Briscoe, a soft-spoken man, is given credit for establishing Texas’ Farm-to-Market road system, a boon to Lone Star farmers and ranchers.
At one point, Briscoe was the state’s largest individual landowner.
As a young rancher, he became president of the Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association in 1960 and set about raising $3 million to establish a program to eradicate screwworms, a parasitic fly that was killing thousands of Texas cattle. Screwworms enter warm-blooded animals through open wounds and feed on flesh. Untreated screwworm cases result in death.
In 1972, following the infamous Sharpstown banking scandal, a squeaky clean Briscoe was elected Texas governor as voters threw out several incumbents.
ALTHOUGH HE lacked charisma, Briscoe nonetheless drew voters who were looking for someone untouched by scandal to lead the state. He represented a return to honesty and integrity to Lone Star voters.
As governor, Briscoe had some unintended, and likely undeserved, “credit” for “reluctantly” closing a famous house of ill repute known as The Chicken Ranch. Actually, he played little or no role in it but “blaming” him made for good musical comedy theater.
The Chicken Ranch, located in LaGrange, had apparently operated for more than 100 years without any threat of closure by law enforcement.
Texas writer Larry King turned a magazine story about the Chicken Ranch into a play, then a movie, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The house of prostitution got its nickname, Chicken Ranch, from the alleged practice by the young women employed at the Ranch of taking anything, during hard times such as the Great Depression, as payment. That included chickens.
ACCORDING TO legend, the Chicken Ranch girls were working their way through the University of Texas and many of its regular customers were Texas Aggies.
A crusading TV consumer affairs reporter (Marvin Zindler of the Houston ABC-TV affiliate), known in the play as Melvin P. Thorpe, did an exposé on the Chicken Ranch, demanding that the Governor close it.
All of the exposé came during Briscoe’s time as Texas governor. According to the play, the governor tried to avoid making a decision about closing one of the Lone Star State’s most famous landmarks. That’s where the famous dance, the “sidestep,” had its genesis. Charles Durning did a brilliantly funny movie portrayal of the Texas governor as described in King’s magazine story and play script. I saw the play three times before the movie debuted and I lost track of how many times I saw the film.
Why? I thought the story was hilarious and the music simply wonderful. Yes, I’m a fan of musical comedies and we don’t get many of those anymore, especially of the caliber of Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
WHEN THE play came off Broadway to open at the Tower Theatre in Houston, there was a publication, Houston City Magazine, that did a cover story on the play. The cover had a picture of Zindler and seven photo insets of “buildings” and the cover headline was “Seven Whorehouses in Houston that Marvin missed.”
On the play’s opening night, I’m sitting two seats in from the aisle, anxiously awaiting the debut. As the lights dimmed, I noticed the two aisle seats were unoccupied. However, at some point midway through the first act, the seats became occupied. I didn’t notice who was sitting there. Then, at the first appearance of “The Governor” doing his little sidestep dance avoiding a decision about the Chicken Ranch, I’m applauding and saying, “Yeah, that’s our Gov. Briscoe all right.”
When the lights came up, sitting next to me was former Harris County District Attorney Frank Briscoe, a cousin of the governor.
Open mouth, insert foot. Crunch.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is great entertainment. Dolph Briscoe was above reproach and an outstanding governor.
Willis Webb is a retired community newspaper editor-publisher. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.