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Southfork Revisited

Catching up with J.R., Miss Ellie, and the world’s most famous ranch.
By Peggy Healy Parker |
When CBS ordered a full season of the supersoap Dallas, the show’s production company, Lorimar, scrambled to find a permanent site for filming. Flying over Plano in a helicopter, the producers knew they’d found the perfect ranch when they spotted Southfork. But original owner J.R. Duncan would only agree to allow exterior shots—and only in the summer—so no episodes were filmed inside the house.

SOUTHFORK REVISITED
Catching up with J.R., Miss Ellie, and the world’s most famous ranch.

Each year some 400,000 acolytes from all over the world make a pilgrimage to northeast Dallas to worship at the shrine known as Southfork Ranch, homestead of the mythical Ewing clan of Dallas fame.

Southfork is one of the most visited homes in America, and the epic TV series portraying a glam Dallas lifestyle is one of our most popular exports. More than 350 million people in 96 countries have watched Dallas in English or in one of the 43 languages and dialects into which it’s been translated (including Swahili).

The intrigues and machinations of the infamous Ewing clan entertained America for 13 years. (Below) This portrait of Jock, which hangs over the living room fireplace, is one of the many props from the original show and reunion movie on display in the Southfork tourist attraction/convention center, which draws more than 400,000
visitors each year.
 

Dallas is even credited with toppling communism in Romania. So says the country’s Princess Lia, who claims that President Ceausescu let Dallas be shown on TV to accentuate the evils of capitalism, “but his plan backfired when Romanians fell in love with the Ewings and the Dallas lifestyle.” Today there’s a Southforkland theme park in Transylvania, and the Romanian actors whose voices were dubbed on Dallas are stars in their homeland.

Dallas originally ran as a five-episode pilot. When ratings climbed after the third episode, CBS-TV knew it had a hot property and something new—a nighttime soap—and ordered a full season. Meanwhile, the production company, Lorimar, lost the filming rights to the Box Ranch, the original set in Frisco. To find another site, they hired a helicopter to circle Dallas. When Southfork loomed into view, the production team choppered to the lawn and beseeched the original owner, J.R. (yup) Duncan, to let them use the ranch as the setting for the serial. He eventually agreed—on the condition that Lorimar only film exterior shots and only in the summer, mink coats in August notwithstanding. For six years, no cast member set foot inside the house: all interior scenes were shot on a soundstage in California.

J.R. had built his dream house and horse farm, and he intended to live out his days there. But after the whopping success of Dallas, the family’s mail was stolen as hordes of rubberneckers poked around the property for souvenirs and celebrity sightings. In 1984, at the show’s height, the unending stream of insatiable Dallas fans swelled to 1 million. Southfork had more tourists than the Alamo.

Current owner Rex Maughan charged interior designer Linda Schell with decorating the ranch house as if the Ewings were currently living there. So rather than an ’80s look, Southfork’s interiors feature opulent furnishings and accessories, such as the dining room’s fine china and Waterford crystal chandeliers. Miss Lucy’s bedroom (below) was designed around the handmade quilt on the bed, which was a gift from an 80-year-old, ardent Dallas fan.
 

By the end of the show’s 13-year run, the ranch had lost its luster. When current owner Rex Maughan purchased Southfork (along with the gun that shot J.R.) in 1992, it was unoccupied, unkempt, and unprofitable. Rex, whose other properties include the Chisos Mountain Lodge, a string of luxury houseboats, and the Blue Mountain resort in South Africa, sank some $14 million into renovating and expanding the ranch, manse, and bunkhouses.

Project manager Allan Moore, who is now a senior designer at Robb & Stucky,  and interior designer Linda Schell were recruited to do up the rooms in grandiose Texas style. “There were cobwebs everywhere,” Linda says. “We had to give the house a whole new life. We didn’t want to disappoint people. We wanted to give them a little Dallas glitz and some cha-cha-cha on top of it—the kind of rooms the Ewings would have lived in had they lived for another decade.” Elements of the city of Dallas, such as a G. Harvey painting of the Adolphus Hotel at the turn of the century, were brought in wherever possible. The beds in each of the four bedrooms were handmade by Dallas artisans, and Texas suppliers were used exclusively for the rebirth.

