Friday, March 27, 2015

Chicken Ranch anniversary: Miss Jessie (1885-1952)

On this date in 1952, Faye Stewart, otherwise known as Jessie Williams or simply "Miss Jessie," passed away at the age of 67 in San Antonio, just a couple of months after selling the infamous Chicken Ranch brothel in La Grange to Edna Milton. Her sister-in-law, Eddie Ledda Moody, traveled from McLennan County to oversee Miss Jessie’s burial in Sunset Memorial Park. I still have not obtained any photographs of the lady, although I know they exist. If anyone can help a guy out, I'd be grateful!

So, that photo above. This is indeed a thing. When The Wife brought it home, my eyes just about popped out. One dozen eggs from the "Texas Chicken Ranch," otherwise known as "The best little henhouse..." Wow. This is not something that just happened. Reading the fine print, I quickly discovered that these eggs were packaged for H-E-B, the ever-expanding Texas grocery chain. This, friends, means two things: 1) Texas Chicken Ranch eggs will soon be available all over the state, if they aren't already, and 2) H-E-B knew exactly what it was doing when it staked it's claim to the "Texas Chicken Ranch" label. The infamous brothel has now passed from myth, on through legend and directly into the fabric of Texas history, where it has become a family-friendly double-entendre, not unlike the adult jokes Warner Brothers peppered throughout the old Looney Tunes cartoons.

This goes directly back to a conversation I had following my presentation to the La Grange Lions Club. One attendee asked me what they should say when certain members of the community come down hard against acknowledging the Chicken Ranch, or using it in any way to promote La Grange. I answered that the Chicken Ranch was very much a part of Texas history and not just limited to La Grange or Fayette County. I would argue that the Chicken Ranch is actually more significant to Texas history, because the brothel's closure in 1973 marks a very real symbolic break between the rural, agrarian Texas and the modern, metropolitan state. That no matter how much some people in La Grange want to pretend it never existed, the rest of the state will never allow that to happen. H-E-B's Texas Chicken Ranch eggs is emblematic of that truth.

Look, I said. The next time someone makes the argument that La Grange is wrong to acknowledge the Chicken Ranch, ask them this: What is worse? The Chicken Ranch or the JFK assassination?

Dallas has a museum on the sixth floor of the former Texas Schoolbook Depository. Does this glorify, condone, endorse or encourage the shooting of national leaders?

The story of La Grange is the story of Texas. If they ever want that story known by a larger audience, they need to seriously embrace the Chicken Ranch's place therein. It's a shame the city hasn't done so already.

Now Playing: Stevie Ray Vaughan Live at Carnegie Hall
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Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos
In this day and age, the megachurch preacher has replaced the televangelist as the high-profile celebrities of religion in the U.S. cultural landscape. To my mind, though, there's not a dime's worth of difference. It's all about branding and marketing opportunities, with making millions and leading an opulent lifestyle seemingly taking aback seat to, oh, I don't know, maybe actually following the teachings of Christ? Which is why this song has been on my mind lately. "Would Jesus Wear a Rolex" is one of my favorites by Ray Stevens, from back when he was thoughtful and philosophical as much as funny (as opposed to now, where he just comes off as vindictive and angry--I very much doubt Ray includes this one in his current set list, and that makes me sad). There's no official video that I can find, but below the "fan video" there's an interview Ray did back when the song first came out that I found interesting. Enjoy.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Tom Lehrer.

Now Playing:
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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Chicken Ranch report no. 53: La Grange can't get enough brothel talk!

I'm going back! Those of you keeping score at home may recall that I traveled to La Grange last Thursday to give a Chicken Ranch presentation to the Noon Lions Club. Well, the reviews are in, and they're good enough to prompt the La Grange Rotary Club to invite me back to that fair city to give another presentation! They want me there soon, too--I'm scheduled to talk to them April 1 (no joke!).

I have to say I'm getting pretty comfortable discussing the Chicken Ranch in front of large groups. I've given variations on this presentation more than half a dozen times over the past 18 months and have ironed out most of the kinks. I have a video slide show that runs 10-12 minutes, and give a reading from my paper "The Last Madam" which I originally presented at the East Texas Historical Society annual meeting a while back. That leaves a modest amount of time for audience questions and makes for a tightly-moving half hour. What's more, I've got additional material that I can present in video, audio and artifacts that can expand the presentation to fill an entire hour if need be.

To be honest, it's great fun sharing some of what I've learned with such receptive audiences, and it's gratifying when long-held rumors and myths are dispelled and understanding comes to their faces. This will mark the fifth time I've spoken in La Grange, and to say the audiences approach me and my research with some skepticism is an understatement. Most of them lived that history, or live in its shadow. I can't count how many times those people have come up afterwards and thanked me for "finally setting the record straight."

There's a strong possibility that a few more return trips to La Grange lie in my future, and that's great, because I sincerely enjoy these presentations. But I'm really looking forward to branching out and speaking in other locales. If any of you know of a civic or corporate group or event in need of an entertaining speaker with subject matter guaranteed to pack the house, go ahead and point them my direction. I'd certainly appreciate it!

