Thursday, February 13, 2014

Chicken Ranch report no. 49: The mystery of Al Bates

In the course of my research into the Chicken Ranch, I've come across information and facts that, while not directly relevant for my book, are interesting nonetheless. The sketch of the Chicken Ranch below, for instance. Apart from a few photographs used in the media, there's probably not another representation of the Chicken Ranch quite as well known. It's a great sketch and has an undeniable appeal--heck, I use an altered version for the masthead on my website and blog!

The Chicken Ranch, charcoal drawing, Al Bates

This sketch was made by one Al Bates, an artist from the Houston area, and prints of it were available for purchase from "Modern Masterpieces" in the late 1970s--mostly via display ads in Texas Monthly, of which I've scanned in two, below.

Some of those prints show up on Ebay from time to time, which is where I acquired mine. But in the intervening years, Mr. Bates seemingly disappeared. My own online searches for him turned up little--it seems this is the only fine art piece he ever produced. When visiting the Fayette Heritage Museum and Archive, I learned that they have regular inquiries from visitors wanting to know who Al Bates is, and how they might get a copy of this print. The librarians and archivists had no more information on Mr. Bates than I had.

Chicken Ranch artist Al Bates
I'm happy to report the mystery over Mr. Bates is officially solved! That's a photo of Mr. Bates there to the right. I received an email from his daughter, Victoria, not too long ago. She was trying to track down information about her father's artwork online, and came across my website. Essentially, I made myself visible and she found me by default--a scenario that has repeated itself often over the years where the Chicken Ranch is concerned! Happily, Victoria agreed to answer some of my questions about her father and clear up some of the mystery that has grown up around him over the decades.

"Al Bates is a retired commercial illustrator. He holds a BS from Louisiana Tech and a Masters from The Art Center College of Design in Los Angles. After trying out studios in New York, Detroit and Chicago, he eventually settled in Houston, Texas in the early 1960’s serving clients such as Exxon, Gulf, Shell, NASA and many more for over 30 years. He currently spends his time with family, friends, and enjoying his three grandsons."
How's that for an official biography? Victoria informs me that the family does retain all rights to the drawing, and they are willing to discuss reprint rights and other possible uses of it. Victoria may be reached directly via email at RedMighty(at)AOL(dot)com.

Thank you for your interest in my father's artwork of the Chicken Ranch. This is a sketch (charcoal on tracing paper) my father did in 1973. It has been hanging in our home for as long as I can remember. My father is now in his early eighties and as he has gotten older he has been turning more and more of his artwork over to myself and my sister.

He made it using photos he took of the chicken ranch at that time and of old photos of his parents and grandparents. My father was a commercial artist in Houston and this sketch was done as a job some 40 years ago. It was made for advertising his own company he had in the 1970's with a partner. That is also why there are blank spaces in the lower part, it was for type copy they would later insert.

My father recalls that they had 500 of the larger size and a "few thousand" of the smaller version print made. These were given out to family, friends, and business associates, but a good portion were sold at art shows.

There is a second Chicken Ranch painting that was also made at the same time which has never been made public. My father made this one entirely for his own pleasure. This one is about 4'x3', oil on black foam posterboard with a brass frame.

Yes, having a father who is an artist has been quite the colorful adventure!
Can I say "Wow"? Goodness gracious, Victoria has shared a treasure trove here! An unpublished painting by Al Bates? That's simply fantastic--there's a great deal of sly humor there, to be sure. And just look at those vintage reference photos he used for his commercial print--who knew these people from the photo actually existed, and were the artist's relatives? The back story to the artist's creation is something that has always fascinated me, or at least has since I've been working with Don Olson at Texas State, so Mr. Bates is in good company.

Above, right, is the original insert card that accompanied my print that I won on Ebay. It is an interesting read if you have a few minutes to spare. Sadly, I only have the smaller version of the print--I've only seen the large edition appear on Ebay once or twice, and both times the winning bid ran up well out of my price range. But maybe some day... The important thing is that contact information has been established for Mr. Bates and his family. I, for one, would be very happy to see this artwork come back in to circulation in some official, licensed form. I'm sure there are plenty of people around who would appreciate it.

And I'm proud to say that the Al Bates images appearing on my website and blog are used with permission.

Now Playing: Various artists Cool on the Coast
Chicken Ranch Central


  1. Anonymous2:08 PM

    We have No.51/500 of the larger print. We are so lucky that my father-in-law bought one way back when. Both of our daughters want it, can't imagine why(haha). Thank you so much for the info about the artist. I have always wondered. He is a wonderful artist. I have always been partial to pencils(charcoals).Debbie

  2. Glad to be of help, Debbie! I have to say, I'm jealous. I've watched Ebay pretty closely for Chicken Ranch stuff since 2009 or so, and in that time I've only seen one of the large prints go up for auction. People who have them tend to hang onto them!

  3. Anonymous2:37 AM

    I have one of the large prints passed down through family and would like to know what the value of these prints are.

  4. I've only seen the large print go up for auction on Ebay a couple of times, and each time the starting bid was $200-plus. I do not know what they eventually went for, or if they even sold. I got my smaller print for around $40, which I considered a good deal. Others I've seen went for $60-70.

  5. Anonymous7:55 PM

    Thanks for the discussion about Al Bates. I was a young Art Director when I first used Al for illustrations. He was a super-nice guy and I always considered him to be one of the best I worked with and a real pleasure to deal with...and in the twenty + years I was in the business, that's saying something. The last contact I had was when I called him to do some illustrating and he allowed that he had stopped illustration work and had received some funding to complete a movie script he had outlined. Anyway, I always thought he had a very friendly sort of humor and some really creative wit. Delighted to read that he's still around and enjoying family. Best to you Al !

  6. We have number 47 of 500. My mom received it when she was cleaning out a storage space at an office building for a business she worked at in Houston Texas. She was an executive and they were simply going to throw it away so she rescued it. I tried to find information on this over the years and had no luck, so I was glad to find your blog. I am curious if anyone knows approximately how much these original signed prints would be worth? Ours is in a nice frame from an art house in Houston. (Gold colored frame with a rough dark textured wood inner boarder.)

    1. Carson, I'll tell you what I tell everyone--it's worth as much as someone is willing to pay for it. Bates was a skilled commercial artist, but I am unaware of his work ever catching the attention of the wider art collectors' community. The value of this piece lies in the depiction of the Chicken Ranch itself. A lot of people these days have no awareness of it. If the proposed Rob Ashford/Kristin Chenoweth Best Little Whorehouse revival ever makes it to Broadway, then I'd expect interest to pick way up. Until then, you might be able to get a couple hundred for the large edition print.