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'The J. R. of Slobozia' returns; Showman: Released from prison after the collapse of his entertainment empire, Romanian entrepreneur Ilie Alexandru is trying again.


SLOBOZIA, Romania -- The King of Kitsch leans on a balcony railing of one of his hotels here and surveys the theme park below him -- 200 acres of what one observer calls a "pop cultural nightmare."

"It took us one year to build that steel tower," says the P. T. Barnum of the Balkans. The 160-foot Junior Eiffel Tower is a strange sight in this remote and low-lying farmland, 75 miles east of Bucharest.

Ilie Alexandru is a 46-year-old Romanian who made a fantasy come true, had it taken away from him, and now, after a prison sojourn, is back in business. Watch your wallets.

He leads a visitor down a walkway, past an outdoor disco that seats 500, past a restaurant where you can order a whole barbecued pig, past a one-eyed strolling gypsy playing an accordion, past a half-filled swimming pool, past the unfinished casino, the rusted hydroplanes and the wild-animal preserve. Here stands the Hotel Dallas -- a duplication of Southfork, from the TV series "Dallas."

This Southfork has 24 rooms. There are three other hotels on Alexandru's Hermes Ranch -- named for the Greek god of commerce -- but the Dallas, with its stately columns, prairie-size windows and Cadillac limo out front, is the soul of the place.

"Lots of people used to stay here," says Alexandru. "A Paris television crew came through one time. They looked at the tower and said, 'Yours is smaller than ours.' I said, 'But I own mine.' "

A bank now owns the Hermes Ranch, tower and all. "I went up as high as you can go," says Alexandru, "and now I'm at ground zero again, starting over."

A place to be seen

The ranch opened in 1992 and became a place where movie stars, athletes and politicians liked to be seen. Common folk showed up to gawk. Alexandru befriended the former president of Romania, Ion Iliescu, who dropped in several times to party.

In time, Alexandru added a racetrack. He drew up a blueprint for a wax museum, just like Madame Tussaud's in London. In a land where most citizens can't afford one car, Alexandru owned nearly 100. Stetson hats and sharkskin boots filled his closets.

The cowboy image was key. The immense popularity of the TV show "Dallas" drew Romanians to Slobozia. During the 1980s, it was the only American television show on the air in communist Romania. For years, all many Romanians knew of the outside world was that series' oil-digging, bed-hopping, free-spending characters.

Then, in November 1997, police jailed Alexandru and charged him with forgery, fraud and theft. The Hermes Ranch closed its gates. Thieves broke in and stole French paintings off the hotel walls, German bridles from the stables, hand-crafted furniture from the restaurants. Dozens of racehorses died, and a bunch of domestic bighorn sheep starved.

"I couldn't do anything about it," says Alexandru. For almost a year and a half he sat in Bucharest's Rahova Prison.

The Hermes Ranch was a victim, it seemed, of Romania's mad rush into the free-enterprise system. Most Romanians were convinced that it would never reopen. But this spring, Alexandru, a free man, came back and began to renovate the place.

"This is my home," he says as he motions to the land around the ranch and the city in the distance.

Slobozia sounds like a name the late cartoonist Al Capp might have invented. "Slobod" means "free" in Romanian: More than a century ago, peasants came here to be free of landholders. Now a charmless city of 56,000, Slobozia was a gritty, forgettable place whose chief industry was a pig farm. Then Ilie Alexandru waved his magic wand.

"When I was a boy in Romania," he says, "you couldn't really have dreams. At least dreams of making money." He was born in Slobozia in 1952. His father died when he was 12, his mother worked as a school janitor.

Alexandru struggled along like most under totalitarianism, and then "Dallas" debuted on Romanian television. The show had numerous runs and still pops up now and then, eight years after it went off the air in the United States.

"I loved the lifestyle of that show," says Alexandru. "I didn't think I could ever have that life, but I loved thinking about it and about J.R. Ewing. I wanted to be just like him."

When communism ended in Romania in 1989, Alexandru started one of the first individually owned businesses -- an all-purpose boutique in Slobozia. He created another store, then another. Like J.R., Alexandru got involved in oil -- vegetable oil, which he manufactured in Slobozia. He set up a plant to assemble television sets. Then he started Dallas. The people of Slobozia were thrilled.

"He gave something to this town," says Ionela Trandafir, 20, now a hostess at the Hermes Ranch. "Nobody had ever done anything for us before."

He employed nearly 2,000 people, almost all of them from Slobozia. He lived with his wife and four children in a palatial home at the ranch, with an eight-car garage, a billiards room and rugs so thick you could break your ankle.

Each year his park took on new themes, added attractions -- a sculpture garden here, a Chinese pagoda there. At one point the Hermes Ranch turned over $60 million a year.

"You could go anywhere in Romania, way up to Suceava," says Trandafir, "and if you said you were from Slobozia, everybody would say, 'Oh, yes, Dallas.' "

Collapse begins

In 1996, Romania voted in a new president, Emil Constantinescu. He was not a crony of Alexandru's, and politicians began staying away from Hermes Ranch. Work stopped on the casino. Excavation for a Disneyland-like park near the Junior Eiffel Tower was suspended. Plans were halted for a 3,000-seat indoor theater.

Then police hauled away Alexandru. He was charged with illegally buying and selling grain and sugar. A couple of banks foreclosed on $18 million worth of loans. One of them held an auction at the ranch, but little was sold. Everything was priced far too high for economically strapped Romania.

Trials were scheduled, but none took place. Alexandru never was convicted, though the incarceration caused great pain. "He had lots of famous friends once," says his wife, Mirela. "But when he got in trouble, nobody famous wanted to be his friend anymore."

Declaring bankruptcy, Alexandru refused to admit defeat. "God told me in prison," he says, "not to give up."

Don't make "the J.R. of Slobozia," as he's still known, into a hero, critics caution. By himself, Alexandru nearly wiped out the two banks. And "because the state budget had to cover the unpaid loans of the banks," says Bogdan Marchindanu, a veteran Bucharest business writer, "Ilie Alexandru affected the pocketbook of every person in Romania. If he'd just been more discreet about things, if he'd gone slower and used his own money to build up that crazy place, nobody would have cared."

In an attempt to regain some of its losses, one of the banks leases the Hermes Ranch to Alexandru. Determined to restore the ranch to glory, he has hired 200 employees. He lives with his family in an apartment in town and drives his only car, a Pontiac. He says he has little money, though a gold Rolex decorates his thick wrist and his mobile phone rings constantly.

"I love this place," says the King of Kitsch, "but I didn't build it to have money or to eat better. I love it because I created it out of nothing -- just to make people smile and have fun. There's nothing bad about that, is there?"

Pub Date: 6/08/99

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