Myth City

How Hollywood set Dallas free—to be ruthless, rude and shinier than reality.

Twenty years after its official demise, Dallas is the show that won’t die. Turn on a TV in many parts of the world and you can still see the saga of conniving oilmen, business feuds, alcoholic wives, sultry mistresses and underaged nieces. Now cable network TNT plans to shoot a pilot for a sequel that features the next generation of Ewings fighting and slutting their way around Southfork Ranch.

I grew up in Dallas, but I only remember one episode: “Black Market Baby.” That’s because my best friend, Jennifer White, was an extra in it. Her father worked on the local set of Dallas when the show filmed exterior shots in Dallas once a year. Recently I sat down with Jennifer to watch “Black Market Baby” again.

“Seven years is a long time,” actress Linda Gray fake-drawls to her husband, J.R. Ewing. “And there’s nothing wrong with me.”

“Did she just say they haven’t had sex in seven years?” Jennifer exclaimed. “We definitely were not allowed to watch this when we were nine.”

Somehow we knew the whole plot: how, five episodes earlier, J.R.’s brother Bobby’s wife Pamela was pregnant. Then J.R. accidentally on-purpose pushed her from the hayloft at Southfork. Then Sue Ellen, threatened that Pamela might become pregnant again, decided to buy a baby. We see her meet a lawyer in a downtown Dallas overpopulated with extras. She goes to a “bad” neighborhood to meet a birth mom.

Jennifer and her brother—along with a black male strategically draped across the apartment steps—were on hand to provide some of the badness.

“There I am!” Jennifer gasped. We see the back of her head. She’s being pushed in a shopping cart by her younger brother. Vampy music plays in the background. That’s all. It took all day to film the three-second scene.

“Mostly I remember the chuck wagon,” Jennifer said. “There was a guy that sat in there all day long, and his job was to cook whatever you wanted, as much as you wanted. I must’ve eaten like two pounds of bacon that day.”

Like my friend at the chuck wagon, the Sunbelt dined out on the rewards of Dallas for years. The show told the world we were now in charge—and if we were ruthless and rude, get used to it. Like most Hollywood myths, Dallas was based on an element of truth. The oil economy of the Southwest was booming in the 1970s while the rest of the country stagnated. As the show became epic, it got easier and easier to conflate Dallas with Dallas, to believe the TV magic also applied to us, that our shiny buildings redeemed us. All acts of meanness or melodrama would be rewarded. Two decades on, our shiny buildings are looking a little dull, and our need for “world-class” structures has drained the city’s coffers. It’s easy to be larger than life on the small screen. In real life, it means making choices. In shuttered pools, crumbling roads and strained schools, you can see what choices Dallas has made.

 

As conceived, Dallas had nothing to do with Dallas. David Jacobs—who created J.R., his younger brother Bobby and the show’s other core characters—says he only had a vague idea that the show would be set in Texas (he’d visited once in his life). In 1977, as part of a CBS development deal with Lorimar Productions, Jacobs wrote an untitled backstory about Ewing Oil and sent it to Lorimar executive Mike Filerman.

“He says, ‘Yeah, it was fine. But I changed the name,’” Jacobs recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, what did you call it?’ He said, ‘Dallas! … It sounded better than Houston.’”

Poor Houston. They’re the ones with the oil. Fort Worth has the cattle. In the late ‘70s, Dallas had bankers, insurance brokers and technology geeks who didn’t wear cowboy hats.

That’s what Dallas Observer columnist Jim Schutze noticed when he moved here from Detroit in 1978, the same year Dallas began shooting. He was surprised to find Dallas, businesswise, more like a “little Switzerland.” When he started asking the city’s elites about their reactions to the new TV show, he heard a lot of disdain.

“They were horrified by [Dallas] because they associate cowboy hats with people that are country and déclassé, and nobody wants to be country here,” Schutze says.

We have to remember that, in 1978, Dallas was in the doldrums, reputationwise, from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It might have been coincidence that Jack Ruby and J.R. bore the same initials, but Hollywood changed the equation: J.R. didn’t care what people thought, and he still won the day. He was a Dallas hero without shame.

“Dallas slowly figured out that people liked this myth,” Schutze says. “It made Dallas, which was this grouchy, adding-machine, actuarial city, look kind of cool and romantic. So Dallas embraced the myth and in some ways became like the TV show.”

I was in fourth grade at the time, but I remember something changing. The economy was already OK, but now people in Dallas were spending. It trickled down to my parents, musicians who suddenly had a lot of work. The effect was psychological: Somehow we’d been rebranded and set free. We could not build malls and skyscrapers fast enough. We could not perm our hair out big enough. We threw up huge subdivisions of giant houses with big chandeliers in enormous foyers. Our versions of J.R.—H. Ross Perot, George W. Bush—jolted the nation with their swaggering talk.

But first, J.R. had to get shot.

“Because it was so successful in [its] second season, CBS asked Dallas to do four additional shows,” Jacobs recalls. “They already had their cliff-hanger. And somebody—nobody knows whether it was Camille Marchetta, who was the story editor, or some people say it was Art Lewis, the producer. But somebody said, ‘Let’s shoot the sonofabitch.’”

That was the spring of 1980. By summer, Larry Hagman was on the cover of Time. The November 1980 episode of Dallas—the one that revealed J.R.’s would-be assassin—remains the most-viewed hour of television ever. More than 350 million people tuned in worldwide.

