DALLAS - He hangs his hat almost 5,000 miles from Southfork, but Colin Hunter has rounded up a huge herd of fans still infatuated with “Dallas.”
Never mind that the iconic television show has been off the air since 1991. Each day, 23,000 people visit Ultimate Dallas.com, the fan site Hunter produces out of his north London home.
“There are people from everywhere - Romania, Japan, the U.S., Indonesia,” Hunter, 36, said by telephone. “We’ve got this whole new fan base, some people as young as 12 and 13.”
Three decades after J.R., Sue Ellen and company began bickering on prime-time TV, “Dallas” remains an unstoppable force in popular culture.
The show that epitomized American grandeur and greed during the Reagan years is still syndicated in dozens of countries. Southfork Ranch in Parker, Texas, draws more than 300,000 visitors a year. Die-hards and new fans devour episodes on DVDs and cable channels.
“‘Dallas’ is not a phenomenon of 30 years ago, but actually is continuing to bring in new viewers,” said Janet Staiger, curator of “Dallas: Power & Passion on Primetime TV,” a new exhibit at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.
The exhibit, which runs through Sept. 14, chronicles how the show’s memorable characters, scandalous story lines and TV firsts - most notably the “Who shot J.R.?” cliffhanger - spawned a global juggernaut that continues to fascinate legions of fans.
Boosters of modern Dallas, meanwhile, often cringe at the show’s over-the-top stereotypes and the lingering perception that the city remains a mecca for big hair, 10-gallon hats and cutthroat capitalism.
“It’s a blessing and a curse,” said Phillip Jones, president and chief executive officer of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The show’s persistent popularity makes it more of a challenge to promote Dallas as a progressive, ethnically diverse city with plentiful options for culture, dining and commerce, Jones said.
On the plus side, he said, “everywhere you go in the world, people know Dallas.”
“The curse is, everywhere you go in the world, people know Dallas from 30 years ago,” he said. “People think if they come to Dallas, they’re going to see J.R. Ewing walking down the street.”
When the show first aired on CBS in April 1978, Dallas was chiefly known as the site of the Kennedy assassination. The Dallas Cowboys, fresh off their second Super Bowl victory, weren’t even America’s Team yet.
Then came the TV series, which suddenly recast Dallas as a glitzy universe of shimmering skyscrapers, slick oil barons and gorgeous women in fur coats and showy jewelry.
“It was, of course, not a totally accurate image,” said Staiger, a professor of film and television studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “Not all women dress as beautifully as Pamela Barnes and Sue Ellen did when they went to lunch. But it gave Dallas an image of richness.”
By the end of the second season in spring 1980, the show gave America its first prime-time cliffhanger when an unknown assailant gunned down J.R. Ewing in his office.
The scheming, sharp-tongued oilman - played by Fort Worth native Larry Hagman - had a long list of enemies. A prolonged actors strike forced fans to wait eight months before finding out the answer to the now-historic marketing slogan: “Who Shot J.R.?”
In November 1980, roughly 360 million viewers worldwide finally discovered who pulled the trigger. At the time, it was the most heavily watched event in television history.
The success of “Dallas” also elevated the soap-opera plot formula - serial narratives featuring multiple, intertwined story lines - into prime time.
“Now, you can hardly find a drama on prime time that doesn’t have this format,” Staiger said.
The show inspired a crush of merchandise, some of which is on display at the Austin exhibit - puzzles, albums, even J.R. beer in pull-top cans.
Hollywood’s efforts to remake “Dallas” into a movie have sputtered. Janis Burklund, director of the Dallas Film Commission, said studio executives recently told her that the project is still alive but on hold as writers rework the script.
Susan Howard-Chrane accepts that her public persona will always be intertwined with her “Dallas” character, Donna Krebbs.
George W. Bush, then governor, appointed Howard-Chrane to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission in 1995. During her confirmation hearing, the room went silent when Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, accidentally called her Donna.
“It wasn’t any big deal,” said Howard-Chrane, who now serves on the Texas Commission on the Arts and is constantly recognized by “Dallas” fans.
“I am never offended by someone calling me Donna - ever,” she said.
Howard-Chrane said viewers kept tuning in to “Dallas” because they related to each character - a rare occurrence in today’s prime-time lineup of reality shows and crime dramas.
“It was probably the last of its kind,” she said. “It primarily was a show to entertain and to showcase actors and pretty clothes and attractive people and relationships. It was entertainment. I think we’ve kind of gotten away from that.”
The show’s success surprised actor Steve Kanaly, who played Ray Krebbs, Donna’s husband and the Ewings’ ranch foreman. Kanaly, who now grows avocados and citrus in Ojai, Calif., said he expected a quick exit after filming the first five episodes.
“I never believed the show had a chance to be successful,” he said. “I did five shows with everybody and thought, ‘Well, this is great. It’s been fun working with you; see you later.’”
In retrospect, Kanaly said, the show may have caught on because it provided an escape from such real-world issues as inflation, unemployment and the Iran hostage crisis.
“There were a lot of negative things going on,” he said. “And then this show pops up that doesn’t have anything to do with anything except a bunch of rich people in Texas and their crazy, mixed-up lives.”
Shady deals, boozy carousing and messy family politics may have been off-putting to some, but the program showed the world that America was a land of big dreams, Cadillacs and swimming pools.
Just ask Tomas Spilacek. During a visit to Southfork last month, Spilacek remembered watching “Dallas” in communist Czechoslovakia 20 years ago.
“Every person was watching this movie because Dallas is like all life in the U.S.,” he said. “Over there, communism. Over here, Dallas. Every Saturday night watching this movie is beautiful.”
Sally Peavy, the ranch’s tourism sales manager, hears stories like that all the time. Roughly two-thirds of the visitors who tour Southfork are international.
“I would’ve thought that maybe it would have died down by now,” Peavy said. “But it’s amazing to me that people are still intrigued about the show, want to come see it, want to come experience it.”
Colin Mallon, a Southfork visitor from Kent in the United Kingdom, said he got hooked on “Dallas” in the 1980s because “the story line was brilliant, had a good laugh in it. It’s just something that made you watch every week.”
“Some of the things that happened in the show were just kind of bizarre,” added Angie Green of Wapakoneta, Ohio. “You couldn’t wait until the next week to see what was going to happen with J.R. and Cliff and all the characters.”
On UltimateDallas, the Web site Hunter started with two friends in 1997, fans interview the show’s stars, debate old plot twists and answer poll questions like: “Which forbidden love would you have liked to see?”
Hunter runs the site and attached fan forum with help from fellow fans in London, Canada and the U.S. He said interest in the show has endured because its human story lines held such universal appeal.
Viewers could relate to Bobby and J.R.‘s sibling rivalry, Sue Ellen’s alcoholism, Pam’s insecurity about her inability to have children and the squabbles between the Ewing and Barnes clans.
“It was a character-driven show in a way we don’t tend to get now,” Hunter said. “It still kind of holds up, even nowadays.”