This wasn't supposed to be a story about a catastrophe. This wasn't supposed to be about a gunfight at Southfork Ranch that ends with some poor schmuck on the run from media hordes and hundreds of ticket-holders demanding a refund or else. Didn't even see it coming.
When we headed out to the Collin County town of Parker on November 9 for the Dallas 30th Anniversary Reunion, all anyone hoped for was a barbecue-flavored Star Trek convention. On the guest list: Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy, Linda Gray and their cast mates, along with some 2,000 rabid fans whose affection for the CBS series has only grown in the 17 years since its absence. Seemed like the surest bet in the world: J.R. Ewing back at the ranch, and surrounding him, a horde of Jock-sniffers who'd flown in from 'round the globe to shake the hand of the man they've loved to hate ever since 1978.
The last thing anyone ever expected was an international incident, but ever since the event wrapped shortly after midnight on November 10, that's precisely what it's become.
Just ask the man in the kilt.
His name is James Gillies, a mortgage broker from Edinburgh, Scotland, who doesn't exactly have piles of spare Euros lying around. Yet he decided "instantly" to purchase a thousand-dollar ticket to the reunion the moment he found out about it on UltimateDallas.com, the reigning fan site for the TV show that, in 1980, landed Hagman's grinning visage on the cover of Time.
Gillies arrived in Texas on Friday for the Saturday event. In tow is his friend Sharon MacDonald, also a rabid fan; it was MacDonald, in fact, who told Gillies about the event. Both were flying out on Sunday. Theirs will be a quick trip—just enough time to cash in on their tickets, which promised a private cocktail party and a photo with the entire cast.
And why have they traveled so far and spent so much for the privilege? Quite simple, really: "I'm J.R. Gillies, even at work. Customers still know me as J.R. They don't even know my name, and it's because of the show, and here we are, 30 years on." Gillies says this as he stands near the pool behind Southfork, which up close resembles a concrete puddle.
Gillies and MacDonald are waiting to take their photo with the cast, including Hagman, Duffy (baby bro Bobby), Gray (victimized, then victorious Sue Ellen) Ken Kerchival (J.R.'s longtime rival Cliff Barnes), Charlene Tilton (wild child Lucy Ewing), Mary Crosby (whose Kristin Shepard shot J.R.) and Steve Kanaly and Susan Howard, who played the show's downright decent couple, Ray and Donna Krebbs. The Scots are five folks away from having their picture made.
"For us, it was always about the glamour," Gillies says. "Being in Scotland, we had nothing like that at all. Fights over land and oil, greed—you know, we had it between families at home, but not like over here. And not with all the glamour, either. We're a little bit poorer, but to see people dressed like that, living that lifestyle, it's great. And, of course, it's J.R. He was the man." He laughs. "He was so bad he was good, and Larry Hagman was perfect."
"I love Larry Hagman," MacDonald says. "Love him." She's beaming. Shaking too.
Just then, Duffy puts a stop to the photo shoot, insisting several of the female cast members need a bathroom break. "We'll be back in five minutes," he says. Kanaly—who, in his white cowboy hat and tan sports coat and pressed blue jeans, still looks much as he did when lecturing a young Brad Pitt in the 1988 episode "Farlow's Follies"—grabs a beer and walks through the crowd. He asks folks to be patient. "We'll get to everybody soon as we can," Kanaly says.
He comes across MacDonald and Gillies, whose kilt and cap have grabbed his attention.
"Love Scotland," Kanaly says, extending his hand. "All duded up and everything. Very good."
"Thank you," Gillies says, his rich brogue seemingly an octave higher than before. "Lookin' forward to tonight." They shake hands. MacDonald extends hers; it's trembling.
"Well, I don't know what the program is," Kanaly says. "A little question-and-answer thing, you know. I'm not sure what we're gonna do. But we're all here. It's what they call a happening, hunh? Have your cards filled out? They're gonna come back in five minutes."
With that, Kanaly ducks back into the house. Gillies fills out a card that he's to present to the photographer, who will then use the information to send the pair their photograph. Five minutes. Four. Three. Almost there...
"I'm actually shaking," Gillies says. "Can't believe I'm here."
"It's unbelievable," MacDonald says. "I've always loved the thought of meeting them—especially Larry. And now I get to go stand beside him. I can't believe it. I can't believe it."
