“When I bought this thing four years ago it didn’t have a parking lot, it didn’t have a gift shop or restrooms. They did twenty-five parties and they rented every table and chair, knife, fork, spoon, and salt shaker. And they had the barbecue catered. Now we do everything ourselves. We do all of our food, grow our own hay-it saves us 30 to 40 percent. Now I need to figure out how to put a still out here so I can do some booze.
“Last year we were 25 percent ahead of our best year and it appears that we will be another 20 percent ahead this year. Our special events will probably be 200 or 300 percent ahead. We are doing a Cinco de Mayo deal and are expecting 30,000 people in one day.
“My clientele is from all over the world and United Stales, and I may be one of the few people in the industry in this part of the country that had a 25 percent increase in business. I can almost bet you that they had a 30 to 50 percent drop every place else.
“But I get a lot of convention business, and when people come to Texas for a convention they want to eat barbecue and dance and see Southfork. They want to see a ranch. They want to see an oil well, so I built them one. Almost everything we do on this property we do out of cash. All of the expansion. I put my money where my mouth is. 1 believe in the product, and 1 believe in the future of it. Like that oil rig. We originally did it out of in-house cash because there is nobody in the world who can borrow money on a rig these days.
“Let me give you a quick tour. You’ll get a better understanding of what this thing is all about.”
LEAVE DALLAS AND THE FAST-FOOD TRAFFIC OF CENTRAL EXPRESSWAY IN PLANO behind. Take Parker Road east. Soon you’re in the country passing some of the prettiest little places you’ve ever seen. To the left down a grassy hill is a white barn with a cool green roof and a two-story farmhouse shadowed by swaying pecan trees. Then, over the next hill, there’s the giant oil derrick at Southfork. home to television’s Ewings (Texas’s first family) and quite possibly the most popular tourist attraction in the Southwest. To the thousands of visiting fans a year, this is the Dallas of Oz. But really, this is the deeded land of Terry V. Trippet.
Get out your wallets, boys.
Parking? That’ll be $2. Admission sets you back $7.49 a head ($6.95 for seniors. $4.95 for little critters). Go through the gift shop (Southfork coffee mugs, $5.95) and pass the pool where Lucy Ewing splashed in her voluptuous blonde bikininess. Then stop at the arrow-shaped signs pointing the way to the rodeo arena or to the ’’Dallas” museum, or to the souvenir shop (Southfork sweatshirt, $22.95). The newest sign points straight ahead through a miniature oil derrick, just perfect for folks who want to get married Urban Cowboy-style, then it’s on to the front door of the Ewing Oil ranch office.
Inside it costs most folks $5 to sit in J.R.’s big office chair and have a picture taken behind the desk with Sue Ellen’s framed photograph on it. But one fellow sits in that chair any time he wants. That’s Terry Trippet, Southfork’s owner since 1984, the man who guarantees that when anyone sets foot on Southfork Ranch-he’ll make ’em pay.
At six-foot-three Terry Trippet can walk across a big room in about three steps. A West Texas boy whose parents ran a grocery store, Trippet has spent years growing an ego. He could strut sitting down. He’s a forty-four-year-old former Aggie basketball star who still plays for blood, with a wife named Debby who still looks like a cheerleader, though one who’s had two kids.
Trippet is the kind of man you can tell thinks he’s handsome just by the way he wears his hat and cocks his head to smile his best J.R. Ewing grin. He does look the part. But the similarities between Trippet. Southfork’s real J.R., and the character on the television show “Dallas” don’t stop there. Each uses his charm like a rifle, taking aim and dropping prey. Trippet describes a successful business trip to the Caribbean simply by saying, “1 found four new victims.” Just listen to his bad-boy laugh.
Trippet doesn’t hesitate to tell you that he’s good enough to sell a double bed to the pope. He loves to brag on himself and his successful background in the Dallas land game and as owner of Cedar Canyon Dude Ranch. Almost as much as he loves to brag on his current pride and joy. Southfork Ranch. To hear him tell it, everything at Southfork is the Texas boom all over again, growing last, numbers moving in the right direction, the only current success story in Dallas.
But life at Southfork is not as rosy as Trippet’s vivacious version would have it. He’s storming ahead all right, but he’s kicking up dust behind him and leaving a trail of dirt. Trippet always has his eye on the business deal ahead of him, but he might be safer watching his tail. His television counterpart learned the hard way that enemies sometimes shoot back. And Terry V. Trippet has a stable full of enemies-irate former employees, angry women, broke ex-business partners, suing vendors. He’s done them all wrong, they say.
But Trippet has a sweet side. He has a habit of making barmaids into sales reps. To improve one girl’s self-esteem on the way up, he even sprung for silicone implants.
J.R. would be proud.
