Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Chicken Ranch anniversary: Marvin Zindler (1921-2007)

On this date in 2007, KTRK consumer affairs reporter Marvin Zindler died of pancreatic cancer.

Zindler, of course, is forever linked with the Chicken Ranch, as his series of exposés on the brothel directly led to its closure. I have it on good authority many hate him for that to this day, and have never forgotten, nor forgiven. Myself, I cannot bring myself to hate the man. Despite being a raging egomaniac, he was a powerful champion of the downtrodden in his lifetime, and did a tremendous amount of good. Where the Chicken Ranch was concerned, he let his lust for fame and the spotlight get the better of him, and this allowed people with a vendetta against the Chicken Ranch to manipulate him from a distance. Zindler was a person who firmly believed in his own righteous infallibility, and once it became clear the vast organized crime conspiracy behind the Chicken Ranch's operation did not exist, well, Zindler doubled down on the conspiracy angle rather than admitting he'd been duped. He went to his grave insisting on criminal conspiracy and corruption, although he was never able to prove any of his claims.

Zindler was a fascinating character, capable of great charity but also possessing feet of clay. His journalistic ethics early on in his career were non-existent, and improved only marginally once he became a television personality. As a radio and newspaper reporter, he was guilty of a multitude of sins that would shock journalists today, going to far as to splatter ketchup on a stabbing victim before taking his picture because the victim didn't look hurt enough. Yes, he symbolized everything wrong with sensationalistic, yellow journalism. But it's almost inevitable he, or someone like him, showed up on the scene in 1950s Houston, which was about as tough a wild west city that existed in the 20th century. Preserved tapes of Zindler's old radio news program on the long-gone KATL radio station serve as a fascinating time capsule:

In a very real way, Zindler is the reason I got involved in this Chicken Ranch project in the first place. I'd grown up seeing his cartoonish antics on television long before I'd ever heard of the Chicken Ranch, but by the time he died in 2007, I'd heard plenty of stories (of dubious accuracy) as well as seen The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas movie (with even less accuracy) and knew he'd been involved somehow with the whole affair. Being the inquisitive sort that I am, I started looking for a more thorough account of what actually happened. How had Zindler actually pulled the closure of the brothel off? The Wife--who'd grown curious about the place as well--gifted me with a book on the place by Jan Hutson for our anniversary in 2008. I read the book and... well, if it were any good, I wouldn't have had to write my own, now would I? I read that waste of paper cover to cover, and came away physically angry that anything so bad could see publication. The Wife didn't even get through the first chapter. But had Zindler not died, had I not known of him previously, the spark that started me on the slow burn toward writing what has now become two books on the subject never would've happened.

Speaking of which... I've noticed an uptick in the sales of Ghosts of the Chicken Ranch recently. Now, this isn't the extensive history book I've written, but rather a photo tour of the ruins of the infamous brothel. If you have any curiosity about what happens to history when it is ignored, I invite you to buy a copy (a preview of the first few pages may be found below). If nothing else, it's a great conversation piece!

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