Now Playing: The Dave Brubeck Quartet Take Five
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Friday, March 20, 2015

Friday Night Videos

As today is the Spring Equinox (at exactly 5:45 p.m. Central) it seems only fitting to mark the occasion with distinctive wit and wisdom of Tom Lehrer.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Greg Kihn Band.

Now Playing: Gipsy Guerilla Band Good Companions
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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Chicken Ranch report no. 52: Lions!

La Grange Noon Lions Club, Chicken Ranch
I returned to La Grange today to give a Chicken Ranch presentation to the Noon Lions Club. This marks the fourth time in the past 18 months that I've been invited to that town to speak about the infamous brothel. Since many of these people lived through the events I've researched and written about, I have to believe I'm doing something right for them to keep bringing me back!

What a great bunch of people! I met so many friendly and enthusiastic folks today that everyone's names just became a big jumble once all was said and done. The running joke of the day was that I was going to ask everyone who'd visited the Chicken Ranch as a customer to stand up. I never put that question to the group, but I believe just about every other person who stood up to talk did! Since this was a lunch meeting and the membership presumably had jobs and lives to get back to, I had only a 15 minute time slot to work with. Anyone who's seen my full presentation knows I can easily fill an hour with lots of content to spare. So, rather than do my usual reading and discussion, I opted for a condensed slide show. Good call. The rare photos got a lot of attention and we had a lively talk about the various fake Chicken Ranch memorabilia available online. The ensuing Q&A session ran over long, so we cut it short, wrapped up the meeting, and then I stayed on for another half hour answering the eager questions from the club members who didn't have to get back to work. I sold a few books in the parking lot and a huge stack of my Ghosts of the Chicken Ranch postcards vanished as just about everyone present took one. Many made me promise to let them know once my actual history book on the Chicken Ranch becomes available.

After the dust settled, I had a nice long sit-down with author Joy Jones, who is writing a historical novel featuring some of the characters from events surrounding the Chicken Ranch closure, and was looking to nail down some details about them and their lives. I was a lot of fun, and I'm looking forward to seeing her novel when it comes out.

Finally, on the drive back to New Braunfels, I saw a blimp flying over Flatonia. It was too hazy for me to make out any details, but the mere sight of such a massive airship floating in the sky was enough to get my heart thumping. Yes, I've got a serious thing for dirigibles, and would very much love to see a cruise industry emerge based around the enormous passenger liners like the Graf Zeppelin. At any rate, I took the blimp sighting as a good omen and smiled the rest of the way home.

Now Playing: Genesis The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
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Friday, March 13, 2015

Friday Night Videos

A chance phrase seen online earlier this week got me thinking about the Greg Kihn Band, specifically "The Breakup Song," but since I've featured that one twice here over the years, I'm going to go with "Happy Man" this time instead. Such a goofy video. Low-budget for sure, but the little touches--like using the cigarette on the turntable--are a great example of making the most of what you've got.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Morris Day.

Now Playing: Istanpitta Exiled
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Terry Pratchett (1948-2015)

Sir Terry Pratchett died yesterday after a battle with early-onset Alzheimers. People far more eloquent than I have eulogized him elsewhere, and the hundreds of obituaries provide far more detail and understanding of the man and his life than I could hope to compete with. So I will just stick to what I know.

I didn't enjoy Pratchett's books. This disappointed me greatly. I remember getting The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic via the Science Fiction Book Club not all that long after they became available in the U.S. and being distressingly unmoved by them. I'm not sure I laughed even once. It's not that I couldn't see what he was doing or the tropes he gleefully lampooned--that should've been catnip for me, and indeed, was what caused me to seek them out in the first place--but the prose lay lifeless upon the page for me. Over the years, as I grew more widely read and Pratchett's Discworld satires grew progressively more sophisticated and cast an ever-expanding net, I revisited his work. Strata, Interesting Times, a handful of others I can't quite recall (Mort? The Fifth Elephant?) remained stubbornly closed to me. I could see the jokes. I could see the biting commentary. I understood what he was accomplishing, and saddened by the fact I could not participate no matter how many of his books I read.

I have exactly one Terry Pratchett story.

Back in 2000, at Aggiecon 31, Pratchett was guest of honor and I was a regional guest. I hadn't been able to get close to him because of the swarms of fans that followed him everywhere, but we had one panel together. Fate conspired to seat me right next to the man. As we introduced ourselves, I said, "I'm Jayme Lynn Blaschke, and I write short fiction because I don't have the discipline to write novels."

Without blinking an eye, Pratchett said, "I'm Terry Pratchett, and I write novels because I don't have the discipline to write short fiction."

He was a witty, friendly and effortlessly funny man in person. I could not help but like him immediately, and count myself fortunate I had the opportunity--however brief--to make his acquaintance.

Now Playing: Gustav Holst The Planets
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