TRIPPET ADJUSTS HIS BELT AND THEN STEPS OUT ONTO the gravel road that runs from his office above the gift shop to “The Mansion,” as he calls the three-bedroom ranch house that originally belonged to Parker rancher J.R. Duncan. He’s led tours of the ranch for the media more times than he can count. For a short time in the spring of 1985, Trippet had a public relations professional by his side on those walking interviews. Vicki Ann Hinson-Smith, formerly a working journalist, approached her job as PR director of Southfork in awe. But she could only stand working there for three months before she packed up her desk in the middle of the night and drove as fast as she could through the Southfork gate.
“When I went to that place the first time and saw the horses and the gate, I felt like a child at the fair.” Hinson-Smith says. “I was just a country girl from Northeast Texas who had come to the city and done pretty well. If I could have chosen anywhere in the world to work it would have been Southfork. But from the start, I knew that something was just not right out there.”
Her first day on the job, Hinson-Smith was taken aside by the general manager’s secretary and told that if she were really smart she would walk right out the door and never look back. And soon enough, she learned that the problems at Southfork started at the top with Trippet.
“Everything I did out there was a cleanup job after one of Trippet’s interviews,” Hinson-Smith says.
In a typical week three or four national and international television crews would visit with Trippet at Southfork. joined by newspaper and magazine writers from Tupelo to Topeka.
“Invariably, if there was a female reporter and she looked halfway decent he’d try to charm her and get her phone number,” Hinson-Smith says. “All of the winking and innuendos about showing her the big bedroom upstairs were just nauseating-and embarrassing.”
Recently. Trippet’s personal secretary quit. another alleged victim of infamous Southfork womanizing. But Trippet, when asked about what happened, just laughs it off. “I doubt it, I doubt it,” he says.
Since it is common for Trippet to start drinking around 10 a.m., both former and current employees say, Trippet tends to make Southfork sound a little bigger and better than it is.
“He always got to bragging and then he would make these grandiose overstatements of facts and figures-from the number of tourists per year to the ranch acreage.” she says. “You just can’t believe a thing he says. Everything is exaggerated. But I learned early on not to correct him in front of a reporter, because he would turn on me with full venom and call me everything but a white woman. Out at that place you walk softly and you don’t carry a big stick.”
Hinson-Smith says that she feels Terry Trippet was always trying to live up to the image of J.R. Ewing.
“But in terms of a lack of morality, callousness, and improprieties,” she says, “he makes J.R. look like a sixth grader in Sunday school.”
Tami Lynn Carlson agrees with that summation. She’s now a social worker at a rehabilitation agency for the elderly, but she used to be a receptionist at Southfork. Carlson is a pretty blonde with a sweet Texas voice who looks and sounds younger than her twenty-eight years. “I was so naive then, had just moved to Dallas, and thought Southfork would be a fun place to work. I found out differently.” she says.
Carlson could hardly survive on the $12,000 salary she was being paid, so Trippet offered her a second job as a hostess at one of his other entertainment establishments, Dallas Palace.
“Mr. Trippet liked to drink a lot and party. He started coming up there the nights that I worked,” she says. “People said he had a crush on me. We’d dance some-he thought he was a good dancer when he was drunk-and he’d tell me about how he came from nothing and how he dated girls that were so poor they took home a baked potato.”
Then one night, Carlson says, Trippet wanted more than just a dance, and when she gave him nothing but a flat no, he threatened to kill her if she ever told anyone.
“He scared me, but he was really drunk and I thought he would forget about it. But the next morning at work, he called me into his office and repeated what he had said word for word. Sober.”
Soon after that Carlson was fired. She was frightened of Trip-pet for some time, but now she has decided (after all. she’s still alive) that his threat was just bark.
“Let’s face it. though,” she says. “J.R. has nothing on him.”
“I don’t tell people what I have invested out here. First of all it’s really not important and the numbers may not be big enough for some people. This place is an illusion and if’ you have an illusion that turns out not to be as big as you think it is, it max disappoint people. Our objective is to create that illusion, and I have no desire to distort it.
“But I can tell you that as recently as this month I have turned down substantial profit from offers to sell. We are getting ready to put another $2 or $3 million into the property for expansion purposes to give the tourists and conventioneers more to do.
“This oil rig here has been up less than a year. You see, everything I think is party. I think party and two uses for everything, if not three. The tourists want to see oil wells and millionaires and horses, so 1 figured the one dimension that we are missing here that has also made Texas and made the series ’Dallas’ is the oil business. That rig there had drilled one well, and a major bank in New York had loaned $9 million on it. So I went up there and bought it and moved it in here. I can have a party for about 500 people up there overlooking the skylines of Garland and Mesquite and Dallas and Piano. It is absolutely gorgeous. We rent that for $500, in addition to the private party, of course.
“Back in my college days during the summers I used to roughneck on rigs about that size out in the Pecos area. We think there’s oil here at 35,000 feet, and being an Aggie, I bought a rig that goes to 30,000.
