Julia R. Barton
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American Icon

by Julia Barton

Twenty years since 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 original saga of conniving oilmen, their business feuds, their alcoholic wives and sultry mistresses (and underaged nieces). And now the cable network TNT plans to start shooting a pilot for a sequel to the series, featuring the next generation of Ewings to fight and slut their way around Southfork Ranch.

Growing up in Dallas, I only remember seeing one episode: “Black Market Baby.” And that was because my best friend, Jennifer White, was an extra in it. Her father worked on the local set of Dallas when the show came to film 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,” the actress Linda Gray fake-drawled 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.”

But somehow we know the whole plot: how, five episodes earlier, J.R.’s brother Bobby’s wife Pamela was going to have a baby, but then J.R. accidentally-on-purpose pushed her off the hayloft at Southfork. And now Sue Ellen, threatened that Pamela may get pregnant again, decides to go out and buy a baby. We see her meet a lawyer in a downtown Dallas overpopulated with extras. Then she goes to a “bad” neighborhood to meet a birth mom. Jennifer and her brother—along with a black extra strategically lain across the apartment steps—were on hand to provide some of the badness.

“There I am!” Jennifer gasps. We see the back of her head, being pushed in in a shopping cart by her younger brother. Vampy music plays in the background. And 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.” Her eyes lit up. “Cause I love bacon.”

Bacon: That’s what Dallas ended up being for us in the Sunbelt—a tasty treat, unearned and ultimately, not so good for us. But it signaled the moment when, at last, our growing population and wealth were too important to ignore.

As it was originally conceived, though, Dallas had nothing to do with Dallas. David Jacobs—who created J.R., his younger brother Bobby, and the show’s other core characters—told me he only had a vague idea that the show would be set in Texas (which he’d visited once in his life). In 1977, as part of a CBS development deal with Lorimar Productions, Jacobs wrote up an untitled backstory about Ewing Oil and sent it over 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, and Fort Worth has the cattle. In the late Seventies, Dallas had bankers, insurance brokers, and technology geeks—and they didn’t wear cowboy hats.

Dallas Observer columnist Jim Schutze moved here from Detroit in 1978, the same year that Dallas began shooting. He thought he was moving to a cow-town and so was surprised find Dallas was, business-wise, more like a “little Switzerland.”

“Nobody here wants to be country,” Schutze says, recalling how, early on, the city’s elite recoiled at J.R.’s pseudo-cowboy swagger.

But in 1978, Dallas was still in the doldrums, reputation-wise, from the assassination of President Kennedy. It may have only been a coincidence that Jack Ruby and J.R. bore the same initials, but Hollywood definitely changed the equation: J.R., the bad man who just didn’t care what people thought, sucked up all that Dallas shame and malaise and used it as fuel.

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

That’s the Dallas I remember growing up: 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 megaton, also initialed 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,” David Jacobs recalls. “They already had their cliffhanger…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, of course. 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 even 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 antennae 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. People wanted to believe that people lived in skyscrapers and had beautiful cars, and everything was shiny and glamorous,” Kilmi says.

Kilmi’s made a documentary, Disco and Atomic War, about how Dallas helped weaken the hold of Communism. In truth, the show’s influence was minimal—until after the Soviet bloc collapsed. In the vacuum, though, 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 first built a white, gabled hotel and called it “Dallas.” Then came the hotels “Texas” and “Western.” Alexandru also built stables, polo fields, a mansion with an eight-car garage and—somewhat inconsistently—a replica of the Eiffel Tower.

The park’s current manager, Rodica Florea, takes me around the grounds, which are practically empty on a cold January morning. Florea explains how she, too, watched Dallas in the 1980s. Unlike in the Soviet Union, the show aired on state TV in socialist Romania. (Some subversive advisors apparently told dictator Nicolae Ceausescu Dallas presented a critique of capitalism).

“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 even got Larry Hagman to visit once.

But now the hotels “Dallas” and “Texas” are both 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 a variety of financial crimes, and he died last year a broken man. The state sold all 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.

“I keep thinking, well, maybe no one will come next year,” Southfork tour guide Adele Taylor told me. “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 long driveway actually pretty short. The house itself isn’t much bigger than a 1990s McMansion. Ilie Alexandru would’ve been disappointed.

Many visitors to Southfork have written about this sense of disappointment, but also their awe at how easily we were all fooled. The illusion of Dallas, of course, is bigger than just film magic: it’s the illusion that we, like Ewing Oil, will grow bigger and wealthier forever.

Dallas, the city, was naturally first in line to buy the fantasy in the Hollywood mirror. Just look at the new Cowboys stadium, our pot-holed streets and shuttered public pools if you want to know where that’s gotten us.

But abroad, the illusion seems to have worked differently. At Southfork, I chatted with some 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 head’s 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 five dollars.”

Now Simon he has a job, a wife, some real money to live on. 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…)

Somewhere in the world, right now, Dallas is still teaching people about our cycles of boom and bust, our desperate housewives and scheming tycoons. But I doubt TNT’s planned sequel will revive the show for Americans. We know the story too well. We all live in Dallas now.

Studio 360, 02/18/11

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