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Tourists Keep 'Dallas' Mystique Alive
International Visitors Throng to Southfork Ranch

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.

"Oh yes, this is the highlight of our tour," she said, beaming. "I mean, we'd stay in to watch it; we never went out on a night 'Dallas' was showing."

Still, visitors to Southfork are invariably struck by the fact that it's really not that big.

Built in 1970 as a real estate developer's dream home, the ranch house at Southfork is no mansion. Three of the four bedrooms are cozy but cramped, and the swimming pool, which Hollywood cameras rendered as approximately the size of Lake Michigan, is barely big enough to swim a lap.

The producers of "Dallas" filmed only exterior scenes at the ranch house; interior scenes were shot on a Hollywood sound stage. For the show's first six seasons, the original owners continued to live at Southfork, more or less undisturbed.

When word got out that Southfork was a real ranch, a stampede of tourists followed, peering in the windows and scampering over the lawns. By the mid-'80s, more than a million people a year overran the place. The owners sold and fled.

Under new owners, the ranch went into a steady decline, hastened by the series' conclusion in 1991. Tourists stopped coming and Southfork sat empty. Then, in 1992, it was purchased by Rex Maughan, an Arizona resort tycoon who pumped millions into refurbishing and remarketing Southfork.

Today, the place functions not only as a mecca for the Ewing-obsessed, but also as a site for conferences, weddings, corporate retreats and private parties. About 1,400 events take place each year in 10 ballrooms that have been built around the property. President Bush, when he was Texas governor, visited several times.

"We're very thankful to the series because we've ended up with 20 years of free international advertising because of it," said Mark Thompson, Southfork's affable sales and marketing director.

Reared as a Baptist in a small town in Texas near the Oklahoma border, Thompson was forbidden to watch "Dallas" as a boy. When he was hired at Southfork nine years ago, he had never seen an episode.

Now he fields regular calls and e-mails demanding to know when the series will be revived (it probably won't) and whether it is available on DVD (not yet). He has become a sort of one-man repository of "Dallas" lore, an expert on topics ranging from the cheese magnate in Romania who built a Southfork replica to the caterer in England who renamed himself J.R. Ewing and saw his business boom.

The ranch still capitalizes on the "Dallas" mystique, offering a museum of video clips and exhibits, including the sterling silver-inlaid saddles custom-made for each member of the cast, the wedding dress worn by J.R.'s niece Lucy and an impossibly intricate Ewing family genealogical chart depicting not only marriages and births but also liaisons; J.R. alone had at least 56 affairs. The pearl-handled .38-caliber revolver used by one of J.R.'s mistresses to shoot him is encased in a shatter-proof glass display case.

But Southfork has also moved on, Thompson said. "It's similar to Graceland in that it's a legendary, visitable landmark with iconic status," he said. "But when you walk through Graceland, you're frozen in time -- the decor, the carpeting and everything is exactly as it was when Elvis lived there. Here, it's evolved."

The ranch house's exterior is maintained exactly as it was when the series was filmed; only the stand of live oaks around it have grown taller. The interior, though, which was never shot in the series, has been refurbished in a sort of apres-Ewing style, straddling a blurry line between sumptuous and tasteless.

Miss Ellie's suite is redolent of roses. Moose antlers are intertwined in Bobby's iron bed frame. And J.R.'s bed is gargantuan, its canopied blue slab mounted high on a platform in the middle of a similarly blue chamber. Twenty-four-karat gold fixtures adorn the J.R. shower, leading to his extravagantly mirrored Jacuzzi room.

Louise Lockwood, pleased with her two-hour tour, can hardly wait to call her mother in England from a payphone at the ranch. That, too, will be a sort of highlight, she said.

"Yes, Southfork calling Shropshire!" boomed her husband, John, prompting them both to peals of laughter.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company