Larry King, a pioneering journalist and playwright of Best Little Whorehouse… (AP Laserphoto/AP LASERPHOTO )
Before he became known the world over as a playwright, Larry L. King was a reporter, a Capitol Hill aide, a raconteur, a brawler and a full-time Texan. He helped define the freewheeling New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s, partly with an article he wrote for Playboy magazine in 1974 about the Chicken Ranch, a house of ill repute in southeast Texas.
A few years later, Mr. King and several collaborators refashioned his article into a musical comedy about a brothel that operated for years under the averted gaze of the law. “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” ran on Broadway for almost four years and has been in almost continuous production since. In 1982, it was made into a Burt Reynolds-Dolly Parton movie — which Mr. King loathed.
Mr. King, who had lived in Washington since the 1950s, died Dec. 20 at Chevy Chase House, a retirement facility in the District. He was 83. He had emphysema, his wife, Barbara Blaine, said.
He was the author of seven plays and more than a dozen books, including memoirs, a novel and collections of articles and letters. In 1982, he won an Emmy Award as the writer and narrator of a CBS documentary, “The Best Little Statehouse in Texas,” that looked at the legislature’s behind-the-scenes horse-trading.
Mr. King also was known for his outsized personality, full-bore drinking and an ability to tell outrageously droll stories in a profanity-laced drawl that was almost indistinguishable from his writing voice.
“His certain knowledge of his origins informs his point of view and his prose style,” New York Times book critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in a review of Mr. King’s 1971 memoir, “Confessions of a White Racist.” “And this confidence in his roots is what makes Mr. King’s writing so alive, dramatic, warm, and funny.”
But it was “The Best Little Whorehouse” that propelled Mr. King from journeyman writer to accidental fame as a playwright. He happened on his most famous story after a crusading Houston TV reporter, Marvin Zindler, exposed the Chicken Ranch as a den of prostitution. Over a two-day period, Zindler said, he counted 484 men arriving at the unmarked building outside La Grange, Tex.
By the 1970s, the Chicken Ranch had been an open secret in Texas for more than 50 years. It derived its name from a Depression-era practice in which customers sometimes paid with chickens or other farm products.
In his Playboy article, Mr. King noted that “veteran legislators” were no strangers to the Chicken Ranch and could have found their way from the state capital of Austin “without headlights even in a midnight rainstorm.”
The madam of the Chicken Ranch, Edna Milton Chadwell, who died in February, was a no-nonsense field general who would not allow profanity, violence or drinking on the premises. “Miss Edna” was also one of the leading philanthropists in Fayette County, contributing to the local hospital and sponsoring a baseball team.
Despite protests that the Chicken Ranch did little to harm the morals of Fayette County — “I ain’t never got no complaints,” the sheriff said — legal authorities had little choice but to shut down the bordello in 1973 and send Miss Edna and her “girls” looking for another line of work.
For Mr. King, the story had all the right ingredients: sex, clashing egos, official hypocrisy and a gaggle of colorful Texas rascals. He and producer-director Peter Masterson adapted the Playboy article for the stage. The music was by Carol Hall and the choreography by Tommy Tune — both Texas natives.
“The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” opened on Broadway in 1978 with a no-name cast. It received lukewarm reviews, but audiences loved it, and “Whorehouse” ran on Broadway for 1,584 performances.
“It’s not Shakespeare,” Mr. King once said, “but hell, it’s fun.”
In a 1982 book, “The Whorehouse Papers,” Mr. King described his frustrations with the creative process of the theater, writing that his play was “tinkered with, danced on, sang at, barked and snarled at, chopped up, tricked up, and camped up until I can hardly recognize the . . . thing.”
He was even more apoplectic about the way his story was treated when it was made into a movie. He thought Reynolds was wrong for the part of the aging sheriff and gleefully traded insults with the movie star, tweaking him about his vanity. The feud escalated until Mr. King challenged Reynolds to a fistfight.
The confrontation never took place, but Mr. King was not invited to the film’s world premiere.
Lawrence Leo King was born Jan. 1, 1929, in Putnam, Tex. His father was a farmer and blacksmith.
Mr. King, who had early dreams of being a writer, worked in oil fields in his teens and dropped out of high school to join the Army. He later spent one semester at Texas Tech University before leaving to work for small newspapers in New Mexico and Texas.