A question many a person who's seen the 1982 film (or the Broadway musical) The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas has likely asked is, "Umm, okay, but is that a real place?" The answer is yes. The movie, starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds, is based on the very real Chicken Ranch in La Grange, Texas. The Chicken Ranch was a mainstay in tiny little La Grange until it closed in 1973. (Yeah, Nine. Teen. Seventy. Three. This was not an old cowboy hangout. It probably existed at the same time you did.)
So what's the story behind this piece of Texas history? It's a pretty fascinating one. In 1903, Miss Jessie Williams moved from Waco to La Grange. By 1915, she had a full-fledged escort service up and running. It turns out the, um, services her establishment provided were quite durable in standing up to the times. The brothel survived prohibition and even the Great Depression. It wasn't until after the stock market crashed that the Chicken Ranch got its name. Needing a way to keep customers in the door in tight times, Miss Jessie decided the brothel would take chickens as payment. Seriously. Soon the brothel and the land surrounding it were covered in chickens, and the establishment got its name.
In 1952, The Chicken Ranch came under the direction of Miss Edna Milton, who added air conditioning and classed up the joint. This became the establishment that the film and Broadway musical were based on.
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The musical, written by Larry L. King, Peter Masterson, and Carol Hall and choreographed by Tommy Tune, opened at the 46th Street Theater in 1978 and ran for 1,584 performances in New York. Success meant a movie was soon to follow, and boy, did it. The Universal Pictures vehicle had a star-studded cast, featuring Dolly Parton as Miss Mona Stangley, Burt Reynolds as local sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, Dom Deluise as the snooping journalist villain from Houston, Melvin P. Thorpe and Charles Durning as the Governor.
The film was a box office smash. It was the most financially successful movie musical of the 1980s. And its stars made sure the movie was done their way. Parton and Reynolds refused to do the film without each other and negotiated their salaries together, eventually splitting six million dollars. (Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Gene Hackman were also considered for Reynolds' role.)
Though much of the movie was shot in Los Angeles at the Universal lot, they did film parts in Pflugerville, Texas as well.
To this day, the musical and the movie are cherished parts of both Texas and American culture. The truth may be crazier than fiction, but the fiction was pretty good anyway.
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This article previously ran in September of 2020.
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