By Barbara G.B. Ferguson, Arab News Staff
Thursday 17 May 2001
Last Update 17 May 2001 12:58 am
No one in the world does “kitsch” as well as America. And “tourist kitsch” is the country’s irrefutable specialty. So, a tour of Southfork Ranch — the homestead of the fictional Ewing clan of the soap opera “Dallas” — known as “the most famous ranch in the world,” is something one might view more with curiosity than with anticipation.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
The ranch is about 20 miles from Dallas and is easily reached by freeway — followed by a suitable amount of driving time through pleasant Dallas suburbs and farmlands. The ranch was originally built as a private residence and for breeding and training quarter horses. Thus, the long, beautiful pastures and paddocks that line the long driveway from the street to the house, and surround the grounds and barns, are perhaps the most real “sets” you will find.
Southfork was ready for us — a group of foreign correspondents brought in for the day by TIA, the Travel Industry of America — and it didn’t take long for us to settle down and enjoy Texas’ legendary hospitality.
“Dallas,” the soap opera was filmed here — and, of course, in Hollywood, from 1978 to 1991 — the series has been aired in 95 countries and shown in 43 foreign languages.
J.R, Miss Ellie and Bobby never really lived at this ranch, a disappointment to some visitors, but Southfork retains the ability — created cleverly by television — to somehow continue to draw in crowds of visitors who feel drawn to visit the fictional home of the Ewings. It helps, of course, that the “Dallas” series continues to be broadcast in syndication. It is still in “first-run status” in many countries around the world, and because of the ranch’s high profile on television — the beautiful white house, the pool, the barns and surroundings — quickly became a tourist site.
Perhaps “a lucrative tourist opportunity” would be a more appropriate description. In 1992, a businessman from Arizona, Rex Maughan, saw profitable opportunities in having so many tourists visit the ranch. With business holdings in over 25 countries, he was well aware of the interest people all around the world still had in the television show “Dallas” and the Southfork Ranch.
As soon as Maughan was able to purchase the property, he invested $12,000,000 in capital improvements and facilities, including a “party barn,” “party pavilions,” and an event and conference center, including the “Lincolns and Longhorns Apparel Store,” “Miss Ellie’s Porch Deli,” and the “Oil Baron’s Ballroom.”
Odd as it sounds for such hackneyed tackiness, it all somehow works. And we — this group of incredulous international journalists — had a better visit than anticipated. I, for one, scoff at suggestions that it was the libations served to us as we exited the bus at Southfork that had anything to do with our congenial visit.
First we were herded through the general tour, which included a walk through “Dallas Museum,” (interesting but kitschy, actually very kitschy, filled with movie memorabilia, photos, saddles, soundbites and history — all properly served up in small portions.)
Oh yes! One shouldn’t forget to mention that the “gun that shot J.R.” is also on display. Then we were steered into the “Ranch Round-up Gift Store,” where there was a wide variety of unique Texas gifts, including bolos, the Texas equivalent of a neck tie, with the lower jaw and fangs of a rattlesnake embedded tastefully in this acrylic “knot” at the throat. Prices were reasonable, which was not anticipated. (Entrance rates, by the way, are not bad at $7.95 per adult. And, if you log onto the website below, you can get a $2 discount coupon per adult.)
From the gift store we were taken up to the Ewing Mansion, which, after the museum and gift shop, one’s imagination is certainly primed and ready for. Although most tourists here are aware of the illusions Hollywood created in “Dallas,” the staff at the Southfork Ranch does an admirable job of maintaining the history of the ranch, or more aptly, the spell of “Dallas.”
To help with the storytelling, the Ewing Mansion was given a $500,000 fantasy facelift. “Although we can’t change the fact the J.R. never lived here, we want guests to leave saying that he would have loved to!” the owner, Maughan, loves to say.
Exploiting this dream has been admirably accomplished, and no one doubts that all who leave the mansion wish they lived there, too.
The interior amply fulfills the expectations of “Dallas” fans, and the staff is extremely accommodating, cheerfully allowing endless photos to be taken throughout the house. The interior reflects a Texas color scheme — something that should make current US president proud — and each room is themed after one of the Ewings. The designs, furnishings and appointments reflect the “Dallas” characters’ personalities, which could best be described as “big” rather than tasteful. But as I’ve already said, it works, and it’s all good fun.
Take, for example, the dining room. It’s topped with two magnificent Waterford crystal chandeliers, and easily seats 14 around the mahogany wood table. The walls are blue topaz — the state stone of Texas — and all the table settings and crystal reflect the Ewings’ wealthy and showy lifestyle.
As for J.R.’s Bedroom, it’s imaginatively decorated — and just exactly what you would expect for a pompous, loud-mouthed, n’er do well, obnoxious, spoiled, ostentatious cowboy.
After each journalist had gone through several rolls of film, we were led past the outdoor swimming pool to the nearest paddock for — what else? — a chuck wagon dinner.
The chuck wagon dinner program is described as an attempt to mix “Texas hospitality and the allure of the Old West.” So it came as no surprise when we were shepherded on to a tractor-driven hay wagon and transported to the dinner camp, outfitted with its own chuck wagon from the Old West. The cook, appropriately named “Cookie,” and apparently as old as the “Old West,” dotes over his vittles and makes sure none of us are shy about heaping portions of ribs, baked beans, corn muffins, potato salad and other tasty treats he mixed together for us. As we made our way through Cookie’s buffet at the chuck wagon, singing cowboys and fiddlers entertained us with cowboy campfire songs, a few of which our international crowd appeared to know, and many more I found suddenly popping up from my childhood memories of the Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers.
There are a few tables scattered about the pasture, but most of us good-naturedly settled down on bails of straw and managed to eat “cowboy style” — precariously balancing our plastic plates on our knees.
It was a fun way to pass a pleasant evening in Dallas. The dinner program, we were told, is designed to synthesize the best of the “Old West” and “New Texas,” and is available for groups of 20 people or more. Reservations must be made in advance.
Following dinner, there was ample time to walk off Cookie’s cooking — although I suspect he only barbequed the meat, the rest tasted like “supermarket’s specials” — and groups of us wandered back to the “Lincolns & Longhorns Apparel Store.” It is amazing what people will buy while “under the influence” of a place. Many of the international crowd entered the store looking like normal folk — only to exit resembling odd characters from some bit part in “Dallas.”
Would I recommend you fly to Texas to view Southfork Ranch? No. But if you are in the vicinity, I’d bet you your last dollar that you would enjoy the trip.
(For more information about the Southfork Ranch, log onto www.southforkranch.com.)