“It’s also a billboard, but I thought it was a cute idea to have your own drilling rig. I’ve also turned down a million-dollar profit on that already. I located another rig that is not as good as that rig but is cosmetically the same. It is conceivable I’ll make a $2 million profit off that thing after I sell it, move it, and put another rig up there.
“That’s kind of my basic philosophy about everything else out here. We believe in the barter system or sponsorship for promotional consideration. Eventually everything on this ranch 1 won’t own- someone else will own it for promotional consideration. Like we use Pepsi, and they pay us a nice little sum to be the only soft drink on the property. We are working on beer companies and tractor companies and automobile and RV companies. It’s a big business.
“You know the reason you see all of those people on that tram going on the tour of the ranch is because they are influenced by the television show. Chances are their impression of a product while they are here would be greater than in a normal place. That image is worth something. TV is a powerful weapon.
“What’s really incredible is we sell square-inch deeds here. My objective in life is to sell a couple of acres of one square inches at $10. That’s $62 million a square acre. I once had a lender who asked me where I was going to get corn-parables, and I said I have several thousands of them at $62 million an acre. You want comparables, I’ll give them to you.
“This thing’s just got so much potential. Whatever your brain can dream up is the limitations of this property.”
TRIPPET CONTINUES DOWN THE lane, past an old-fashioned surrey, past neat rows of pansies and petunias. and around to the back of the barn-like 60,000-square-foot convention facility. Workers are hurriedly moving in furniture, paintings, and Priscilla Davis’s Louis XV design French parlor for the Southfork Antiques Spectacular. Trippet began to plan the big auction a couple of years ago with the help of Ken Brixey, then his general manager, as part of a scheme to turn the furniture at Southfork into an annual cash cow. Trippet wants to sell the contents of the Southfork ranch house, provided each year by Garrett Galleries, at an antique auction, banking on the value added to rugs, tables, and chairs for simply having been in J.R.’s mythical home.
Brixey, who came to Southfork from Graceland and has since moved on to Billy Bob’s, is widely known and respected as an expert in the entertainment/tourist trade. Yet he says that while he was with Trippet at Southfork, he learned a few things about be-ing “creative” in the business.
“When I went to work for Terry,” Brixey says, “he showed me how to make impossible things work. He’s an unorthodox thinker and that had an impact on me”
Brixey says that most places like South-fork don’t mix the tourist business with the party and convention business. He told Trippet that his plan to do just that wouldn’t work. But it has, probably saving Southfork from foreclosure. Though people in the business have speculated for the last couple of years that Southfork and Trippet were dead in the water, Brixey says that Trippet is just too tenacious to go along with that scenario.
“He’ll work a deal until it works, and he’s unbelievably lucky.” Brixey says. “He’ll pull it out, you watch. He’s that good a player.”
Trippet refinanced Southfork in the middle of a real estate depression and a crisis in the savings and loan industry, and that makes him one of the luckiest guys around. Commodore Savings was Trippet’s partner when he originally bought Southfork in the fall of 1984 for $7 million. The financing at Commodore, whose principals were good friends of Trippet’s, was extremely favorable and included a $2 million line of credit for expansion and improvements. But by the fall of 1985, Commodore was on its way down with the thrift industry and that credit evaporated. Trippet-along with every other big borrower in town-had to look elsewhere fast for cash. When the feds came in and closed down Commodore, Southfork was caught in their vice. But last March. Trippet came through. He refinanced Southfork for $8.1 million with GlenFed Financial. It was practically a miracle. Brixey says that he wasn’t surprised at Trippet’s coup. Though sources close to the deal say that GlenFed has Trippet on a short rope and may shut him down yet, Brixey predicts that Terry Trippet will be the victor.
Part of the reason Trippet manages to land on his feet, Brixey says, goes back to his college basketball days. Trippet’s competitiveness hasn’t waned a lick since Aggieland.
“I’ve been told that when Trippet played basketball, he not only wanted to beat you, he wanted to hurt you. He beat you up on the Scoreboard and on the court. That attitude carries over into his business,” Brixey says. “He wants to make the best deal and get the best of the dealer.”
J.R., are you listening?
Robert Boyd, until recently chief operating officer of the West End Marketplace. should have listened. With Trippet, he co-produced the Beatle City show and brought it from Liverpool to Dallas two years ago. He found out the hard way that no one co-produces anything with Terry Trippet.
He won’t say how much he lost on the deal, but when it was over, so was his friendship with Trippet. The hard feelings have eased enough with time, though, and Boyd says that he looks back and knows he learned a trick or two from Trippet.
