Dah, duh-dahhh, duh-dah-duh-dah-dah-dahhh, dah-dah-dah, dah-dah-dahhhhh!
Unless you’re a complete cultural Philistine, you’ll recognize that as the opening bars of the theme song of that most epic of Texan TV series, Dallas. (Now, don’t tell me it was indecipherable; I can hum with the best of them.) And no excuses if you’re not from the USA either, because I happen to know that the series was syndicated all over the world. There may be some nomads in the wilds of Outer Mongolia who’ve never seen an episode or two, but I doubt it. Good Lord, the show lasted for 14 seasons. So did its California-based spin-off, Knots Landing. There were three or three Dallas movies, too.
If you’ve developed a convenient case of cultural amnesia, allow me to remind you that Dallas was mostly about a mean oil man named J.R. Ewing (played by Larry Hagman) who gleefully and habitually played fast and loose with ethics, and liked to do horrible things to his relatives, including Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy (who l liked better as The Man From Atlantis). Eventually someone shot him, but he didn’t die, dammit.
I never much cared for Dallas the TV show, especially after that horrible episode when Pamela woke up and realized that everything that had happened over the entire previous season, even good things like Sue Ellen* kicking her alcoholism, was All A Dream. That’s one of the classic storytelling cop-outs that no one, and I mean no one, is supposed to use anymore. But being a Texan, I had to watch Dallas occasionally to maintain my Texas credentials, even though it did horrible things to the public perception of our fair state.
Be that as it may, I happen to live about 12 miles due south, as the crow flies, from one of main shooting locations of the Dallas TV series: Southfork Ranch, which really does exist, and really is named that.
That’s about as far as the match between reality and TV goes, though. Southfork is to some extent a working ranch (though I only saw a few guard donkeys when I was there), but it’s more a resort and event location these days than anything else. It doesn’t stretch across 100,000 acres (maybe a few hundred); it’s in a little town called Parker, not Braddock; and it certainly wasn’t founded in 1840, as Dallas TV history has it!
It’s a quick drive from south Garland to Parker, which is why on a recent gray day I moseyed over to Southfork to take a look. I’ve been here before, but not as a tourist; my company held their Christmas party in one of the outbuildings. See, Southfork is given over almost entirely to the hospitality industry these days, and has been since 1985 (when they were still filming there occasionally, apparently). They host quite a few small conventions and company gatherings of various types. They have a reputation for providing excellent service, and are well known for treating even small groups very well.
The famous house, with its big swimming pool and white outbuildings, is a beautiful thing, let me tell you. I wish I could say I had a beautiful picture of it, but this one will have to do. It was a rather dim morning — I took these about 8:30 AM — and of course the grass has died back for the winter, so you don’t get the vibrant green grass you see in tourist brochures. But the place is festive, at least.
Most of the ranch is still devoted to open ranchland, which they seem to use as such, given the plentiful cow patties. Besides the house and the smaller outbuildings, there’s a 63,000 square foot convention center on-site, not to mention a private rodeo arena which is used mostly for small local events. The current owner being as money-oriented as ever the Ewings were, you can take tours of the facilities for a small reasonable fee:
It’ll cost you $9.50 ($8.00 for seniors, $7.00 for the kiddies), but you can see such lovely exhibits as the gun that shot J.R., the Ewing family tree, and Jock’s Lincoln Continental. You can also eat at Miss Ellie’s Deli and shop in two retail stores — they don’t miss a trick. At the moment (December 2007) they’ve even got a lot set up selling Christmas trees and Texas-themed decorations, though there was no one manning the store when I came visiting. It smelled great, though, just like Christmas should: redolent of evergreen branches and pine resin. I might have bought a tree if anyone had actually been there.
While Southfork Ranch is perfectly willing to take your money, I got the impression that they do get tired of people crowding around, wanting a free look at the famous mansion. The ranch is located on Texas Farm-to-Market Road 2551 — the area is still pretty rural — but unlike most Texas FM roads, it’s hard to find a place within about a quarter mile where you can pull off the road onto the shoulder. Because, by jiminy, there is no shoulder, and the ditches slope downward at an alarming angle, so that’s out too. Is this purposeful? Maybe. I know for sure that this sign makes their feelings clear:
A weak little barbed-wire fence starts a few feet inward. I don’t know if it’s electrified or not**. Whatever the case, I understand the sentiment: you’ve got to draw a line in the sand somewhere, and they probably get tired of people leaning against the fence so other people can take photos of them with that house in the background. It’s so hard to be a celebrity sometimes.
*A name, incidentally, that no self-respecting Texas woman would allow herself to be called. Then again, maybe that very fact gives us some insight into her character…
**If it was me it probably would be, and it would be a decent fence, too. But that’s just me.