Only, Sharon MacDonald never meet Hagman or Duffy or any other Ewing, for that matter. Because a five-minute break turns into forever, as cast members disappear to parts hither and yon. Sheree Wilson—perhaps more famous around these parts for her eight-year run as Assistant District Attorney Alex Cahill on Walker, Texas Ranger—somehow winds up on a black-top driveway far away from the house. As the sun begins to set, she's on a cell phone telling someone that she isn't quite sure where she was supposed to be. Nearby, Ken Kerchival leans against a limousine, smoking a cigarette. And out in a field, Hagman is being whisked away by helicopter— again and again and again, each ride lasting some 15 minutes.
At the same time, folks who paid $1,000 per ticket for VIP privileges are discovering that their reserved seats next to the stage, from which the cast would conduct a Q&A much later, have been snatched by folks who'd arrived earlier to claim the prized tables. Says Darla Cook of Forever Resorts, the Arizona-based company that manages Southfork, the reunion show's producer, Jason Hardison, had yanked the reserved seating in order to accommodate late arrivals to whom he doled out dozens of free tickets. According to Hardison, Southfork officials let in 2,000 extra people who did not pay for tickets.
According to a postmortem by the Collin County Constable's Office, "the systems that were in place or put into place during the event would have made it unrealistic that 2,000 people circumvented the security system."
What's the truth? Probably somewhere in between—though it didn't feel as though there were 4,000 people crammed into a space intended for 2,000. It was madness, absolutely, but unecessarily uncomfortable—just a pile of people scrambling for access, many in foreign tongues. It was the Ranch House of Babel.
Nevertheless, days after the event, the whole thing became a he said-she said-they said mess, with WFAA-Channel 8 showing footage of Hardison refusing to come out of hotel room at the Crescent Court and The Dallas Morning News running several articles about how things had gone south at Southfork. Hardison, who staged events with Willie Nelson and Jimmy Buffett for Kinky Friedman during his gubernatorial run two years ago (which Friedman confirms), says he's "personally broken-hearted for those people who had their dreams shattered." And he promises to make good—though how, well, he doesn't know and can't say.
"All I know is, a quiet pilgrimage back to Dallas turned into Woodstock," he says days later. "I felt like we were at the Alamo." Southfork claims Hardison owes more than $8,000 for liquor; Hardison says Southfork owes him for "the 2,000 extra they let in." It's gotten so ugly that Charlene Tilton has posted to her Web site an apology that reads, in part, "When I hear stories like the couple that flew all the way from Australia and bought $500 tickets and never got to meet the cast it breaks my heart."
Not all comers had a bum time. There were, after all, those fans who did get their photos taken with the cast and who did get their tattered copies of Laura Van Wormer's 1985 Dallas: The Official Biography of the Ewings signed by the entire cast. Among the contented lot is Michael Turner, who moved to Dallas from Shreveport partially, he says, "because the show changed my life." Later in this story you will find a 47-year-old man from Belgium for whom Southfork on that Saturday night was his field of dreams—his slice of heaven in the middle of a pasture. Simply being there was enough for him; the stars were an added attraction. Especially Sue Ellen. (Ah, Sue Ellen.)
Darla Cook, upset as she is over Southfork's good name being tarnished over what Tilton calls a "fiasco" on her Web site, likes to tell the tale of a couple from India sent to the reunion on the occasion of their 37th wedding anniversary. The husband and wife knew little of the show or what it stood for way back when. But their son sent them to Dallas—pardon, to Dallas—because it represented to him the American Dream.
"When people come to Southfork from out of the country, the first thing they ask is, 'Where's J.R.?'" she says. "They think he lives here. They literally think this is how Americans live. And when they think of America they think of Dallas, they think of Texas, they think of oil barons and living with longhorns in the pastures and everything being bigger than life."
Alas, there are others who came to the ranch and left with only a bitter taste. And shattered dreams.
"It was pretty bad," Gillies wrote in an e-mail to the Dallas Observer two days after his return to Scotland. "So much so that the girl I was with, Sharon, a lifelong Dallas enthusiast, said it had really killed her dreams too. We can, I suppose, look back and say, 'We were there,' but it could have really been a fairy tale rather than a disjointed dream."
