Go West "Dallas" redone: Good, evil and fairy tale excess shot J.R. to the top in Romania. Now, a local businessman has brought South Fork to life. But can/will Romanians pony up?

January 23, 1996|By Susan Milligan | Susan Milligan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Slobozia, Romania -- For years, it was a TV window to what many Romanians imagined to be the wealthy West, with fancy cars, expensive clothes and a sprawling mansion called South Fork.

Now, "Dallas" fans in Eastern Europe can live the fantasy. A local businessman has turned reel-life into real-life, rebuilding the fictional ranch from one of this region's most popular television series and opening it as a hotel. It has the same, long driveway, the same arched South Fork welcoming sign. There's a gray stretch limousine in front of the main house -- almost unheard of in this struggling country -- and a rodeo arena for riding and watching prize-winning horses.

"The show, especially in the period of the communists, was like a soft touch from abroad," said Ilie Alexander, the businessman who opened the hotel and dude ranch last May. "The impact of the 'Dallas' program in Romania was very strong. For this reason, we felt the [South Fork] building would create a strong impression."

Life under former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu -- executed by his people on Christmas Day, 1989 -- hardly mirrored the lifestyle depicted on "Dallas." The hated communist leader tore down many of the grand old villas of the Romanian capital of Bucharest, a grim-looking city that was once known as "Little Paris."

So "Dallas" -- despite the affairs, the deception and the mysterious shooting of character J.R. Ewing -- looked pretty good to Romanians.

"The show was for us like a fairy tale," Mr. Alexander said. "It was a lifestyle which we dreamed to have."

It is also a lifestyle most Romanians still don't have. More than five years after ousting -- shooting dead, to be exact -- Ceausescu and his perhaps even more despised wife, Elena, the Romanian people are still among the poorest in Europe. Bucharest shows the scars of its earlier leader, with dilapidated buildings and public transportation which is crowded, filthy and barely making it between stations.

While some -- like Mr. Alexander -- have acquired wealth, most Romanians, particularly the local Gypsy population, are still struggling in the new market economy, and the two groups do not mix.

A new trend for the owners of a few tony new espresso bars in Bucharest is to hire guards with billy clubs to keep out "undesirables." A common site is small, undernourished-looking Gyspy children, smoking cigarettes as they gaze into store windows newly displaying Western electronics.

South Fork in Slobozia is still a fantasy life for these Romanians. Mr. Alexander has sought to make his ranch hotel in this provincial, southeastern Romanian town as much like the fictional set as possible. He sent away for the architect's plans for South Fork and duplicated it. Two clocks at the reception desk display Slobozia time and Dallas time.

Staffers proudly show the main hotel's 24 rooms, complete with TVs and mini-bars -- commonplace in the United States, but luxurious rarities in Romania. The ranch management recently hosted a party for foreign ambassadors (minus the American ambassador, who did not attend), and is seeking to lure Westerners lonely for a "home" experience as well as Romanian "Dallas" fans.

Mr. Alexander -- whose various businesses include a pig farm and a TV repair company -- has his own "Dallas" hero -- the notorious J.R. Ewing. Local newspapers have compared the two men, Mr. Alexander notes proudly.

"J.R. was the only character who really wanted to do something [in business] and he succeeded," Mr. Alexander said. Also, "I'm like J.R. because he liked women," added the burly, balding, 42-year-old.

The self-described Romanian J.R. is hoping that the cast members will visit his ranch and feel right at home. There is a stable of 80 horses from Germany -- some for riding, some for watching at the on-site rodeo. There are paths for walking, and a quality restaurant that has an unusually broad menu for Romania. Small cafe tables are placed on the back terrace of the main house.

Adding the the feeling of exclusivity are four watch-towers, where staffers keep an eye out for trespassers.

But the South Fork copy has lost a bit in the translation. The pool is huge -- 60 yards by 20 yards -- but the water is an unappetizing green. There is a small zoo for children, but some of the animals, brought from Bucharest, died because they couldn't handle the climate change, a staffer confided. The grassy field meant for volleyball playing is dried out and ungroomed.

Room rates are cheap for Westerners, but pricey for many Romanians.

A night in the main hotel runs 60,000-80,000 lei (about $31-$42); a state-paid doctor in Bucharest earns about $60 a month.

Mr. Alexander is still building on the site, adding an extra house of rooms he said would be suitable for a small business convention. And, the staff noted, there are more modest, cottage-style structures for young people on a budget.

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