Photography by Aaron Raport

The 35 Biggest Pop Culture Moments in Modern Dallas History

In fighting over what deserved inclusion in the 35 Biggest Moments in Modern Dallas History, we kept coming up with events that seemed noteworthy—if not necessarily important. So we endeavored to identify the 35 biggest pop culture moments, too. Because, after all, “Debbie Does Dallas” couldn’t be ignored.

Selecting the biggest moments in modern Dallas history was a difficult task made nearly impossible by the clutter in our brains created by too much time spent in front of a screen—television, movies, the Internet. DFW Airport, yes! But what about Vanilla Ice? So we gave pop culture its own chapter. While the preceding essays were about events that shaped modern Dallas, the following ditties (in no particular order) are about those more trivial moments. They didn’t change the city, but they did change the way people think of us.

1. Stevie Ray Vaughan Dies in a Helicopter Crash

What: Based on albums like Texas Flood and Couldn’t Stand the Weather, Stevie Ray Vaughan was already a hero among guitar slingers when, on August 27, 1990, the helicopter his tour manager had hired to beat highway traffic, crashed into a hill not far from the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin. Vaughan’s death in the accident trapped his legend in amber.

Why: Though he was more closely associated with Austin throughout his career, his funeral at Laurel Land Memorial Park in Oak Cliff—along with the release of Family Style, his first and only collaboration with brother Jimmie, a month later—reminded fans of his Dallas roots.

2. Dixie Chicks VS. George W. Bush

What: With the impending invasion of Iraq on her mind, always-outspoken Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines told the audience at the band’s March 10, 2003, gig at Shepherds Bush Empire theater in England, “Just so you know, we’re on the good side, with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” Once word of her comments reached the States, the backlash was intense. Radio stations refused to play Dixie Chicks songs, their CDs were bulldozed, other country stars spoke out against them, and there were death threats, including one in Dallas before the band’s American Airlines Center concert on July 6.

Why: Ultimately, the attention stemming from what the band referred to as “The Incident,” as well as the freedom that resulted from being shunned by the country community, pushed the Dixie Chicks to new levels of critical and commercial success. Their next album, the personal Taking the Long Way, debuted at No. 1 on the charts to stellar reviews.

3. The Von Erichs Define Tragedy

What: They were the first family of Texas wrestling, the unquestioned good-guy stars of the World Class Championship Wrestling promotion run by the patriarch of the family, Fritz. And then tragedy struck—and kept striking, as four of Fritz’s sons died within a nine-year stretch. David was first, in 1984, dying under mysterious circumstances while on a tour with All Japan Pro Wrestling. (The family has always insisted it was a heart attack brought on by ruptured intestines; several of his fellow wrestlers have claimed it was actually an accidental drug overdose.) Then, Mike—who never fully recovered from a bout with toxic shock syndrome—committed suicide in 1987 by overdosing on tranquilizers. Chris was next, depressed over the loss of his older brothers and his inability to live up to the family’s success in the ring, he shot himself in 1991. Finally, Kerry, the biggest star in the family and perhaps the most troubled, shot himself in the heart at his father’s ranch in 1993. Only Kevin remained. He retired from wrestling in 1995 and started a career in real estate.

Why: Even now, Von Erich is the first name anyone thinks of when the subject turns to Texas wrestling. The family got its due in 2009 when they were inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

4. Robert Tilton Scandal Hits Primetime Live

Illustration by Michael Witte
What: People already knew something was up with televangelist Robert Tilton’s ministry. But it wasn’t until November 21, 1991—when ABC’s Primetime Live aired the results of its investigation into his operation (with help from the Trinity Foundation’s Ole Anthony)—that the story took off. Primetime Live followed up with another episode the next week, and Tilton became the poster boy for crooked televangelists.

Why: At its peak, Tilton’s show, Success-N-Life, aired in 235 markets across the country. Two years after the Primetime Live story broke, it was airing in none. That’s what happens when it is discovered that you routinely throw away prayer requests without reading them, keeping only whatever money was sent in with them. Tilton may not be the ne plus ultra of unscrupulous Christian evangelists, but he is definitely in the conversation.

