Tourists Keep 'Dallas' Mystique Alive

By Lee Hockstader
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 19, 2002

PARKER, Tex. -- Rayhan Majid's in-laws are touring the United States from Bangladesh, and he's eager not to disappoint.

Having squired them from Niagara Falls to the Alamo, he has now led them 20 miles north of downtown Dallas, where the city's sprawl flattens out into ranchland -- not the sort of place you expect to see tourists from Bangladesh. Finally, they pass through the gates of Southfork, the ranch where J.R. Ewing plotted and connived through 13 seasons of the television series "Dallas."

"We used to stay up nights watching as children," said Majid, 30, an engineer who lives in North Carolina. "The show kind of reflected what goes on in everyday life but in a more huge setting -- friendships and feuds, basically."

If Majid's father-in-law was less impressed, he wasn't letting on. "Everything has its own importance," offered Islam Shamsul, 60, as he gazed impassively at huge photographs of J.R., Sue Ellen, Miss Ellie, Jock, Bobby, Pam and Cliff Barnes, the pantheon of "Dallas" stars.

It has been more than 11 years since the last of the 356 regular episodes of "Dallas" was filmed, and more than 20 since the "who-shot-J.R.?" mania swept America. But the show has never really died, and neither has Southfork. "Dallas" has aired in nearly 100 countries and is still in its first run in more than 30 of them -- including places where, conceivably, the question of who shot J.R. remains a matter of suspense.

Southfork, too, is enjoying an afterlife as a tourist destination and events center.Some About 400,000 visitors pick over the stately white ranch house each year, ogling the glass patio table where the Ewings had their breakfasts, the swimming pool where various characters turned up dead and the gas-guzzling 1978 Lincoln Continental Mark V seen racing dustily down Southfork's endless driveway as the titles rolled for each episode.

Only slightly more tourists, about 450,000 annually, visit the other iconic building that defined modern Dallas: the Sixth Floor Museum in the former School Book Depository building downtown, from which Lee Harvey Oswald shot President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

"Dallas" aired in the United States from 1978 to 1991 and lived on in the '90s through syndications and "reunion" specials. These days, though, reruns are broadcast only on the Soap Channel. But if America has moved on, the rest of the world never really has. About 40 percent of the tourists who visit Southfork each year are foreigners.

"If it's an international visitor and you stand at the airport gate and suggest they do something before they go to Southfork, they will walk over you," said Greg Elan, spokesman for the Dallas Visitors and Convention Bureau.

Even on sweltering weekday afternoons in August, when most sensible people in Dallas are indoors, tourists clamber aboard tractor-pulled trolleys to tour Southfork's grounds, chugging toward the ranch house and past grazing Texas Longhorn cattle and horses.

"This is the holy grail for some of us," said John Lockwood, shooting his wife, Louise, an indulgent look.

The Lockwoods are British. He's 60, the athletic director at the American school in London; she's 54, a teacher at another school. He likes to tease her a little about the show, but it does nothing to dampen her ardor. When they decided to visit Texas and New Mexico this summer, Southfork was a no-brainer on the itinerary.

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