Brash newsman was the last word on fraud, roaches - and a brothel
In 1973, less than a year after losing his job with the Harris County Sheriff’s Department, Marvin Zindler found himself accosting lawbreakers again, this time in the rolling rural climes of Fayette County, halfway between Houston and Austin.
Zindler, who had reinvented himself as a brash consumer affairs reporter for the local ABC affiliate, KTRK, got word that a “bawdy house” near the small town of La Grange had been operating for years with the full knowledge and consent of local authorities. The big-city TV reporter blew into the quiet little town and blew the whistle on the Chicken Ranch, a country brothel the world would come to know as “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”
The man who at the time rivaled the Astrodome as a Houston icon always insisted he wasn’t waging a moral crusade. He said state law enforcement authorities convinced him that the Chicken Ranch kept local officials on the take and was involved in organized crime. Whatever Zindler’s motive, his journalistic zeal prompted state authorities to shut the place down. The locals were less than pleased.
With his powder-white toupee, loud suits and blue-tinted sunshades, with his frequent face lifts, braying broadcast voice and his wildly popular eatery exposés (“Sliiiiime in the ice machine!”), Zindler was the Loudest Man on Television, one of the best known Houstonians of his era and among the best loved. His mission in life, friends and family still recall nearly a decade after his death, was to fight for “the little guy,” a battle he waged on TV for 34 years.
He was born Marvin Harold Zindler in Houston in 1921, the son of a prosperous clothing-store owner. An aspiring boxer and musician, he attended John Tarleton State Agricultural College (now Tarleton State University), where he was a drum major and baton twirler, and served in the Marines during World II. His father, Abe, expected him to go into the family business, and he did for a number of years, but he hated it. “It was a boring business for him,” his son Dan recalled.
Law enforcement fascinated him, and in the early 1950s he worked as a volunteer policeman. Driving around town late at night, the scratchy sounds of a police scanner his only company, he often was first on the scene of a crime, flash camera and tape recorder at the ready. He also had his own clothing store, Le Baron’s, in Rice Village. The store went out of business after about a year because Zindler’s credit customers wouldn’t pay their bills.
In 1962, he joined the Harris County Sheriff’s Department, where for a decade he served warrants and established the Consumer Fraud Division. “He dressed the part,” his son recalled. Sporting a fedora and trench coat, a derringer tucked away underneath, he was a character out of Raymond Chandler. Before hauling a miscreant off to jail for false advertising or some other mistreatment of a consumer, he would call his media pals to make sure they were on hand with cameras. He carried mink-lined handcuffs for his female prisoners.
When a new sheriff, Jack Heard, was elected in 1972, one of his first acts was to fire his flamboyant fraud-buster. Zindler always blamed politically influential used-car dealers he caught rolling back odometers.
At KTRK, Channel 13, Houston’s highest-rated news station at the time, assistant news director Gene Burke was looking for a consumer-affairs reporter. News anchor Dave Ward, who had arrived in Houston in 1962, recalled seeing Zindler at a crime scene. As Ward recalls, he was wearing a white-on-white suit with a silver wig on his head, in full facial makeup with sweat running down his face on a hot Houston day.
“I remember thinking that if this guy’s got a badge and a gun, I’ve moved to a very colorful community,” the veteran anchorman said recently.
At Ward’s suggestion, Burke hired him, thus launching a broadcast career that would last until shortly before Zindler died in 2007.
Age 51 when he started at KTRK, Zindler struggled at first.
“He was very nervous,” Ward recalled. “For two or three years everything he did had to be videotaped.”
When he got to where he could get through a script without too many retakes, he was so excited and relieved he’d shout, “MARRRRRR-VIN Zindler, EEEYE-Witness NEWSSSSSSS!!” The sign-off became his trademark.
His Chicken Ranch scoop, the result of a tip from Texas Department of Public Safety officials frustrated with Fayette County law enforcement, came shortly after he went to work for KTRK, although it was the Texas writer Larry L. King who made him famous - or infamous - with a Playboy article in 1974.
“Marvin approached news gathering with the same zeal he’d brought to badge-toting,” King wrote. “So Marvin began telling folks out in TV land how a whorehouse was running wide open down the road at La Grange, which was news to Yankee tourists and to all Texans taking their supper in high chairs. Even though people yawned, Marvin stayed on the case; you might have thought murder was involved.”
About a year after Attorney General John Hill and Gov. Dolph Briscoe prevailed on longtime Fayette County Sheriff J.T. Flournoy to shut down the place, Zindler went back to La Grange to report on the local economy, post-Chicken Ranch.
“His first mistake was going,” Dan Zindler recalled. “His second mistake was driving into town in a black Lincoln Mark IV.”
Big Jim Flournoy - the spitting image of Lyndon Johnson, former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby recalls - pulled him over in downtown La Grange. The sheriff jerked Zindler out of the car by his tie, punched him repeatedly and then ripped off his toupee and stomped on it in the middle of the street. Zindler’s cameraman managed to capture the incident, but Flournoy confiscated the camera and destroyed the film. He didn’t know the audio survived, so when the station got the camera back, the KTRK audience was able to listen in on the fracas. Zindler, who sustained two broken ribs, sued the sheriff; the parties settled for an undisclosed amount.
An investigation found no evidence of a link to organized crime. Although its owners were never charged with any crime, the Chicken Ranch closed its doors forever. King’s Playboy article went on to become a 1978 Broadway musical and then a movie starring Burt Reynolds, Dolly Parton and Dom DeLuise as nosy newsman Melvin P. Thorpe (Marvin Zindler).
Zindler always said the Chicken Ranch story was a relatively minor part of his career, and no doubt his legions of listeners agreed. A million a day tuned in for his weekly “rat and roach reports,” based on restaurant inspections by the health department, and for his crusades on behalf of ordinary folks who found themselves caught up in battles against unscrupulous businesses or heedless government agencies. Marvin Zindler was their champion.
He filed his final report from his hospital bed a week before his death at age 85. Houstonians still remember the man. Through an organization he founded called Marvin’s Angels, Houston doctors have provided free medical care to thousands of children, and the Agris-Zindler Children’s Foundation he set up with his friend Dr. Joe Agris, a plastic surgeon, is still helping children around the world.
“He was such a unique individual,” KTRK’s Ward says. “I still miss him. I miss him every day.”