5. Who Shot J.R.?

Talk about your magic bullets. When a mystery assailant pumped two shots into the solar plexus of J.R. Ewing on March 21, 1980, the CBS nighttime soap opera Dallas went from top-10 show to worldwide pop-culture phenomenon. And Dallas, the city, became synonymous with violent gunplay. Again.

To the rest of the United States, and the world, Dallas was already known for exactly that—thanks to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy 17 years before “Who Shot J.R.?” became a global sensation. (An aside: Although it is rarely discussed—a coverup, perhaps?—J.R.’s assailant somehow hit him from an impossibly narrow firing angle. Since the shooter was no marksman, perhaps curving bullets were at work here, too? Conspiracy theorists, discuss.)

BANG, BANG: When jilted lover Kristin Shepard shot J.R. Ewing, it made international headlines and spawned merchandise galore.
“The lasting image of this city had been of the Kennedy assassination,” says Darwin Payne, a professor emeritus at SMU and the author of Dallas, a historical account of the city, not the TV show. “For years, you would tell people that you were from Dallas, and they’d talk about the assassination. But when Dallas started airing overseas, they started talking about the show instead.”

They did more than just talk. Time magazine reported that South African cabinet ministers shunned public appearances on Tuesday nights—when Dallas aired in that country—so they could watch the show. These were, remember, the days before TiVo. In the U.K., where half the population watched as J.R.’s shooter was revealed, the BBC ran a contest around the “Who Done It?” episode of Dallas, sending the winner to Dallas.

Even in the States, Dallas and Dallas became linked. President Jimmy Carter quipped at a Dallas event prior to the 1980 presidential election that he hoped someone in the audience might know who shot J.R. Except, how could they? J.R. was not shot in a downtown Dallas high-rise. He was shot—or, more accurately, “shot”—in Hollywood on a soundstage. Also, Miss Ellie did not buy her groceries at the Kroger in Parker, Texas, down the street from Southfork. And there was no such place as The Store, where Pamela Ewing worked, even though the high-end department store that employed her sure seemed like it was Neiman Marcus.

Still, it is easy to understand why, after 41 million Americans made “Who Done It?” the second-most-watched TV show of all time, so many people associated the fictitious goings-on of a trashy clan of nouveau riche with the real lives of Dallasites. Who among us, after all, doesn’t think that most housewives in Orange County have breast implants? Also, consider that at the time of “Who Shot J.R.?” Dallas was a mystery to most people in the world. For one thing, DFW Airport was just 6 years old and not nearly the megahub it has become. For another, oil was surging, and Dallas’ economy was booming in 1980, even though the rest of the country was gripped by a deep recession. Construction cranes were at work putting together the now-distinctive skyline. The Cowboys were America’s Team. And people here were buying fancy cars and swimming pools and, sure, ranch land, while people elsewhere were collecting unemployment. So, if Dallas was a work of fiction, Dallas, too, must have seemed somewhat fictional to the rest of the nation.

Today, 30 years later, Jimmy Carter and everyone else know who shot J.R. (If you’ve forgotten, it was Kristin Shepard, the oilionaire’s sister-in-law and spurned lover.) And the world should know now that Dallas isn’t Dallas. But if people still insist on associating this city with rich rabble-rousers, at least be thankful that it’s the Ewings they’re thinking of and not those brainless bleach blondes from Orange County.  —Joseph Guinto

6. Joey Greco is Stabbed During an Episode of Cheaters

What: In the May 24, 2003, episode of Cheaters, host Joey Greco was stabbed by a man angry at being found out by the show (we should point out that many think the incident was staged). What’s amazing is not that it happened then, but that it hadn’t happened before and hasn’t happened since.

Why: The newsworthiness of the incident finally gave a nation of undercover Cheaters watchers a reason to come out of hiding. And now, everyone can name at least one episode of the show.

7. Tom Joyner: Fly Jock

What: When Tom Joyner was offered two jobs—a morning show in Dallas on KKDA-FM and an afternoon slot on Chicago’s WGCI-FM—he accepted them both, and, in 1985, the “Fly Jock” was born. Every weekday, after finishing his morning-drive program on KKDA, he hustled to the airport and caught a flight to Chicago. And he continued that routine for almost a decade.

Why: Joyner became the most famous airline passenger in the country, racking up, by his tally, more than 7 million frequent flier miles during the course of his dual employment.