By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Marvin Zindler, 85, a flamboyant Houston TV personality who in the early 1970s blew the whistle on a rural brothel called the Chicken Ranch, thereby inspiring the musical "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," died July 29 of pancreatic cancer at M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston.
A consumer reporter for KTRK-TV, the ABC affiliate in Houston, Mr. Zindler was instantly recognizable around town for his powder-white toupee, loud suits, blue shades and a braying broadcast voice that could be as persistent -- and as annoying -- as a buzzing gnat. He not only delivered the station's ever-popular weekly "rat and roach reports," based on restaurant inspections by the health department, but also championed "the little guy" in battles against unscrupulous businesses and uncaring government agencies. He filed his final report last week from his hospital bed.
Marvin Harold Zindler was born in Houston, the son of a prosperous clothing-store owner. He attended John Tarleton State Agricultural College (now Tarleton State University), served in the Marines during World War II and knocked around Houston radio, TV and newspapers before landing a job in 1962 with the Harris County Sheriff's Department, where his duties included traveling the world to escort extradited fugitives back to Houston. He always carried a pair of mink-lined handcuffs for female desperadoes.
Founder of the department's consumer fraud unit, then-Sgt. Zindler lost his job in 1972. He told the Houston Chronicle last year that car dealers whom he had caught rolling back odometers got him fired. At 51, he joined KTRK.
Seven months later, he broke the story of "a bawdy house" near the small town of La Grange that earned its Depression-era sobriquet when cash-poor clients occasionally paid for services with chickens and farm produce. Young men from nearby Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin were also loyal customers.
Mr. Zindler insisted that 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 the motive, Mr. Zindler's report prompted state authorities to immediately bar the bedroom doors on the legendary establishment. He also earned the ire of the local sheriff, who welcomed him back to La Grange by breaking two of his ribs and snatching off his toupee.
In 1974, Texas writer Larry L. King wrote a Playboy article about the irrepressible Mr. Zindler and the Chicken Ranch, which became a long-running musical in 1978 and a movie starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds in 1982. Dom DeLuise played the Zindler character in the film.
King, a longtime Washington resident, said that when "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" became a Broadway hit, he and his associates worried that Mr. Zindler would sue.
"The lawyers said we better have him accept some gratuities from us," King recalled, "which would indicate that he had no objections to 'Best Little Whorehouse.' So we flew him to New York first-class, bought his dinner, put him up in a first-class hotel. He was fine for a while, but when he realized how much money was being made, he wanted to sue on grounds that we were misappropriating his life."
Lawyers convinced him that he had no case, but, in King's words, "he was kinda sour that we'd made so much money. He thought we'd tricked him or something."
Mr. Zindler's first wife, Gertrude Zindler, died in 1997 after 56 years of marriage. Survivors include his wife of four years, Niki Zindler of Houston; five children from the first marriage; nine grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
Through an organization he founded called Marvin's Angels, Houston doctors have provided free medical care to thousands of children at Mr. Zindler's request. He also co-founded the Agris-Zindler Children's Foundation, which provides free plastic surgery for children around the world.