised their hand to give credit to Dolly - which - you know, Dolly probably got a pile of cash for the sale of the single, so don't weep too hard for her.
But that's typical of the amnesia surrounding this movie. And, indeed, the events around the real Chicken Ranch.
I've lived in Austin on and off since 1984. I don't know that I knew parts of the film were shot in and around Austin (easier to get to than La Grange, and which may have shot down a film that was about people who were still alive in the town - maybe not making everyone look great). The ranch used for the exteriors in the film is in Pflugerville, a small community outside of Austin which has become a bedroom community over the years (it's pronounced Floo-guhr-vil). Scenes were shot on the front porch of the Governor's Mansion, just across the street from the State Capitol - and several scenes were shot IN the Capitol. Nothing ever shoots *in* the Capitol (except for my student film, "Sad Chad", which I managed to pull off with some guerilla-style camera work and a slow day at the Capitol.)
Exteriors of the fictionalized La Grange, called "Gilbert" in the play and movie, were shot in Hallettsville, Texas - which is one of Texas' hundreds of little towns you've never heard of. This one happens to feature the County Courthouse for Lavaca County. Honestly, it looks like a half dozen other courthouses and town squares in Central Texas - from San Marcos to Georgetown - so I'm unclear why they shot there except they could with a minimum of fuss.
About two hours away in College Station sits Texas A&M and historical Kyle Field. They did get some shots of the annual University of Texas v Texas A&M game. More mind-boggling is that they seem to have secured the permission of Texas A&M football to use their logo and whatnot in the film for an all-singing, all-dancing post-game sequence as a group of guys absolutely fails to sell you on the idea that any of them are at all excited about meeting willing women.
I don't *think* this is the Texas A&M locker room circa 1982 - a little set-dress anywhere could have doubled for that sort of thing. But I can't believe the enthusiastic participation at any level with this movie.
Austin's own Paramount Theatre, where I go to see classic films in the summer, didn't just host the premiere of the film - it was also the location for a primetime special called "The Best Little Special in Texas", starring Reynolds, Parton, Jim Nabors, Jerry Reed, Mel Tillis and a whole lot of other people - not the least of which were the then-Mayor of Austin and Governor of Texas. Because Austin *threw a parade* for a movie called The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The University of Texas band, Texas cowboys, our drill team and a city full of gawking people showed up at the premiere/ parade.
A lot of the special was shot in front of the house in Pflugerville that provided exteriors, but there's also a not-small portion shot on Congress Avenue.
00:00 - aerial shots of Austin back in the dayNow, growing up in Texas - I was aware the film existed, but assumed, like most Hollywood movies about Texas, that it was shot on soundstages somewhere far away. I knew it was a musical, and while I *like* a good musical, and I *like* Burt Reynolds and - like all right-thinking humans - I *adore* Dolly Parton, I just never watched the movie. When it was released, I was 7 or so, and my folks were not taking me to a movie about hookers, no matter how much singing and dancing those hookers might do.
01:12 - swinging girl from The Old San Francisco Steakhouse, I think
26:14 - the part in front of The Paramount/ on Congress begins
28:05 - The Statler Brothers!
28:28 - Burt and Dolly come up Congress (South to North) on the parade route and take the stage in front of the Paramount
33:40 - the production moves inside what looks to be a hotel ballroom, or maybe the now long-gone City Coliseum (which seems pretty likely for the era)
38:45 - Amanda Blake (aka: Gunsmoke's Miss Kitty)
44:19 - unrelated, but an "I Want My MTV" commercial with rock stars looking young and fresh
When I got older, I just wasn't all that curious. I may listen to Dolly Parton and watch Smokey and the Bandit, but I was in no rush to watch the movie.* And then I sort of forgot about it except as a "I should watch that some day" thing.
What blows me away is how all of this has been forgotten. I care about Austin history. I saw Dolly Parton play at the Erwin Center circa 1985 and recollect no mention of the movie or her having had been here previously. The Paramount is proud of its history and has images of things like... did you know the world premiere of Batman in 1966 was here in Austin? It was. Anyway - they hype the hell out of that.