The bullets hardly slowed J.R. down. By then, thanks to some savvy distributors at CBS, he was an overdubbed international sensation—scheming in German, conniving in Hungarian, cackling in French. He snuck into drab apartment blocks behind the Iron Curtain, where the show did not officially air.

Estonian filmmaker Jaak Kilmi remembers his father—and plenty of fathers in Tallinn, where he grew up—fashioning converters and antennas to filch TV signals from a Finnish broadcast tower across the Baltic Sea. Every Friday night, Kilmi’s family would gather around their Soviet console to keep up with the Ewings. His mother would translate the Finnish subtitles into Estonian.

“Everyone believed that’s the American reality,” Kilmi says. “People wanted to believe that people lived in skyscrapers and had beautiful cars, and everything was shiny and glamorous.”

Kilmi made a documentary, Disco and Atomic War, about how shows like Dallas helped weaken the hold of Communism. The show’s real influence happened after the Soviet bloc collapsed. In the cultural vacuum, Dallas provided a handy blueprint to would-be capitalists. Handy—and often disastrous, as I saw on a recent trip to Romania.

 

Off the road between the capital of Bucharest and the Black Sea, there’s a green metal arch that looks straight off a Texas ranch. Turn under it and proceed down a long, tree-lined drive, and you arrive in a hotel complex called Parcul Vacante Hermes (a reference to the Greek god of business). This place was more commonly known, back in the 1990s, as “Southforkscu.”

The local tycoon who built it, Ilie Alexandru, wanted to be the J.R. of Romania. Eyeing his TV, he built a white, gabled hotel and called it “Dallas.” Then came the hotels “Texas” and “Western.” Alexandru built stables, polo fields, a mansion with an eight-car garage and—somewhat inconsistently—a replica of the Eiffel Tower.

The complex’s current manager, Rodica Florea, takes me around the grounds, which are practically empty on a cold January morning. Florea watched Dallas in the early 1980s. Unlike in the Soviet Union, the show aired on state TV in socialist Romania.

“I can’t believe it was allowed, especially because we only had two hours of television a day,” Florea remembers.

Ilie Alexandru, born to a poor family, watched it like everyone else. Soon after the fall of Ceausescu in 1989, Alexandru was swaggering across this farmland empire in a cowboy hat and boots. He put on concerts and employed dozens of locals. He got Larry Hagman to visit once.

Now the hotels “Dallas” and “Texas” are closed indefinitely for repairs. Turns out the J.R. of Romania built most of Southforkscu with borrowed money he couldn’t repay. He ended up doing eight years in prison for financial crimes. He died last year a broken man. The state sold his assets to investors who stripped Parcul Vacante Hermes bare. Florea’s employers are trying to rebuild the place, but judging from the broken windows in hotel “Texas,” it could take some time.

While in jail, Alexandru told a Romanian paper, “I admired J.R., but I was like Bobby. The Bobby inside me finished me.”

 

Even at the “real” Southfork, the one north of Dallas, people seem surprised that the show still has so much traction. The Collin County quarter-horse ranch was known as Duncan Acres until Lorimar chose it for exterior shots, starting in the second season. The cast and crew only filmed in Texas in the summer; the rest of the year, Dallas, like everything else in Hollywood, was filmed in California. 

“I keep thinking, well, maybe no one will come next year,” says Southfork tour guide Adele Taylor. “But that’s not the case. We do 11 tours a day, and we get a lot of people.”

I end up on a tour with folks from Algeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among other countries. We sit on patio chairs by the pool while Taylor tells us how the cast and crew used film magic to make this place look huge. Southfork’s pool is tiny, and its famous long driveway is pretty short. The house isn’t much bigger than a 1990s McMansion. Ilie Alexandru would be disappointed.

Many visitors to Southfork have written about this sense of disappointment, but also their awe at how easily we were fooled.

But abroad, the illusion seems to have worked differently. At Southfork, I chat with two Congolese immigrants, Simon Ntobi and his brother Pitshou. Smiling, they talked about watching Dallas in Kinshasha, gathered around a black-and-white TV with their extended family.

Simon Ntobi lives in Dallas now and loves it. In halting English, he explains how Dallas, the show, gave him a heads-up about America—that life here would not be easy.

“The American dream is not true, and is also not false,” he says. “It depends on what you want to do. When I came to America, I didn’t have money … I think only $5.”

Now Simon has a job, a wife and some real money. He says he succeeded by staying focused. By way of explanation, he bursts into the French theme song for Dallas. It actually has words:

Dallas, malheur à celui qui n’a pas compris
Dallas, un jour, il y perdra la vie
Dallas, ton univers impitoyable
Dallas, glorifie la loi du plus fort …

(Dallas, bad luck to he who doesn’t understand
Dallas, one day, he could lose his life
Dallas, your pitiless world
Dallas, you glorify survival of the fittest …)

Heartening, isn’t it? Somewhere in the world, Dallas is still teaching people about our cycles of boom and bust, our desperate housewives and scheming tycoons. But I doubt TNT’s sequel will revive the show for Americans. We know the story too well. We all live in Dallas now. 

Julia Barton is a writer and radio journalist from Dallas. Hear her radio version of this story, which previously appeared on Studio 360.