Friday, March 16, 2012

Friday Dance Party: Where History And Aggie Boys Get Made

Edna Milton Chadwell
She was the 8th of 11 children, born into a poverty stricken family in the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma; she grew up during the Depression.  She dropped out of school in the third grade, and was married as a young teen.  She gave birth to a son, who died, and was divorced by her husband.  Penniless and pretty desperate, she turned to prostitution.  Well, wouldn't you?
The hookers from LaGrange, in the early part
of the 20th Century. Get a load of those ankles.
Now the story really gets good.  In 1952, she landed in a brothel located outside the small town of LaGrange, Texas. As with restaurants, it was all about location, location, location, and as the whorehouse was only two blocks off the highway between Houston and Austin, it did banging business.  Our Edna had a good head for the enterprise, and a good business sense too, so she bought the place when the previous madam died. 
Miss Edna took over ownership in the early 60s.
Her rules for the brothel were strict and well-enforced.  The gals did not fraternize with the townfolk (other than in a business sense), though they were encouraged to support local businesses;  they visited the doctor weekly to circumvent any unpleasant social diseases.  No alcohol was allowed on the premises, and no tattoos were allowed on the merchandise.  A direct phone line was installed to the sheriff's office, in case there was any trouble with the clientele.

The gals did their duty for the troops, from
1894-1973. During the World Wars, they
sent cookies.
The brothel had been in existence since before WWI.  When the depression hit, and cash was scarce, customers began paying for their fun with poultry, one chicken per sex act. The backyard exploded with chickens, and the whorehouse picked up additional income from the sale of eggs. The place became known as The Chicken Ranch, and received regular visits from politicians, soldiers, and freshmen from Texas A&M.  Though prostitution was illegal in Texas, the Chicken Ranch and its proprietress Miss Edna were so popular, everybody looked the other way. On busy nights, a deputy sheriff was dispatched to the ranch to help park cars. Visiting the Chicken Ranch was considered a right of passage for college boys, and it was commonly quipped that more politicians had spent the night there than at the Driscoll Hotel and the Governor's Mansion combined. 
Zindler sent his team inside, for hard confirmation
that there was, in fact, prostitution going on.
They said yes.
That is, until TV reporter Marvin Zindler from Houston got into the act.  He spent weeks hiding in the bushes, snapping photos of the clientele, and he sent his associate and cameraman inside to do some investigating undercover.  His reports forced the governor to order the place shut down, and in 1973, it was.  The doors were bolted, and the prostitutes all left to survive a hard candy Christmas.

If you think this sounds like great source material for a musical, you're too late.

