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CULTURE | Vol. 8, No. 15, April 12, 2007
(Who Belongs In America?)

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'Whorehouse' Battle Retold

by Beege Welborn

PLT's Rip-Roaring Show Full of Laughs

What: PLT’s “The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas”
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday; and April 19-22.
Where: Pensacola Cultural Center, 400 S. Jefferson St.
Cost: $15-$22
Details: 432-2042

It’s 1973 in Gilbert, Texas. The thin man with the intense expression watches the chanting crowds gather. He’s smugly satisfied at the turn of events, having deftly orchestrated them himself.

A crusading Houston reporter with a bent for self-promotion, Melvin P. Thorpe, has rousted his conservative base into action via a tantalizing, scandalizing media exposé. “Please, excuse the filthy darn details…and carnal lust,” he says. Inflamed by what is now familiar tabloid language, the righteous rise and soon they’re heading out like the torch toting villagers in Frankenstein to shut down the bordello known as Chicken Ranch.

The stage is set for Pensacola Little Theater’s presentation of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” that’s showing the next two weekends at the Pensacola Cultural Center.

The play is based on the true story of the legendary Texas brothel and Valerie Russenberger’s Curtain Call Production version is a rousing, bawdy, rip-roaring retelling of that epic battle 34 years ago. 

The Chicken Ranch—so named because one could pay for prostitution with poultry during the Depression years—had been operating quietly in that tiny Texas town from the 1840s through the early 1970s. Its clientele included common folk, senators, sheriffs and football players alike.

As the play begins, the brothel is under the direction of madam and former prostitute Miss Mona (Russenberger) and under the protection of the friendly local sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (Eric VanderVort).

Openly masquerading as a boarding house, the Chicken Ranch’s “secret” is soon exposed by reporter Thorpe (A. Mark Palmer). He’s fresh off a sensational victory proving a certain peanut bar contained fewer peanuts than advertised and looking for a new cause celebre to burnish his reputation.

The brothel, with its ties to pillars of the community, is a tailor made target for his muckraking talents. The artificially induced small town scandal explodes statewide, eventually ensnaring even the sidestepping Texas governor (Andy Davis).

During a lull in a recent rehearsal, I had a chance to talk to Russenberger and I asked her what she liked best about playing Miss Mona.

“I did this role years ago and thought, ‘I really want to do that part again,’” she says. “I mean, you don’t think about the character of a madam being all that noble, but she’s a non-complaining person who has had a hard life and smiled her way through it.  She’s taken her knocks with guts and courage and a real spirit of acceptance. I love the character of this woman!”

With her own Curtain Call Productions staging the play as a fundraiser for the PLT, Russenberger is involved in every facet of the production. Her enthusiasm for the task is infectious.

“The kids we have in the show…there’s just so much talent! The people who are in it are in it because they want to be. They’re up there for the joy of it and we’ve laughed our way through these last eight weeks,” she says.

It’s worth noting for theater-goers that the subject matter is not for the faint of heart and is treated in a suitably irreverent, combative fashion, with Russenberger deeming it “a mature show.”

Interestingly, when “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” first made it’s debut five years after the actual events, the word, “whorehouse” was still considered a naughty word in certain venues, resulting in several state censors mandating a title alteration to the easier-on-the-sensibilities “cathouse.”

Russenberger touches on the foot-stomping, rowdy aspects of the musical when she says “it calls for big voices” to handle the Texas-sized battle royal over private behavior being in conflict with public law and the issue getting whipped up into a crusade.

From the rehearsal I was treated to recently, the local cast has all the polish, sass and big voices required to parlay those resonant events into an invigorating tonic for the audience.

And, trust me, the stage is literally set, too. I met one of the set builders—who acts and sings, too—during the recent rehearsal.

As the large chorus was exiting the balcony onstage by climbing down auxiliary ladders, which serve as the newly constructed staircases, he says: “That platform doesn’t shake too bad anymore.”

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