Prime (time) Properties

A small sign at the end of a leafy driveway in Napa Valley’s tranquil wine country warns, “No Vehicles Beyond This Point.” But a belching Winnebago packed with a family of camera-clutching tourists lurches past it and halts. The shutterbugs aim at a turreted house gracefully rooted in a lush vineyard and known to 29 million TV fans as Falcon Crest. Click. The behemoth turns and exits down a path flanked by delicate olive trees, leaving a trail of feathery branches sheared as it passes. Owner Michael Robbins, notably lacking in Angela Channing’s ice-cube hauteur, charges out of his office bellowing, “Did you see those morons?”

It is only one of many intrusions at the Spring Mountain Winery in St. Helena, Calif. since it became the setting for CBS’ Falcon Crest, and Robbins is only one of several prosperous landowners who have grown more prosperous by leasing their property for TV series. “I’m not as nice about it as I used to be,” confesses Robbins, 60, who flourished in real estate before buying his 258-acre spread in 1974. “We have found people staring into our windows and walking up to our front door expecting house tours, which we refuse. Once, we discovered a couple of ladies in our butler’s pantry, mentally dividing up the goods.” Since then, tight security measures have been taken to keep the curious at bay.

Three years ago Robbins negotiated a contract with Lorimar Productions for a fee that he insists “nobody could ever get rich on,” although average rates for television property rentals stretch from $1,000 to $4,500 a day. The company spends two to three weeks each summer filming on the porch, at the pool, in the barn and vineyard. The indoor scenes are shot in a Burbank studio. “We sure don’t live like Angela Channing,” says Robbins. “The valley is not a vicious, greedy place. Nobody came here to make a lot of money. We all gave that up to pursue this romantic dream of making the world’s greatest wine and living a good life.”

Aside from recalcitrant tourists, Robbins has few complaints. “Sometimes I have to explain to the guard at the gate that I do belong to the property,” he says, “but the company doesn’t intrude on our operation. My staff [of 16] loves it because the company brings a big chuck wagon and everyone eats burritos for breakfast.”

Robbins, who lives with his wife, Susan, a professional flower arranger, and her daughter, Sarah, 15, allowed cameras inside his restored 19th-century house only to shoot the Falcon Crest pilot. “They were careful,” he reports, “but it’s like driving a tractor around your living room carefully. The repair bills for the antique Oriental carpets alone were close to $4,000.” Lorimar paid.

On occasion the Robbins family has joined the production. When Susan was asked to round up 40 locals who could pass for winery owners for the pilot, she called her neighbors Louis Martini, Hans Kornell and others, who earned $3.35 an hour. Her husband played Jane Wyman’s escort for the evening. Susan is now a salaried location casting director. She has placed her mother in a funeral scene, her daughter in a marathon and has cast other roles through local newspaper ads. Last year Robbins tried being technical adviser on the program. “They rarely asked questions and kept making blunders,” he says. “I called the producer and said, ‘Look, last Friday you made six bloopers. If you’re not going to ask, please take my name off the credits.’ So they did.”

Like most Napa wineries, Spring Mountain offers free daily tours (by appointment), and tourist traffic has tripled since Falcon Crest premiered. In addition, Robbins has a contract to produce a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay under a second label, Spring Mountain’s Falcon Crest. He has spent $60,000 adding on to his winery to accommodate the growing number of visiting tasters. A picture window at the winery neatly frames his celebrated home. “Sometimes,” he says, “I sit watching my own house on TV, thinking, ‘How remarkable.’ Frankly, it looks so nice I wish I were there.”

Halfway across the country, at the Southfork Ranch in a Dallas suburb, the welcome mat is TEXAS-size. Here, eager Dallas fans queue up for hours, anxious to pay $4 for gazing rights. Dressed in black and chewing on a fat cigar, proprietor J. (Joe) R. (Rand) Duncan, 49, sidles up to a tourist from Ireland who is wearing a tattered raincoat and hennaed hairpiece. He is pressed against the glass living-room door. “Go ahead, peek right through,” urges the owner. “Lip prints are okay, we’ve got plenty of Windex.

People ask how can you stand having tourists look through your windows? I say, ‘Don’t have too much sympathy for me, because they’re paying for it,’ ” says Duncan. While in the construction and land-development business, he bought the 200-acre farm in 1970 and transformed it into a horse and cattle ranch. He has leased it for exterior shooting 10 weeks each summer since 1978 for an undisclosed fee.

Like the other J.R., Duncan keeps an eye peeled for profit. When enthusiasts started pocketing blades of grass and slivers of fence, he parked a Dodge van at the entrance to sell Southfork T-shirts and caps. In its place now is a cluttered trailer with Southfork popcorn, J.R. beer, signature pens, spoons, bumper stickers and, for the more ostentatious consumer, a 24k, gold-plated Southfork belt buckle ($50). Last year Duncan started catering. Groups of at least 100 can tie on the feed bag and do-si-do in Duncan’s barn for $80 a head.

“We’re not your carnival type,” says Kelly, 28, the eldest of Duncan’s three sons. “We’re just offering a service—of course, for a profit.” Kelly once appeared in a roundup scene and watches every Dallas episode.

