David Whitley dons his big hat and heads to the ranch made famous by the TV series.
In the late 70s and throughout the 80s, the mansion at Southfork was one of the most recognisable buildings on earth. To the TV-watching millions in 96 countries, it was the home of the Ewing family in the big-hatted Texan drama series that would make the likes of Larry Hagman and Victoria Principal household names. It remains the home of the oil baron clan for the new series, which was partially filmed there.
Heading up instantly recognisable driveway, I feel somewhat cheated. On TV, they needed a helicopter to cover this distance. In practice, it’s eminently strollable. That’s part of the problem with Southfork Ranch. It destroys the Dallas myth as much as it helps propagate it.
Dallas the TV show doesn’t have all that much to do with Dallas the city. Some city scenes were shot amongst the skyscrapers and power-dining rooms, but most of the filming was done in a Los Angeles studio. They couldn’t do the exterior shots there, however, without looking like total fraudsters. So every summer, cast and crew would decamp to Texas for six to eight weeks and get all the outdoor shooting done. These scenes would be slotted in later, as part of what must have been an utter nightmare for anyone working in the continuity department. That said, in a show where an entire season can be written off as a dream, maybe inexplicable clothing changes and hair growth don’t matter all that much.
Eagle-eyed Dallas addicts will notice that Southfork looked rather different in the first five episodes. That’s because it was filmed further north at the Cloyce Box Ranch in Frisco. After the commotion of filming got too much for the family who owned it, a new location was needed. The producers took off by helicopter and, by chance, flew over Duncan Acres. The family property of Joe Duncan seemed photogenic from all angles, and the show had a new home around 20 miles north of downtown Dallas.
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Some camera trickery was needed, however. Duncan only had around 200 acres (the property now has nearly double that following changes of ownership), while the fictional Ewings had 100,000. Devious film editing spliced fields together to make the distance from road to mansion seem much greater, while dirt was thrown over the properly paved road to make it look more authentic.
Duncan Acres has since been legally renamed as Southfork, and exists solely for tourism, conferences and showy weddings. There’s a small museum inside the visitor centre which explains the Ewing family tree (both official and illegitimate members) and shows major moments from the famous cliffhanger season-closers on a loop. There’s also a fair bit of memorabilia dotted about – including JR’s boots and hat and Lucy’s wedding dress. Most amusing are the ‘United States of Texas’ fake banknotes, featuring JR where a dead president should be and the motto ‘In Hagman We Trust’.
The tours – in a tractor-pulled tram – are what people come for though. Apparently, avid fans have made the pilgrimage from away as Bangladesh and Cameroon. It goes through the grounds, past longhorn cattle and a fake oil derrick that is sometimes used for vertiginous cocktail parties. The bit everyone wants to see, however, is the Mansion. The cameras barely ventured inside, but the former Duncan family home has now been done up to look like the studio set. Miss Ellie’s meticulous kitchen is a third smaller, whilst the kids’ rooms are all on the ground floor rather than upstairs as they were on TV.
The dining room is decked out as the Ewings would have liked – Waterford crystal chandeliers, a decadently furnished table and enough cutlery for a multi-course feast. JR’s bedroom – a replica of the one that saw quite a bit of action over the years – is the big draw, however. The man everyone loved to hate’s bed looks like a giant cushioned sledge, enveloped by kingly drapes. Those arguments with Sue Ellen were conducted in a somewhat pompous surroundings – it’s a wonder they didn’t burst out laughing instead.
The bedroom is a copy, but the balcony it leads to is real. And this was the scene for one of Dallas’ legendary cliff-hangers. Below is the pool that the mystery female – later revealed to be Sue-Ellen’s sister, Kristen – fell into at the end of the third full series. Again, TV magic is at work here. The real life pool is big enough for a good splash, but it’s nowhere near as lavish as it was made to look by the tricksy camera angles.
Southfork is no longer living entirely in the past, however. With the new series, those enormous hats may come right back into fashion – and they’ll have to get that famous driveway dirty again.
Southfork Ranch (+1 972 442 7800, www.southforkranch.com) is at 3700 Hogge Drive in Parker, approximately a 40 minute drive from central Dallas. Tours cost US$11.53. You’ll need a car to get there.
Stay: The Belmont Hotel (901 Fort Worth Avenue, Dallas; +1 866 870 8010, www.belmontdallas.com) offers arguably the best value in Dallas for from US$122 a night. The dolled up retro feel and cocktail bar with great city views are bonuses. Beware though – it’s a little isolated to the west of the city centre, and you’ll probably need to drive to get anywhere interesting from there.
Disclosure:was a guest of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau. This story originally appeared in the Sun-Herald, .
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