“Terry is out for Terry,” Boyd says. “He may drink Bloody Bulls at breakfast, cheap red wine at lunch, and Scotch at night, but then he’ll sell you something. He taught me about creativity, smoke, and mirrors. They say you can’t shine shit. But he taught me that you could freeze-dry it, shellac it, package it, and sell it for $5.”
That’s not too far from the truth. When Trippet put a new roof on the ranch house at Southfork. he noticed that tourists were grabbing for the shingles as workmen threw them to the ground. Quickly, Trippet roped off the area. Then he bundled up the shingles and sold every single one.
“Cash flow here is incredible, but Iliad two banks that the feds took over and closed. I’m fairly creative when it comes to doing deals, and I went out and got it refinanced. So from a cash flow situation, it never got into trouble. But from the standpoint of the rig and that platform and all of the other things I had under way, when those banks were gone it kind of created problems. Which I solved. It wasn’t any big deal.
“I guess I’m a good salesman. If it would have been strictly an asset loan, I probably could not have gotten it done. But the cash flow is such that even in a down economy there was so much money flowing here that it made it.
“What you’ve got to remember is that I was not at the mercy of the Texas economy. Our tourist breakdown is 40 percent European and Asian, 30 to 40 percent outside Texas, and the rest in Texas.
“When I bought this place, everybody who was involved in the transaction thought I had lost my mind and it wouldn’t work. I said hide and watch. I was 3 percent over that first year of what I told the lenders this place would do.
“We grew so fast. It’s just now stabilizing. National Travel Data Service tells us that we contribute over $40 million to the economy out here. Those are published numbers and they’re not inflated really.
In the next thirty davs we’re going to add 100,000 square feet to the convention facility so we can have trade shows, concerts for 10,000 or 15,000 people under one roof, extremely large parties, and an indoor rodeo arena. We do over 300 of these events a year. We also are going to get into the quarter horse and thoroughbred business where we sell the horses and train them and people can purchase pan of a horse or all of a horse that we are involved in.
“On the drawing board now we have a hundred-room hotel. We are repaving the whole property in a week to ten days, and we are adding about a hundred trees. We want people when they leave this place to say it’s the most beautiful place they’ve ever seen. When they leave, they’ll know what a nice little Texas ranch is all about. All for a humble fee.”
TR1PPET WALKS INTO THE “DALLAS” museum where a tape of J.R. getting shot plays all day every day. He goes over to a little item he says he picked up as the highest bidder in an auction. It’s an inlaid wood desk in the shape of a Texas Longhom. Neimans asked $65,000 for it one year in the Christmas catalogue.
Terry Trippet knows how to throw money. Yet somehow it doesn’t always end up where it’s supposed to. Like with the Internal Revenue Service.
Sources familiar with Trippet’s finances say that in 1985 he hadn’t filed an income lax return for eight years.
“I was told that if I didn’t help Terry fast, they were going to clamp on the bracelets,” says one of those sources.
Accounting for money at Southfork was handled very. uh. creatively.
’”They had about two dozen bank accounts and had been kiting checks for years. I would issue financials, but they would retype them. Those things have to flow from one month to the next. But I’d get calls from Commodore and the bank in Garland saying they didn’t. That’s how I found out the numbers were being changed,” one source says.
And as fast as Trippet says cash was flowing into Southfork. it was flowing out- $20,000 to $30,000 a month straight to Terry Trippet, one source says.
Meanwhile, vendors weren’t getting paid.
Down at the Dallas County Courthouse, the computer is real familiar with Terry V. Trippet, Punch in his name and the names of his various companies and pages of lawsuits turn up-most of them for nonpayment.
“The first call I made when I put this place under contract was to the Ponder-osa. In 1984, they had their biggest year. Their business has increased every year. Once the television show is over, business will increase because it will be history.
“They film here twenty days a year. Filming cuts down our business. It affects the souvenir sales because people just stand around and watch.
“We run people through this mansion every fifteen or twenty minutes. We tell them everything we do on the property from private parties to weddings to conventions and fundraisers. So when they leave here, we have 300,000 or 400,000 people advertising for us all over the world. We get to tell our story.”
THIS SUMMER, TRIPPET PLANS TO build a swimming pool and cabana to help increase his company picnic business. He sweeps his hand across the green field and beholds the future. Down the back steps of the Ewing mansion and all the way back to his office above the gift shop, the plans roll around in Trippet’s mind.
You can see the dollar signs in his eyes.
“We rent this thing for $2,500 a night, plus food and beverage. We want to create the proper atmosphere for the people. The master bedroom has a Jacuzzi, dual shower and steambath, stereo, red roses, and a bottle of champagne. No backrubs.
“This is one of the highest points in Collin County. From the rig it’s gorgeous. It’s like being on the Eiffel Tower.
“Over here is the famous place they film. We’ve come up with an idea for a video here where we have the whole video until where they shoot J. R. and the tourist can be the one in the last scene. Then we sell it to them for fifty bucks.”