On Friday, March 30, the photo line at the Dallas 40th reunion party was nearly three hours long. It began outdoors, ran through a lobby, snaked through an airplane-hangar-sized event center, spilled into another room, and ended at a Southfork-patterned backdrop hanging next to Jock Ewing’s 1978 Lincoln Continental. While fans waited to have their pictures taken with Dallas stars Patrick Duffy, Linda Gray, Steve Kanaly, and Charlene Tilton, television monitors showed J.R. Ewing’s failed 1980 assassination and Bobby Ewing’s 1986 return from the dead. Bartenders served complimentary shots of “J.R. Ewing Private Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon” and $8.50 glasses of “Sue Ellen’s ‘Off the Wagon’” vodka and lemonade. Hundreds of guests wore hats and boots; one couple dressed up as a gushing derrick and a human barrel of oil.
Four decades after Dallas’s premiere, the primetime soap opera can still draw a crowd. This past weekend, roughly 1,300 fans from 40 states and 30 countries met in North Texas to celebrate the show’s 40th anniversary and meet four cast members. The two-day event allowed those with a spare $125 to tour the Southfork ranch, dance at the Longhorn Ballroom, and have their photo taken with some of their favorite living cast members. Who, it should be noted, remained there for five hours with only two bathroom breaks and emitted a family-reunion warmth that extended into dozens of foreign interviews—and an hours-long autograph line at the party the next night, too.
“Some girls grew up wanting to be like Cinderella. I wanted to be Pamela Ewing,” said Karlien Murray, a visitor from Johannesburg, South Africa. (Victoria Principal, who played Pamela Ewing, didn’t make it.) “Our television culture in South Africa is very Americanized, so I think many of us are more American than the Americans. Every time Pamela changed her hairstyle, everybody at my high school would change their hairstyles.”
While the DJ played Urban Cowboy–style country and a disco mix of the Dallas theme song, visitors from locales as far-flung as Australia, Israel, and Scotland told similar stories. Mihaela Anastase said she grew up loving Dallas in Communist-era Romania; it was the only Western program allowed by the state (President Ceaușescu thought Dallas, with its scheming and department stores and misery, was a scathing parody of capitalism).
“If you ask in Chile who J.R. is, everybody knows,” Chilean expat Jorge Correa said. “It shaped the way people in Chile saw Texas. Definitely. Ranches, horses, oil, and all that stuff.”
“Multiple people have even come up this weekend and said they moved to Dallas because of the show,” said Charlene Tilton, who, wearing a leather jacket and a very big smile, gave off a room-filling presence despite her four-foot-eleven-inch frame.
The TV-inspired transplants may have been surprised by what they found here. When Dallas aired, Dallas was one of the few Texas counties that had never yielded a drop of petroleum or natural gas. (A Lorimar Productions executive decided the series should be set in Dallas only because Dallas “sounded better than Houston.”) The show’s interior scenes were filmed in Los Angeles, and an early episode revolved around a hurricane.
Forty years later, though, the Dallas mythology is a shiny thread in our history. You can drive east of Plano and see the prop gun that shot J.R., or the “cemetery” where Jock and Mrs. Ellie are buried, or the famously luxurious Ewing swimming pool (which in reality is smaller than the Lincoln Continental). Southfork hosts more than 400,000 visitors annually; at its eighties peak, it saw more tourists each year than the Alamo.
Standing next to a white picket fence outside the white Ewing farmhouse, looking at horse pastures and a few pet llamas, a fan who asked to be addressed as “Mr. Aswad” described the show’s appeal: “It was Romeo and Juliet, it was Cain and Abel, it was business, it was country, it was Old West and New West.”
A formerly homeless veteran who recently moved to Dallas from Hawaii, “Mr. Aswad” has long seen the show as his companion. “The first time I was homeless, it was in Houston, and I watched Dallas in a YMCA room. The Ewings have always been there for me.” Wearing a tailored suit and a U.S. Navy pin, he noted that he was planning to celebrate his own anniversary on May 13—his five-year anniversary of escaping homelessness—with a lunch at Dallas’s Omni hotel, a venue he learned about watching the 2012 Dallas reboot.
He still watches the original episodes on DVD, too. “I recently texted an old buddy of mine, ‘I’m watching Dallas in Dallas!’” he said. “How cool is that?”