Back up for a moment—before the dream was buried beneath the Southfork soil on a Saturday night. The 30th anniversary reunion was assembled in part by Hagman himself, a 77-year-old man acutely aware he might not make it to the 40th anniversary. And if, for better or worse, it marks the end of an era, it's necessary to reflect, for a moment, upon its beginning. Because one must ask at this late date: What was it about Dallas that brought all these people—2,000 or 4,000 or God knows how many—back to Dallas in 2008?
It's hard to recall after all these years, but before Dallas debuted on CBS on April 2, 1978, there had been only one other prime-time soap opera of any note: Peyton Place, which wrapped its five-year run in June of 1969. Initially, Lorimar, which produced the series, thought Dallas would be nothing more than a short-lived mini-series: the story of Jock Ewing's dysfunctional, dastardly clan. It only became a smash midway through its second season, when CBS moved it from Saturdays at 9 p.m., prime-time's graveyard, to Friday night. By the time Mary Crosby's Kristen shot J.R. on March 21, 1980, 40 million viewers in the United States alone were watching every single week.
"Most hit shows live off habit; Dallas arouses demonstrative loyalty," Richard Corliss and James Willwerth wrote in the August 11, 1980, Time cover story. "Millions of Dallas T-shirts, bumper stickers and buttons are festooning torsos, fenders and lapels. Half a dozen 'J.R.' novelty records are heading for the charts. Society matrons are planning Dallas costume parties for the night the program returns...Gradually and purposefully, like J.R. slithering toward a voluptuous Texas belle, Dallas has ascended the international ratings until it rivals The Muppet Show as the world's most popular TV series."
Indeed. Because as popular as the show was in the States, it was a phenomenon elsewhere; politicians and clergymen were advised not to meet on nights when Dallas was on. The Brits cleared the streets when it aired, and it remains so popular in the U.K. even now that both BBC television and radio ran pieces before and after the reunion on November 9.
"And in Turkey," Corliss and Willwerth wrote 28 years ago, "the head of the Muslim fundamentalist National Salvation Party presented a 16-page ultimatum that included 'the elimination of Dallas from television programs' because it is 'degrading and aims at destroying Turkish family life.'"
The series, which spawned the Dallas: Power & Passion on Primetime TV exhibit at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum earlier this year, remains a staple of the TV diet elsewhere. Here, the show doesn't even air in reruns, but from England to India, from Belgium to Bulgaria, the Ewings still run amok in Dallas; right now, somewhere on this planet, Kristen is shooting her ex-lover all over again, and someone is begging for the answer to the age-old question, "Who shot J.R.?" (Says Mary Crosby today, "I am the answer to the ultimate trivia question.")
In the 1980s, there were books written about the series' appeal and influence, among them Florence Dupont's Homère et Dallas: Introduction à une Critique Anthropologique and Ien Ang's 1982 study Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination, which more or less accused the internationally popular series of promoting "cultural imperialism." Dupont's study was mentioned only recently—in the November issue of Reason, which proclaimed Dallas the series that helped end the Cold War. Dallas, wrote Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, "was a bourbon-and-sex-soaked caricature of free enterprise that proved irresistible and catalytic not just to stagflation-weary Americans but to viewers in France, the Soviet Union, and Romania."
In 1990, a good chunk of the book The Export of Meaning: Cross-Cultural Readings of 'Dallas' dealt with the show's impact on Israel, where Prime Minister Menachem Begin was a rabid fan. Wrote Tamar Liebes and Elihu Katz, just as there were Israelis who viewed the "money and muscle of the Ewings [as] an invitation to the supposed 'American way,'" there were also those who watched the show and believed they were better off without the grief. "It is a message to stay down and enjoy the better of the possible worlds," they wrote, "letting the unhappy few take care of the rest."
Reached in Australia, where she is a professor of cultural studies at the University of Western Sydney, Watching Dallas author Ang says she hardly thinks about the series anymore. It looks "dated," she says, but "it was much more than 'entertainment'—it was a sign of the times." But, ultimately, the show endures for the same reason people still fetishize Star Trek or Elvis Presley: They all "create communities of interest that feed on themselves, and they provide meaning to these people, fill their lives in some way," she says. Hence, the thousands at Southfork—most of whom had found out about the event through UltimateDallas.com, where fans still gather to sift through every last grain of sand, from scripts to detailed episode guides to whatever-happened-to's to a list of every last location used in the series.