Carlyn Glenn won a Tony playing the madam
based on Edna Milton Chadwell.
The story became The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which opened on  Broadway in 1978 and ran well over 1000 performances.  The show won  Tonys for stars Carlyn Glenn, in the role inspired by Edna Milton Chadwell, and Henderson Forsythe, as the sheriff. 
Henderson Forsythe was in the midst of
a 32-year run on As The World Turns
when he unexpectedly won the Tony as
Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd.
More importantly, the show afforded Tommy Tune his first chance to direct and choreograph a musical (Tommy got his own Dance Party a few weeks ago, when he turned 73).  Alexis Smith played Miss Mona (thank god they changed the name from Miss Edna) in the First National Tour (which spent 7 months in Los Angeles), and in 2001, a major revival starring Ann-Margaret, in her theatrical stage debut, took to the road (a cast album of that production is available. A-M sounds pretty good for her age, but I heard in the theatre, she was somnabulent).
Ann-Margaret's Miss Mona wore gowns by
Bob Mackie. The high-profile tour spawned a new cast album,
but failed to reach Broadway.
Parton made a splash in her film debut in 9-5,
she chose this film as her follow-up.
Dolly Parton bought the film rights as a vehicle for herself, and the resulting movie was quite different from the original.  Parton was too young for the part as written;  the original love story between the madam and the sheriff was in the past, looked back upon by the wistfully middle-aged couple. 
Broadway stars Glenn and Forsythe delivered mature, no-nonsense
yet tender performances.
For the film, the comedy was played up,
and the melancholy disappeared.
With Parton and Burt Reynolds in the roles, the love story moved to the present, at the expense of several interesting subplots.  The movie version was despised by Miss Edna, who claimed there was nothing right about the film except that it happened in a whorehouse. What that unhappy hooker failed to accept was the fact that the ensemble musical which she had endorsed on Broadway had now become a star vehicle on film. 
Dolly's happy. Her inclusion of "I Will Always
Love You" put the song back on the charts.
Parton herself wrote several new songs for the movie, including a regrettable duet with Reynolds, who should never have attempted a musical. And she took the opportunity to incorporate her old standby song, "I Will Always Love You," into the show, which brought further attention to that perennial.  In addition to the soundtrack of the film, Dolly re-recorded one of the original songs from the show, "Hard Candy Christmas,'" removing the backup singers;  she had another hit with the tune. 
Theresa Merritt could have handled her character's big
number, but it was cut.
Sadly, the movie jettisoned several memorable songs from the original score, including a soul-tinged showstopper sung by the brothel's housekeeper (who was also based on a real person, the only black who ever crossed the threshold of the Chicken Ranch, on staff or as a customer).
WKRP alum Gary Sandy played
the Sheriff opposite Ann-Margaret;
his rendition of "Good Old Girl" is
Another casualty is my favorite number from the show, a bittersweet ballad sung by the sheriff (but we'd be crazy to think the melancholy "Good Old Girl" would ever be accepted as a  love song to the flamboyant, vivacious Dolly Parton).  But my quibbling aside, I have to admit that The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is a fun film to watch.  The title caused some trouble in distribution, especially in the heartland where, hypocritically, the actual whorehouse had been allowed to operate for decades. 
Like Bring Back Birdie
and Annie Warbucks,
this stage sequel flopped.
The movie was sometimes called "Best Little Cathouse..." or "Best Little Chicken House...". The Bible Belt needn't have worried; as Miss Mona proclaims in the film,"There's nothin' dirty goin' on."  The critical reception to the piece was mixed, but when the box office receipts were tallied, the movie was the most successful movie musical of the 1980s.
As a casting stunt,
Miss Edna appeared on Broadway as her
predecessor Miss Jesse.
Edna Milton Chadwell, as I said, hated the film but had no misgivings about the stage play;  she even spent some time in a non-speaking role in the Broadway production.  Speaking of that original production, it was nominated for 7 Tony Awards, and a song was presented on the Tony broadcast that year.  You can see the clip here, and be amused by the number of bleeps the censors added, in attempting to hide the subtext of the number.

That same number from the movie is this week's Dance Party.
Only one black guy on the football team? And in reality,
he would not have been allowed through the door of the Chicken Ranch,
even in 1973.

Melvin P. Thorpe and Marvin Zindler both proclaimed
"Texas has a whorehouse in it."
The film had an all-star cast:  alongside Dolly, the movie is inhabited by Burt Reynolds, in an ill-advised musical role, Dom DeLuise, who is outrageously over-the-top as the TV reporter (Dom got his own Dance Party a long while ago, as well as an obit), Jim Nabors, who is unwatchable, and Charles Durning, who earned an Oscar nomination for his sly turn as the governor of Texas. 
Despite his heft, Durning could have had a career in musicals.
I saw him in Ballroom, waltzing like a pro. His rendition of
"The Sidestep" was the highlight of Whorehouse.
None of those people appear in this week's Dance Party (though you may recognise character actor Robert Mandan as the Senator).  Instead, enjoy the Texas A&M football team getting ready for their reward for winning the big game. If there is a more homoerotic number in a mainstream musical, I've never seen it.
Jeff Calhoun is now a respected
stage director/choreographer. We worked together
on a concert reading of Parade several years ago.
The redheaded kid who has several solo moments is a cutie named Tim Topper, and stay on the lookout for the quarterback of the team (he speaks to the Senator first, and tosses him the football).  It's  director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun, who is currently prepping Disney's Newsies for Broadway.

The woman who inspired the whole thing, Edna Milton Chadwell, died last week at the age of 84.