By Jay Jones, Special to the Los Angeles Times
November 6, 2011
Reporting from Parker, Texas
The skyline of downtown Dallas has changed dramatically since the 1980s, when J.R. Ewing rode roughshod over his family and his business partners at Ewing Oil.
Twenty miles northeast, in what is still ranch country, things haven't changed much. Sure, suburbia is encroaching, but horses and Texas longhorns still graze in expansive pastures, corralled by wooden fences that stretch toward the horizon.
Fast-food restaurants and big-box stores are now just a horseshoe toss down FM (Farm to Market) Road 2551. But they aren't what draw tourists from around the world; it's the sprawling ranch home, the one locals say is the second best-known "white house" in the world.
That Texas-size boast may not be far off the mark, because it refers to Southfork, the ranch house that for 13 seasons was the make-believe home of the Ewings, one of TV's most famous families, who will return to television next year.
"People still come from all over the world," said Sally Peavy, Southfork's sales manager. "This is something that you want to do on your bucket list. You know, it's like going to see Elvis' place."
Graceland actually was Elvis' home. But because "Dallas" reruns are still broadcast in dozens of countries, the line between fact and fiction easily blurs at Southfork, where tour guide Jim Taylor said that, from time to time, someone will ask whether J.R. still owns the place.
The truth is that a resort company owns the spread. Eleven daily tours depart from a welcome center that also contains a museum sure to please "Dallas" devotees.
"You'll see clips of the show, the actual gun that shot J.R., Lucy's wedding dress, J.R.'s hat and his boots, and the saddles that they actually used," Peavy said.
But it's that big, white house that is the centerpiece of a visit to Southfork. There, guests get a 20-minute guided tour.
"There's a common misunderstanding [about the fact] that they didn't do the filming inside, that they actually used studios in California," Taylor said.
"That is a real problem for some of our visitors," he continued. "Some of them will come in and remember that J.R. had his bourbon and branch [water] in a particular spot. And, of course, he didn't do that here."
That doesn't mean there aren't plenty of classic TV moments to recall at Southfork.
"This is … the famous balcony where Kristin [actress Mary Crosby] fell," Peavy observed while standing next to the backyard swimming pool, which isn't nearly as big as the cameras made it appear.
"She's the one that shot J.R.," Peavy added, as if "Dallas" die hards didn't know that.
Frank Formica of Glendora counts himself among those die hards.
"I know every episode. Maybe I might have forgotten a bit as I've gotten older," he said as he and his wife, Beverly, reminisced following their tour of the Ewings' homestead.
"You felt like you knew them. You felt like you knew their plight; you knew what they were going through," Beverly said. "You mimicked their clothes, you mimicked their actions."
The Formicas say they're delighted that, before too long, they'll no longer have to rely on DVDs to get their "Dallas" fix.
Cable network TNT began shooting episodes of the hit series' sequel, with the same title, last month on a Dallas soundstage. Exterior scenes are being shot at the ranch. Parts of the pilot were filmed at Southfork in May.
This time, the next generation of the fictional family will have control of the reins. J.R.'s son, John Ross Ewing, will be played by actor Josh Henderson, a Dallas native.
Three original cast members will also appear in the new episodes. Patrick Duffy, Linda Gray and Larry Hagman will reprise their roles as Bobby, Sue Ellen and J.R.
"They're just wonderful people to work with, so we're delighted that they're coming back," Peavy said. She added that the new series is expected to increase the number of visitors to the ranch, which is closed on filming days.
"To be back in Dallas, shooting the pilot, is like coming home," Hagman said in a promotional video posted on the TNT website. The Fort Worth-born actor, who turned 80 in September, was found to have cancer last month but said in a statement that it won't affect his ability to play the cunning Ewing patriarch.
"At the end of the series, I lost all of my money, about $2 billion," Hagman said of his character. "I'm kind of starting off penniless but with know-how."