Ewing Oil was HQ'd out of the Renaissance Tower at 1201 Elm St. In case you were wondering.
Meanwhile, back on the ranch ...
A little after 6 p.m., an hour after the Dallas reunion was scheduled to start but well past the time folks had started to stream in, Larry Hagman's being held captive in a helicopter. Seems some rich folks paid extra-big bucks to ride in Ross Perot Jr.'s helicopter with J.R., and, he was only too happy to oblige. Only, that last trip, out of three, was a bit cramped—dudes were big. He emerges from the 'copter looking a little flustered. Hagman tells his wife of 54 years, the Swedish-born Maj, he couldn't breathe up there.
The field, off to the side of the mansion, is fenced off and empty, save for the helicopter and a few hangers-on. Steve Kanaly's nursing a Shiner and killing time. Standing next to him is Susan Howard, who was appointed in the late 1990s to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission by then-Governor George Bush—and who, trivia alert, holds the distinction of having played the first female Klingon on the original Star Trek.
"Is there any way we can get back to the fans?" Kanaly asks Paul Salfen, editor-in-chief of Envy magazine and Hagman's minder for the evening. They're acquaintances, but Hagman, who refuses bodyguards, relies on Salfen through the night, as folks paw at him from every direction. Salfen spies an empty limousine idling in the field and tells Kanaly and Howard to take it. They're grateful—though it takes the driver 15 minutes to navigate a route to the red carpet, which they could have walked in, oh, 45 seconds.
Howard looks out the car window and spies in the distance the crush of people lining the red carpet. From this distance, it looks like a throbbing vein. She's astounded at the sight—touched too.
"The magnitude of the miles these people flew—from Romania and Ireland and Pakistan," she says, clutching her chest. "And they're just here for a couple of days, and you're going, 'Oh, my gosh, after all this time.' It was such a ..."
"...part of their lives," Kanaly chimes in. The actors who played Ray and Donna Krebbs actually seem like they could be married in real life. "It was a very personal thing for everybody. And now, if they could manage to buy a ticket and actually be here, they're part of the history of this show in a very real way. And, ya know, this show did not have the kind of popular support among industry people..."
"The industry has such a snobbish attitude," Howard says. "Barbara Bel Geddes, Miss Ellie, was the only one nominated for an Emmy? Give a break. OK? My lord, Larry Hagman? Please. It didn't come out of Hollywood, so it wasn't considered worthy of acclaim."
You know, they're told, some folks think Dallas ended the Cold War.
Both laugh hysterically.
"Well," Howard says, "I wouldn't go that far."
"There were countries where changes occurred that were coincidental, like Israel and South Africa," Kanaly says. "In those places, television, especially American television, was just such a fresh and new thing. And suddenly, you're down in South Africa getting a show called Dallas with all this wealth and opulence..."
"Remember when we were in Israel?" Howard asks her TV husband. "Menachem Begin loved it. But he had to watch it on Jordanian television. We went to his home for his birthday. I have his book he signed for me. He kept saying to Steve and me, 'You are the good ones.'"
They both crack up.
"We'd run down the beach in Tel Aviv, and people would run after you and tell you how much they loved you," Howard recalls. "And you have to realize its impact and that it's a responsibility. You don't get something for nothing. It becomes a deep responsibility. It's like tonight. I feel a deep sense of responsibility for these people who have come all this way after all this time, and I feel almost overwhelmed by it, because there's no way I could spend enough time with them, which they deserve. There's no way to give them the honor they deserve, which sounds stupid, but it's the truth. If somebody cares that much and spends that much money. You should see their faces. My Lord in heaven. They're dumbstruck."
And, as if on cue, they pull up to the red carpet, the mouth of the beast. The throng parts to let them exit the car, but descends upon them the moment it pulls away. There is no security, and the velvet rope long ago fell to the ground. Now Howard looks dumbstruck. Delighted too.
Standing among the crowd are two men, Eric Engels and Serge Verlenda, sporting the worst-looking cowboy hats imaginable, the kind with adjustable neck cords. Turns out, they bought them this very afternoon—the kerchiefs around their necks too. The men, in their 40s, look like large children playing Halloween dress-up.
