Saturday, December 22, 2012

Chicken Ranch report no. 31

Larry L. King photo by Bill Wittliff
This post is coming several days late, but the kids are out of school for the holidays and I'm riding herd on a bunch of things. Not least of which is a two-day cleanout of my office, during which most of the time I couldn't reach my computer. That's my excuse.

Larry L. King has died. The Washington Post, as always, has a well-done obituary up. Matt Schudel, the author of the piece, is the same journalist who wrote up Miss Edna when she passed away in February--the same fellow I spent several hours on the phone with, exchanging many emails on the topic. This is fitting, as King called the D.C. area home for pretty much the past 40 years even though he's always been the iconic Texas writer.

If it weren't for Larry L. King, it's doubtful I'd have written my Chicken Ranch book at all. Hell, it's likely nobody would remember the Chicken Ranch today, other than old timers and Aggies. Back in those dusty August days of 1973 in the aftermath of Marvin Zindler's closure of the La Grange brothel, King came down to Texas to do a little hell-raising in Austin and pounded out a quick article for Playboy with the fanciful title of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." Fast forward a couple of years, when actor/director Pete Masterson and songwriter Carol Hall decided the "Whorehouse" article would make a good basis for a musical comedy, and brought King on board. Despite clashing egos and visions, the unlikely play picked up steam and became a Broadway hit, earning a couple of Tony Awards before spawning a somewhat bastardized movie starring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton.

The upshot is that everyone knows about the Chicken Ranch these days, even if nobody knows what actually happened for true in La Grange back in 1973.

Sadly, I never got to interview King for my book. This wasn't for lack of trying. He's one of the first people I approached on the subject, and before all was said and done, I'd probably mailed a dozen letters to him (I had his phone number, but chose not to intrude on him so directly). King, you see, had been in failing health for a number of years, and spent part of 2007 in a coma after one particularly nasty illness. The good folks at the Wittliff Collection at Texas State (which archives King's papers) were great help to me, and gave me access to his relevant letters and writings. Also, King's book on the play and history surrounding it, The Whorehouse Papers, proved invaluable. I eventually talked with his collaborators, Pete Masterson and Carol Hall, but never King himself.

It's a pity. I'm certain King would've given me some of the great quotes for which he's notorious. Once King, Masterson and the rest of the creative talents behind the Broadway hit were forced out of the film production, King unloaded during an interview with Maxine Cheshire for the Washington Post:

“I think Burt Reynolds wants to make Smokey and the Bandit Go to a Whorehouse," groused King. "Apparently, they don't intend to follow our script at all and Dolly's said to be writing her own songs. I see only a tenuous connection between Whorehouse as we did it and the mess they're concocting in Hollywood. I doubt whether I'll even go to see the film version of the son of a bitch, though I may send my lawyer so she can take my name off if it's as bad as its potential."

"Will Dolly wear her outlandish wigs?" Maxine asked.

"I suppose she will," said King, "and probably Burt will wear his, too. I understand they're both bald.”
For the record, King was not invited to the movie's red-carpet premiere. Big surprise that, eh?

As for me, there is little to report on the book front. The current publisher has informed me that they remain interested, but (there's always that "but," isn't there?) they are not willing to make me an offer now. They might in the future, or they might not. They're not rejecting my book, they're just putting me in limbo. Which is not my ideal situation going into the new year, now, is it? The good news, if you can call it that, is that they've told me I can shop the book around while they dither. Since Random House and every other big publisher these days don't accept unagented submissions, it's back to the agent-go-round for me. I wasted a significant portion of 2011 shopping the book around to pretty much every competent non-fiction agent out there with nothing to show for it. It is baffling to me how hard a sell this book has proven--nobody seems to recognize the interest in the Chicken Ranch that exists. I certainly know, because I see the traffic on my stat counter and get the random emails and comments on my blog. But August 2013 is going to roll around and every newspaper and TV station in the state is going to run stories on Marvin Zindler and the closing of the Chicken Ranch, and a golden opportunity for promotion will come and go, unexploited. Heck, put me in the MSC bookstore at Texas A&M on a football Saturday, and I guarantee I could move 500 copies of the book on the spot. Seriously.

This is a book that will sell itself, and never go out of print. If I can just convince someone to publish the damn thing in the first place.

Now Playing: Original Broadway Cast The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
Chicken Ranch Central

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