Now visitors traipse through Bobby’s Board Room with its custom-branded wallpaper, snack on Southfork barbeque sandwiches at Miss Ellie’s Porch Deli, and kick the tires of Jock Ewing’s original 1978 Lincoln Continental. But the main attraction is J.R. and Sue Ellen’s bedroom suite. Colored in Texas topaz (the state stone), it’s outfitted with his sauna, her Jacuzzi, a double shower with 24-karat gold fixtures, and their canopied nuptial bed of Napoleonic proportions set upon a massive raised platform and spotlighted by an overhead crystal globe.

Various rooms in the main house are named after individual Dallas characters and  decorated to reflect that character’s personality. For instance, Jock’s living room not only features the well-known portrait of the Ewing patriarch, but is also done in dark woods and deep, masculine colors. (Below) Miss Ellie’s kitchen is as cheery and warm as the lady herself.

Under Rex’s direction, the self-styled “world’s most famous ranch” has been transformed into an award-winning, 63,000-square-foot tourist attraction and convention center hosting some 1,400 events a year. In the Texas Legends exhibit, Dallas devotees can view Miss Lucy’s wedding dress, the pearl-handled .45 that shot J.R., and the snarled Ewing family tree that delineates their “ties, lies, and commitments” along with “marriages, relations, and liaisons.”

On a typical day, hundreds of tourists from four continents tramp across the grounds, past grazing longhorns and quarter horses, bunkhouses and ballrooms, and on to the mansion. Willy Anticona and family traveled from Peru to see just how the Ewings lived. Wife Trujillo told us, “I loved Pamela [Victoria Principal] so much, and I wanted to see Lucy’s bedroom [the Yellow Rose of Texas Suite].” Willy was more interested in seeing how J.R.’s family dined (under Waterford chandeliers, natch). Another couple, Rolf and Elke Beckmann from Kamen, Germany, had come to see their “dream ranch” and kidded that Southfork was the same as theirs back home in Kamen.

Designer Linda  Schell sprinkled $15,000 Waterford chandeliers around the house to impart “Dallas glitz.”

You can have a piece of the famous ranch and use it to impress friends visiting from abroad. The Lincolns & Longhorns Western Store carries a line of decorative accessories by Stetson—leather and silver bowls, coasters, serving trays, and ice buckets. Bring out the bourbon ‘n’ branch and toast a Dallas legend.

 

 

Where Are They Now?


J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman)
Handsome Larry Hagman, son of the late, beloved Mary Martin, was already a television star (from his I Dream of Jeannie days) when he took the part of the grinning villain J.R. Ewing. He not only defined the role, he amplified it. “Hell,” he said, “I grew up with that kind of Texas good ol’ boy.” In his rollicking autobiography, Hello Darlin’: Tall (and Absolutely True) Tales About My Life, Larry tells of his mother’s reaction to the hype surrounding J.R. “How could I have raised such a rotten kid?” she jested. The success of Dallas catapulted Larry into galactic stardom and rained riches upon him, not only from the mint he received for each episode, but also from the royalties he was paid for related Dallas products. Larry went on to perform in a passel of movies, strutted his stuff for BVD underwear (“Quality, darlin’, quality.”), and established the Ojai Foundation, a not-for-profit organization devoted to living, learning, and spirituality. He and Linda Gray again worked together when they starred on stage in “Love Letters,” first in Beverly Hills and later in London, to standing ovations. A liver transplant in 1995 saved his life (he claims that the surgeon piped in the theme music from Dallas), and he has become an advocate of organ donation, among other charitable endeavors.
 

Sue Ellen Shepard Ewing (Linda Gray)
The role of Sue Ellen earned Linda an Emmy nomination for Best Actress, and she directed several episodes of the series. Linda starred in a series of telefilms including Why My Daughter: The Gayle Moffitt Story, Return to Bonanza, and the environmental special What About Me…I’m Only Three.  (She is actively involved in conservation and environmental issues.) Linda played opposite Sylvester Stallone in Oscar and made her stage debut in “Love Letters” with Larry Hagman at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills. She won Germany’s Bambi award (equivalent to an Oscar), and Italy’s Il Gato for Best Actress on TV. Her production company, LG Productions, has several projects in development.

