By Jamie Stengle
PARKER, Texas —
The white two-story home with stately pillars overlooking a green Texas pasture where longhorns roam is instantly recognizable: This is the power seat of television’s famous Ewing family.
Tourists from around the world have been flocking to Southfork Ranch since the early years of the classic series Dallas, which ran from 1978 to 1991, and the ranch is only getting more popular. With the premiere last June of a new Dallas series, the number of visitors at Southfork has doubled from 150,000 annually to more than 300,000, according to Jim Gomes, general manager of the Southfork Ranch & Hotel and vice president of Forever Resorts, which owns the property.
“We are obviously thrilled the new fans love Southfork as much as the original fans of `Dallas,”’ said Gomes.
The new show just started its second season on the TNT cable channel. The recent death of Larry Hagman, who starred as conniving Texas oilman J.R. Ewing in both the original series and the new show, has also spurred fans to visit.
The 340-acre (138-hectare) ranch is located about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northeast of downtown Dallas in the suburb of Parker. Patrick Duffy, who has returned to the role of J.R.’s brother Bobby, said that the biggest changes since he first filmed on the ranch are new tourist-related buildings and event facilities for weddings and meetings, along with the buildup of the surrounding town, including housing additions and a high school.
But any time he’s back at Southfork, it doesn’t take long for the magic to take over. “You drive down that road and you look across this pasture and there’s the front of Southfork and it looks like the opening credits of the show and I know why people love it so much,” Duffy said.
Duffy remembers a time when fans watching them film consisted of small groups of 20 to 30 people. Those crowds grew to the hundreds as the “Who Shot J.R.?” mania built in 1980 when a cliffhanger left fans in suspense. The answer came on Nov. 21, 1980, when the shooter was revealed to be Kristin — J.R.’s vengeful mistress, who was also his sister-in-law — in an episode that was seen by more people than any TV program in history up until that time.
When the series first began filming at Southfork, the family that built the house in 1970 still lived there. And while they hosted tourists as the show’s popularity grew, it didn’t become an official tourist attraction and event location until 1985 after they sold it. Forever Resorts bought Southfork in 1992.
Most of the shooting for the original series was done in Los Angeles, though some of it was filmed in Texas, but the new show is being filmed in the Dallas area — with locations ranging from the flagship Neiman Marcus downtown to the gleaming Cowboys Stadium.
Cynthia Cidre, executive producer of the reboot, said she knew when she started developing the new series that Southfork would again be an integral part of the plot.
“The ranch had been in the previous show, it was almost a character in the story. I knew that I wanted to use that as something that the family was fighting over again,” she said.
The struggle over ownership of the ranch became the central plot point in the first season of the new series, with J.R. telling his son, John Ross: “Southfork isn’t just a piece of dirt. It’s as much a part of me as my blood and my bones and I’d pay a hell of a price for it.”
Visitors start their tour in a museum featuring everything from the gun that “shot” J.R. to scripts from the original series to the wedding dress of Lucy, the niece of J.R. and Bobby, who was played by Charlene Tilton. For those puzzled about the complicated relations of the Ewing family, there’s a family tree to peruse.
As tour guides take visitors through the barns and pastures on their way to the house, they point out where scenes from both the old and new series were filmed — from the cottage where Elena Ramos, played by Jordana Brewster, lives, to the spot from the original series where the funeral was held for Bobby, who was later famously revealed to still be alive. The story of his death turned out to be part of a prolonged dream sequence.
Around the house, the pool and patio have provided spots for countless shots. And while interior scenes for the home on the series were never shot inside the 5,900-square-foot (548-square-meter), four-bedroom house, visitors can still walk through and take in the rooms decorated in homage to the Ewings, with rooms reflecting the tastes of different characters.
Sally Peavy, tourism sales manager at Southfork, said scenes from reunion shows have been filmed in the house and that a scene in the second season of the new show was also filmed in one room, though details of the scene have not been revealed.
There’s also a restaurant and two gift shops on the grounds. One sells items including hats and belts and has as its centerpiece family patriarch Jock Ewing’s silver Lincoln Continental, which features “trunk sales.”
Josh Henderson, who plays John Ross, was born in Dallas and spent much of his childhood here. Henderson said that when he got the part of J.R.’s son, his mother informed him that he’d already been to Southfork once, at age 3.
“I don’t remember it but my mother definitely made sure I had that information,” said Henderson.
Janice Johnstone of Vancouver visited Southfork in November while sightseeing in Dallas. An avid fan of the original series, she enjoyed hearing tidbits from the tour guides.
“I think just hearing the history of how people found out that that’s where it was and they had all these people driving by constantly, I thought that was kind of interesting because those are things that you don’t hear,” she said. “I think it’s definitely worthwhile going, anybody who has watched the show I think would really appreciate it.”
When Larry White, who lives near Springfield, Mass., was in Dallas in November, a friend drove him by Southfork. Since he had a flight to catch, he didn’t have time for the tour, but did make a quick stop in a gift shop and took a picture of the house complete with a longhorn.
“It’s just clearly a piece of American history at this point,” said White. — AP
If You Go…
SOUTHFORK RANCH: 3700 Hogge Road, Parker, Texas, www.southfork.com, 972-442-7800. Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tours depart from the visitor center every 30 to 45 minutes. Adults, $13.50; $11.50 for senior citizens; $8.50 for children ages 6-12; children 5 and under free.