Texas has always had a very weird relationship with sex and the sex industry. I remember my delight driving down I-45 in Houston as a sophomore, and the biggest brightest sign along the freeway was a marquee with chasing lights that declared "Motel: Couple, $18". Hourly, one assumed. I mean... it's hard to take the morals police seriously when a place basically advertising prostitution is lighting up the night sky. And while I am sure you can now Google for sex workers/ prostitutes/ whatever we're saying these days, in the go-go 80's, you could just open up the newspaper and see the ads. And if you didn't have a paper, you could look up "escorts" in the Yellow Pages. And if that didn't work, I also remember driving down I-45 downtown and someone had hung a banner up that advertised an escort service.
This isn't to mention the gigantic strip-clubs, easily identifiable "massage parlors", "lingerie modeling studios", etc... that were @#$%ing everywhere.
Keep in mind, Texas also loves its flavor of mega-church (we made up Joel Osteen), massive Southern Baptists church that occasionally would attempt coups of local government by packing elections with candidates, and other flavors of conservative religion, some of which involve speaking on tongues or wrangling snakes.
Occasionally this stuff would surface and city Government would be rattled a bit to do *something*, so, like, strippers in Houston would start wearing weird badges on their high heels or whatever that was supposed to do. But at the end of the day, you just kind of grow up knowing "pretty clearly we're all actually *fine* with the sex industry, until it intersects with other problems like drug distribution, violence, etc...". And that included local officials, police, clergy and parishioners. The bottom line was - we're all sorta responsible for our own business. But it was also going to be awkward if Pastor Jim Bob ran into Deacon Bobby Ray down at Rick's Cabaret, so best not to do.
I guess. Unless now you have a shared secret and everyone agrees to just play it super cool.
What I do expect is that... look, words come and go. "Whore" isn't exactly the word you toss around these days when you want to be seen as a hugger. I don't remember ever thinking it was exactly a positive word, but in the past fifteen years, the word has practically become a swear, and that's fine. That's how language words. Don't go tossing the word around. Folks' understanding of prostitution and how folks regard prostitution is - maybe thanks to various HBO reality shows - a bit less "all singing, all dancing, we're all having fun here", which - in the context of the movie is this weirdly out of joint, out of step with how concerned liberals are supposed to view reality, and conservatives are supposed to shun hookers, anyway.
So I do sort of wonder if, once Burt and Dolly left town, and all that was left was the clean-up on Congress Avenue - if everyone sobered up and said "did we just spend a ton of money and hold a parade for a movie about agreeing it's a buncha BS to shut down a brothel? A movie that featured dancing hookers?"
It might actually BE a bunch of BS to shutdown a brothel, I'm no expert in any of this. And I'll argue: it's not the best movie. But a movie that feels so *local*, that was about local events and local people who were still alive - that featured a handful of enormous stars - would get a whole lot more mention...
I will say - I do think Texas has moved away from the laissez faire approach to actual sex work, driving it further underground (and it's unclear if that hasn't just made it far more dangerous), and despite what I am sure would cause a furious debate in the comments - we're living in an era where it *feels* positively Victorian as we sort out how we talk about sensitive topics, the left wanting to contextualize and provide a new framing that requires specific language (often, I'll admit, to a maddening degree, even when I totally get it). The right has a different approach, steeped in the duality of polite conversation and what happens behind closed doors, which is not seen as problematic.
Not that the left has much sway in Texas politics, but the left in Texas is centrist in other places, and they aren't going to burn political capital on preserving Motel Couple $18 if the vice squad shows up. Especially when they usually only *do* worry about enforcement when drugs or other issues become a problem.
I dunno. I can't confess to knowing that much about any of this. My brother's a prosecutor - so ask him, I suppose.
What I do wonder is - if you wanted to celebrate the movie in, say, 2022 with Dolly Parton coming back to Austin - would Austin even put the words "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" on the marquee again without suffering someone's wrath? Would Dolly want to be associated with it?
And who were all those people sitting at tables during the TV special? That seems like it would have been Austin royalty at the time. How did this get lost?
Anyway - I'm going to do some digging at the local library and Austin History Center, I think.
*One cannot ignore Parton's figure, the thing she was as famous for as her voice. Some day I'll get into how my movie-renting-selections in an era when my folks checked out movies for me was self-censored by the fact any indication of displaying the remotest sexual interest in women - or what they decided was sexual interest in a woman - was way more trouble than it was worth.