Just outside of the small town of Slobozia, Romania there’s a big, white, ranch house. That building is a reproduction of another big, white ranch house, near the city of Dallas, Texas. These twin ranches both have the same name: Southfork. Anyone who watched American television from 1978 to 1991, will probably know Southfork as the Texas ranch where one of television’s longest running and most watched shows was filmed. The show was Dallas, and this is the story of how it brought capitalism and Southfork to Romania.
Nicolae Ceausescu, the communist dictator of Romania from 1967 to 1989, was a fan of Dallas and its star character, the big-oil-cowboy J.R. Ewing. Now Ceausescu did not like the show because he thought it was great television, but because he thought it was absolutely awful — an American TV show that embodied everything that was wrong with capitalism: corruption, greed, and dysfunctional families. Around about the same time, the United States started paying attention to this new Romanian leader who, in a surprise move, broke away from the Eastern Bloc and denounced the Soviet Union’s 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. Ceausescu seized the opportunity to become a political player in the region while strengthening his dictatorship. In 1971, he ordered that Dallas be aired weekly on Romanian national television. The idea was to kill two birds with one stone: educating Romanians on the evils of capitalism while simultaneously pandering to Western politicians with what appeared to be progressive, state-controlled media programming.
Ceausescu also thought it was a great idea to implement drastic austerity measures in an attempt to pay off the foreign debts that he had racked up for the country. Food rationing and rolling blackouts of gas and electricity became the norm. Nearly all of the country’s TV and radio stations were shut down with the exception of two hours of television that aired each day. As if to add insult to injury, every Saturday, one of those two televised hours was filled by the Ewing family and their Texas mansion. The poverty brought about by austerity, when juxtaposed by the wealth and opulence of Dallas, spurred a revolution and overthrow of the communist regime. In December 1989 Nicolae and his wife, Elena Ceausescu, were captured attempting to flee the country, put on trial, and executed by firing squad.
As Romania was starting all over again after Ceausescu’s death, one of the first dramatic programs back on television was the pilot episode of Dallas. People loved the show and celebrated its return, and this time around the previously edited sex-scenes were left in. In the minds of many Romanians, Dallas was a symbol of the revolution: the end of poverty and the promise of prosperity to come.
What did come after the revolution were former government officials and party-elite turned businessmen: cowboys and bandits on the new, wild frontier of Western capitalism. Ilie Alexandru was one of these guys, and used his advantages to make huge profits via an import and export business, along with dabbling in bank fraud and organized crime.
Just like Ceausescu, Alexandru also thought he could harness the cultural power of Dallas. Alexandru figured that he could build a scale model of an imaginary place, situated in an area that is more or less the Romanian equivalent of the Midwestern U.S., and he thought he could make money from it. He began sinking millions into building Southfork on his Slobozia estate. The replica was completed sometime in the mid-90’s, was 20% larger than the original ranch in Texas, and also home to a zoo, a theater, and a one-fifth scale Eiffel Tower.
“Southforkscu”, as it became known, moved the West from a place that Romanians could only experience vicariously through their TV screens, to a real destination they could visit without leaving the country. It was also playground where Alexandru lived out his own Dallas-style, cowboy fantasies. In 1997 he was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison for fraud but was released two years later on account of good behavior. According to an article in the May 27, 2010 Austrian Times, after being released, Alexandru took to striding “around the estate in cowboy hats with a JR-style 10 gallon hat and six guns”.
In the summer of 2013 I traveled through Eastern Europe with two friends. When we made it to Romania I convinced them to go along with me to Slobozia to see Southfork. I heard about the the ranch right before I left, after sending an email about the trip to a friend. In a brief reply, my friend wrote “When you make it to Romania, go to Dallas…Google that shit”. So in the last few days before I left, I did just that. Google didn’t turn up much on Dallas, other than where it was located and a few news articles on Alexandru’s bizarre, themed ranch.
What I didn’t know about the place, or what I couldn’t find out after a few hours of searching online, I made up. I formed my own fantasy about what would be there. In my mind, I conjured up something like a dilapidated roadside attraction, perhaps riddled with bullet holes, totally abandoned, with an imposing model of the Eiffel Tower adding a little international flavor. What I found turned out to be nothing like that.
The Dallas ranch still stands outside of Slobozia and the grounds immediately surrounding it are well maintained. There’s an empty receptionist booth and a parking lot, which serves both cars and horse carts. The racing track and zoo area is largely overgrown, with the exception of a field where some Roma raise horses. The interior of the Dallas mansion is completely gutted and torn out. I found a man who seemed to be in charge, and he told me that Southfork has been under renovation since 2008, and the current owner is “just some guy in Bucharest”. It’s not clear when the work will be finished or if it ever will be. An adjacent building is a mostly defunct hotel and restaurant, and the main attraction is a pool where locals hang out. The Eiffel Tower stands in the middle of another overgrown field, and behind it there’s a massive, walled-in, disneyland style mansion. That’s where Alexandru used to lived, and where no one lives now.
After asking around at the pool and peering through the windows of the Southfork building, I could see that there are no bullet holes, no abandoned grand piano in the parlor room, and no one wanted to talk about Dallas — as if it was all just part of some embarassing past, and better left that way.
Back in 2001, Ilie Alexandru got both what he wished for and what was coming to him. He was arrested for the second time after a shoot-out with police at Southfork, and imprisoned until 2009. Meanwhile, his estate was taken over by creditors who converted the property into a resort for tourists and fans of Dallas. From there, “Southforkscu” petered-out to where it is today.
In the end, however, Alexandru’s plan was a total success. He got to build and live within his own fantasy, and ended up quite satisfied with the results. Five months before his death on October 15, 2010, Alexandru told the Austrian Times: “I grew up with the images of this wonderful world and I saw myself as Bobby Ewing, but like me he always lost out. I guess the Bobby inside me finished me off."
As I left Southfork that day, I noticed the pool — the only thing on the property still in use, full of sunbathers and kids rocketing in and out of the water. For most of the young people at that pool, the nearby building probably means very little. It is neither a symbol of revolution nor a place to live-out a TV-show’s fantasy…it’s just where the pool is, and maybe that’s the way it should stay. In the show Dallas, nearly every single fight that takes place at the Southfork ranch — and there are a lot of them — ends with the the characters wrestling, falling, and splashing into the pool.