During filming the grounds are well guarded, but that did not stop one zealot from dropping in—via parachute—from a plane at 3,000 feet. Then there was the feisty elderly woman who showed up at an autograph session, climbed onstage and walloped Hagman with her handbag. “She said, ‘I came all the way from Minnesota just to do that,’ ” Kelly remembers. “I nearly had to catch Hagman flying off the stage.” There was also the sybarite from Phoenix who offered the family $10,000 to move out for the weekend so he could treat his girl to Southfork. Did Duncan comply? “Hell no,” he hoots. “I’d have lost money.”

Money was not the motive when Arthur and Dianne Generaux leased their Tudor home in L.A.’s secluded Hancock Park for filming. “I wanted to meet the stars,” says Dianne, 48. She has since had her photo snapped with Engelbert Humperdinck, who came to shoot an album cover, greeted Ricardo Montalban (commercial) and chatted with Victoria Principal (TV movie). Last September Cliff Robertson began napping in their maid’s room when Falcon Crest leased the house to film in the driveway and on the first floor (it is Robertson’s house in the series). In one recent sequence Susan (Maggie Gioberti) Sullivan had to lose her balance during an argument and tumble down the Generaux’s oak staircase. The crew covers the carpets with layout boards and drapes sheets over antiques they are not using. But once Dianne’s favorite $4,000 Queen Anne chair was knocked over and chipped. It was immediately ferried by the producers to a repair specialist. The couple earns about $1,600 a day in rentals, and Arthur, 49, a tax attorney, lets his wife spend it.

Dianne plans her day around cast and crew, like a mother hen. “I never tell anyone they are going to be here,” she says, “because everyone would want to come over.” Nevertheless the Generaux’s social life has picked up. “We noticed Falcon Crest fans would invite us over and cross-examine us about future story lines,” says Arthur, who has been known to make up phony plots. Their daughter, Linda, 15, likes having stars around so much she has decided to invite British rockers Duran Duran to shoot their next album cover at her home—free of charge.

Far less star-struck are Richard and Tracy Grossman, who have been leasing out their 63-acre ranch in L.A.’s Ventura County for five years. “Celebrities are wonderful, but they’re just like everyone else,” observes Dr. Grossman, 51, a plastic surgeon whose patients have included Richard Pryor. The Grossmans groomed their Brook-field Farms specifically as a film location site, and they advertise it in a color brochure. The property has been the stage for Irish Spring soap and Metamucil laxative commercials, and Sly Stallone hawked Japanese soup there earlier in his career. Polly Bergen and Peter Graves had an affair on the ranch in The Winds of War, and Playboy brought Dorothy Stratten over to shoot a layout a month before she was murdered. “They wanted to use my horse,” says Tracy, “but I was not going to have my horse in a picture with a naked woman. Hefner is a pig.”

From July through January the Grossmans rent their ranch once a week (at $1,000 per day) to the cast and crew of CBS’ Knots Landing; it serves as Gary Ewing’s ranch. Last season, Tracy remembers, “Lorimar told us they wanted to shoot Gary and Abby’s wedding here. I said, ‘Who are Gary and Abby?’ ” Now the Grossmans are occasional viewers. When Gary was shot this season, Grossman’s nurses deluged his office angling for more details. “We’ve had murders, rapes, weddings, funerals here,” boasts Richard, “all the fun stuff.” He marvels at the attention to detail. “They filmed the wedding here and catered it as beautifully as my wedding,” he says, “but nobody ate. They always leave the food behind. Our pig lives off Knots Landing.”

The Morton mansion in Pasadena has been the Big Daddy of domestic backdrops since the Marx Brothers shot Duck Soup there in 1933. “Everybody ends up here sooner or later,” says Charles Morton, 35, son of the owner. “We’ve even had Howdy Doody.” Morton shares the two-and-a-half-acre estate with his girlfriend and parents. His father, Coleman, made his fortune in the stock market before retiring 15 years ago, and the leasing helps to defray the cost of keeping the 12-bed-room house and its staff of 10. “If people knew what to look for they’d realize the house is on TV continuously,” says Charles, who is sensitive to overexposure. “I’ve even seen it in commercials between shows in which it appears.” He reels off a recent list of visitors: “George Burns for Water Pik shower, O.J. Simpson for Hertz Rent A Car, John McEnroe for Bic shavers and three days of Jell-O.” The villa also served as Morgan Fairchild’s steamy haven on NBC’s Flamingo Road and has been seen on NBC’s Knight Rider, ABC’s Hart to Hart and CBS’ Scarecrow and Mrs. King. But it is only when ABC’s Dynasty is in production that the generally blasé neighbors tend to drift over. The Mortons’ driveway and backyard gardens serve as exteriors of the Carrington home—except in the credits, where the landmark Filoli Estate in San Mateo is used.

Filming is sometimes so hectic that a frazzled Charles does not always recognize all the stars. Once he handed Robert Wagner a tray and asked him to help pick up empty glasses. Wagner complied. Later a sheepish Morton observed, “I thought that he looked familiar.”

Related Articles