Hats off to Larry

David Whitley doesn't care so much about who shot JR - but he's keen to sneak a peek in his bedroom.

It could well be just a dream but the world's most famous ranch is back. The new series of Dallas promises to catapult the Southfork Ranch in Parker, Texas, back to its heyday.

In the late 1970s 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-hat Texan drama series that would make the likes of Larry Hagman (JR) and Victoria Principal (Pamela) household names. It remains the home of the oil baron clan for the new series, which was partially filmed there - but the family home is up for sale in the first episode. Heading up the instantly recognisable driveway, I feel somewhat cheated. On TV, they need 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 among 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 complete 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.

Southfork is no longer living in the past.

Eagle-eyed Dallas addicts will notice that Southfork looks 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.

Some camera trickery was needed, however. Duncan only had about 80 hectares (200 acres in the US; the property now has nearly double that following changes of ownership, while the fictional Ewings have 100,000 acres). Devious film editing spliced fields together to make the distance from road to mansion seem greater, while dirt was thrown over the paved road to make it look more authentic. Duncan Acres has since been legally renamed Southfork, and exists solely for tourism, conferences and showy weddings.

There's a small museum inside the visitor centre explaining 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 as far away as Bangladesh and Cameroon. The tram 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 been done up to look like the studio set. Miss Ellie's meticulous kitchen is a third smaller, while the kids' rooms are all on the ground floor rather than upstairs, as they are on TV. The dining room is decked out as the Ewings would like - Waterford crystal chandeliers, a decadently furnished table and enough cutlery for a 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 bed of the man everyone loved to hate in the '80s looks like a giant cushioned sledge, enveloped by kingly drapes.

His arguments with Sue Ellen have been conducted in 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 is the scene for one of Dallas's legendary cliffhangers (most famously, who shot JR?). Below is the pool that the mystery female - later revealed to be Sue Ellen's sister, Kristin- falls into at the end of the third full series. Again, TV magic is at work here.

The real pool is big enough for a good splash but nowhere as lavish as it is made to look by camera angles.

However, Southfork is no longer living entirely in the past.

With the new series, those enormous hats may come right back into fashion - and they'll have to get that driveway dirty again.

The writer was a guest of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Dallas airs on Wednesday nights on Nine.

Trip notes

Getting there

Qantas has a direct route to Dallas/Fort Worth from Sydney. Returns start at $2275. qantas.com.au.

Touring there

Southfork Ranch (+1 972 442 7800, southforkranch.com) is at 3700 Hogge Drive in Parker, about 40 minutes from Dallas. Tours cost $US11.50 ($11). You need a car to get there.

Staying there

The Belmont Hotel (901 Fort Worth Avenue, Dallas) offers arguably the best value in Dallas from $US122 a night. The dolled-up retro feel and cocktail bar with great city views are bonuses. It's a little isolated, so you'll probably need to drive to get anywhere interesting. +1 866 870 8010, belmontdallas.com.