Both flew in from Belgium for this event. It was Engels' idea. He's the one who's been watching Dallas since it debuted in 1978. He was 17 and studying marketing at university in Antwerp, where, in his dorm room, he constantly blared the theme song from Dallas, which, 30 years later, is his cell phone's ring tone. Engels brought his friend "in case he faints," says Verlenda, only sort of joking.
"When I was young, I was so obsessed about it because of the scenes and the beautiful people," Engels says. "When I was in school, everyone talked about Dallas. I was so obsessed about it, and I don't know why. It was so exciting. I loved the scenes. It was rich people. My love went especially to Sue Ellen. She was a wonderful lady, how she could...oh, that J.R. And at the end of the series, she becomes owner of Ewing Oil. It's great."
Engels did not buy the $1,000 VIP package, so there will be no disappointments: His table's way in the back, he doesn't want to drink or take pictures with the cast, he doesn't need to hear the cast share anecdotes. He's simply happy to be on the property, to have his boots planted on the same Southfork soil as Hagman, Gray, Duffy and the others.
Every year, Engels hosts a "Ewing barbecue," as he calls it, where old friends from college bring their children, to whom he recounts the story of Dallas as though it were Greek mythology.
"Everyone is dressed up little bit like Texan with the cowboy hats," he says. "We've known each other long time. And the children say, 'Ewing? Dallas? What's that?' And I explain, because I was so obsessed about it."
The hours begin to pass, and the crowd begins to grow. It's hard to tell why, precisely—whether it's because of the interlopers, which Hardison insists were there and the Collin County Constable's Office dismisses, or whether it's because lax security has allowed the cheap-seat audience into the VIP sections. It's chaos, absolutely, but also thrilling for folks like Engels and hundreds of others who came to Southfork expecting a distant glimpse of their heroes but wound up smashed together with them and the other idol worshippers who'd come to the ranch for one last round-up.
There's a Q&A that lasts 30 minutes, which quickly degenerates into folks asking detailed questions about episodes—very William Shatner on Saturday Night Live, only no one barks, "Get a life!" A man proposes to his girlfriend, who gladly accepts, even though her boyfriend is "no Patrick Duffy." A woman in a wheelchair is brought to the front for a hug. And, according to the message boards, someone asked Hagman how much a new liver costs.
And though not everyone in the audience receives what they are promised, not by a long shot, the casts sticks around till well past midnight; Duffy, Hagman, Gray and Crosby even show for a sparsely attended press conference, which consists mainly of savvy fans who simply strolled into a separate conference room called Ewing II. "Don't you people have families to get home to?" asks Duffy, who, like the rest of his cast mates, remains oblivious to the chaos.
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Of all the cast members, Duffy is perhaps the most thoughtful when it comes to the show's lasting success and influence. Maybe it's because he's a Buddhist—has been since the '70s, matter of fact. Dude likes to reflect. Because late into the night, while he's desperate to grab a quick bite of leftover barbecue and duck into the bathroom, Duffy's more than happy to stand still and consider, for as long as it takes, why Dallas mattered then and why, just maybe, it means something now.
"Well, interestingly enough, it means more to me on a night like this after the election we just went through," he says. "As controversial at the time as some of our story lines were, they allowed the international audience to become enamored of us in a positive way. They fell in love with the concept of Americana. It hasn't been so for the last few years, and I find it interesting that the one thing that has transcended the last eight years—oh, did I say the last eight years?—is people still love Dallas, so there is a germ of Americana that is still attractive to people. That's what I find refreshing: that we can go anywhere in the world, and no matter how negative the momentary opinion of our country might be by virtue of what we have done, they still react to the possibility of what this country could be even in something as trivial as a television show.
"As actors we didn't play Dallas going, 'This is what we're doing for the future.' We went, 'Woo-hoo, we're working actors, I love this shit!' We were channeling something, but believe me it was by accident."
And with that, Bobby Ewing's off to hit the head. "Man, I really gotta pee." Only, a fan has sneaked into the cast's private green room. He asks, softly and in an Eastern European accent, whether he can get a quick picture. And Duffy, by now shaking he's gotta piss so bad, says, "Sure, absolutely."