SLOBOZIA, ROMANIA — In the country where the sinister Dracula once made his mark, a little piece of Americana has arisen that would make J.R. sneer with pride.
Southfork Ranch, home to the warring Ewing clan on the long-running TV series Dallas, now brightens this drab industrial city of 50,000 in southwestern Romania. Gleaming white, the palatial Southfork Romanian-style is an exact replica of the original, down to the length of the road leading to the residence.
Built at a cost of $1 million, Southfork is Romania's answer to Notre Dame or Big Ben. More than 2 million people have visited the fantasy site since it opened last May.
Presiding over this American dream is Ilie Alexandru, an entrepreneur known as the J.R. of Romania. Like many Romanians, he has watched every episode of the show. Unlike them, he is rich.
Mr. Alexandru sports bolo ties and hand-made German suits. Like his television idol, he enjoys the trappings of wealth. He lives with his third wife in a 60-room mansion, has eight secretaries working in two shifts, and breeds horses.
He also has a tight grip on the town. His company, Hermes S.R.L., employs 2,000 workers, or one-seventh of Slobozia's work force. Besides a thirst for profit, other similarities with J.R. include a love of beautiful women and a Texas-sized ego.
"I'm like a living legend," he said. "Be sure that I'm the subject of all dinner conversations around here."
Alexandru earned his money and his moniker through hard work and shrewdness. When the Iron Curtain fell in late 1989, he traveled to Istanbul, Turkey, and sold cheese, cheap suits, and silverware in open bazaars. He bought Turkish blue jeans with his earnings and sold them in Romania at a big profit.
After four months, he had saved enough money to open the first private store in the area. Hermes gradually expanded into a variety of businesses, including publishing, agriculture, and restaurants. Last year, the conglomerate posted a $10 million profit on sales of $60 million, making it one of Romania's most successful firms.
The idea for Southfork came to Alexandru in 1994. "Dallasmania," along with his widespread identification with J.R., led him to make the ranch the centerpiece of the Hermes Vacation Park. It was one of Alexandru's most savvy business moves.
No television show can rival Dallas's popularity here. In the late 1970s, it ran for three years before the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu yanked it off the air for "immorality" and "bourgeois values."
Dallas was the last American series to run here before the Romanian Revolution of 1989, and the first one to air in post-Communist Romania. Millions of Romanians spent their Saturday nights between 1991 and 1994 huddled around television sets watching all 356 episodes.
"It was a bridge to the West for us," says Ioan Ionel, of TVR-1, of the country's sole national station. "The average Romanian could only fantasize about such beautiful cars, a ranch, nice clothes. It was a kind of paradise."
And a refuge. Romanians devoured the show for the same reason they flock to Southfork: to escape the crushing poverty and hopelessness of daily life.
Real wages have fallen to 70 percent of the pre-1989 level. The elderly have seen inflation eat up their pensions, and a few have resorted to begging to survive. The government, in a move to shore up support, has just opened several discount stores for pensioners. Western stores sell expensive jewelry and clothing that few can afford.
In the capital city of Bucharest, wild dogs travel in packs and terrorize the population. An estimated 2,000 abandoned children live on the street, many sniffing glue. Former hard-line-communists-turned-capitalists tool around the city in sparkling new BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes, while the masses crowd into buses and subways that reek of sweat, alcohol, and dirt.
Back at Southfork, many Dallas fans have spent the night at the ranch, which doubles as a 22-room hotel. Although an Orthodox icon hangs in the lobby and the dour receptionist working at the front desk bears slight resemblance to Pamela Ewing, the hotel does sell Dallas brand cologne and boasts a clock displaying "Dallas Time." It's also clean, which in Romania is enough to earn four stars and fetch $35 a night per room.
"It's very nice," said Adina Olteanu, who traveled three hours in the rain with her fianc to get here. "I loved the TV show."
Alexandru points to the spot where a 123-foot-high replica of the Eiffel Tower will go up next month. A Roman amphitheater is in the works. But his thoughts never stray far from the TV series Dallas.
"I would like to meet Larry Hagman and tell him I made real all that he portrayed in the series," Alexandru said. "Do you know how I can reach him?"