 

Eleanor “Miss Ellie” Southworth Ewing (Barbara Bel Geddes)
Barbara’s father was the brilliant theatrical set designer and inventor Norman Bel Geddes. She starred with Irene Dunne in “I Remember Mama” and originated the role of Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” After a series of films in Hollywood including Caught and Vertigo, Barbara gained her greatest fame in Dallas, winning an Emmy as Miss Ellie, the gentle matriarch of (as it’s always put) “a dysfunctional Texas family.” She left the series in 1984 to undergo heart surgery but returned in ’85 and remained with the show until 1990. Since the show’s cancellation, Barbara has spent her time writing and illustrating children’s books and designing Christmas cards.

 

Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy)
Bobby was bumped off in the final episode of the ’84-’85 season because Patrick wanted to pursue other projects. When Patrick decided to return to the show, Bobby’s death was explained away as a figment of wife Pamela’s imagination. Patrick remained with Dallas until its cancellation in 1990, directing a few episodes along the way. After Dallas, he was featured in Step by Step, a sitcom costarring Suzanne Somers. In addition to his series work, Patrick has been seen in such made-for-TV movies as The Enola Gay and Alice in Wonderland.

 

John Ross “Jock” Ewing (Jim Davis)
Jim’s weathered face and gravelly voice earned him parts in dozens of films as a Western tough guy before he won the role that made him famous, the cantankerous patriarch of the Ewing family. Jim was familiar to television audiences, too, making guest appearances on Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Perry Mason, Rawhide, and The Virginian, among others. He died of complications after surgery for a gastric ulcer on April 26, 1981, at the age of 65.

 

Pamela Barnes Ewing (Victoria Principal)
An Air Force brat, Victoria was born in Japan to American parents. She studied acting at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, then went to Hollywood where she had a checkered career. Before landing the juicy role of Pamela, J.R.’s sister-in-law, Victoria was a talent agent in Hollywood for three years. When a friend said, “You are Pamela Ewing,” Victoria called to meet with the producers and acted as her own agent. She authored three bestsellers during the run of Dallas and subsequently became the “Queen of Made-for-TV Movies.” But Victoria’s real success has been as a fashion and beauty guru: her clothing and skin-treatment lines, books, and calendars have earned her multimillions.

 

Lucy Ewing Cooper (Charlene Tilton)
Charlene won the role of Lucy, J.R.’s nubile niece, after talking her way into a casting call. During her stint on Dallas, the halter-top-clad 17-year-old, described as “95 pounds of bosom, boots, and blond hair,” got more fan mail than any other actor at CBS. Her TV wedding to Mitch Cooper was the show’s second-highest rated episode, just behind “Who Shot J.R.?” Like the other stars of Dallas, Charlene was appreciated abroad: she had a No. 1 hit single in Germany, and her face appeared on 500 magazine covers worldwide. She continues to appear in TV movies and pilots. Thrice divorced (one reporter said her marital history sounds like a country and western song), she’s the single parent of daughter Cherish, also an actor.

 

 

 

J.R.’s master suite is decorated in Texas topaz and prominently features a canopied, upholstered sleigh bed worthy of a Ewing oil baron.
Southfork visitors usually name J.R. and Sue Ellen’s bedroom suite as one of the rooms they’re most anxious to see—and most impressed with afterward. Their luxurious, mirrored bathroom includes a double shower, sauna, and Jacuzzi.

Would You Believe?


Jock Ewing’s original dove-gray Lincoln Continental is 19 feet long.

Southfork receives 25 requests a year for blueprints of the Ewing ranch house, which has been replicated in Plano, in Krum, Texas, and in Romania.

Twenty longhorns and a pack of quarter horses live at the ranch.

What appears to be an Olympic-sized pool on-camera is more of a splash pool in real life. An actor was tethered to an invisible harness, and an off-camera grip slowly unreeled him through the water like a fisherman letting go of his catch. To keep up appearances, both ends of the pool were never shown in the same shot.

To create the impression that the driveway was at least a mile long, fine dusting powder was strewn along the way. When Jock Ewing drove his Lincoln up the drive at a mere 2 miles per hour, dust would fly up. Looped at high speed, it appeared he was zipping down a very long driveway.

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