Road Show Lonesome Dove Exhibit in Southlake
By Joy Donovan
Southlake church inspires a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, a TV miniseries and a photo exhibit
T he story goes that Texas author Larry McMurtry had shelved an unfinished Western novel because he just couldn’t come up with a title.
But as he was leaving a steakhouse in Ponder, he saw a parked church van emblazoned with Lonesome Dove Baptist Church. The name of the Southlake church, which was founded in 1846, grabbed McMurtry. He finished the book, and Lonesome Dove won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986. It went on to become the source material for one of the highest-rated miniseries ever. Not a bad claim to fame for a little Baptist church in Southlake.
The 1985 novel told the story of a pair of cantankerous Texas Rangers, the Wild West, romance, horses, cattle and snakes. The 1989 miniseries, with an estimated viewership of 26 million homes, won Golden Globes for best limited series and best actor for Robert Duvall; it also won five Emmy Awards. The Television Critics Association named it Program of the Year, and CBS won a Peabody Award for outstanding accomplishment.
In short, the four-part miniseries kicked up more attention than dust on a cattle trail. Decades later, it’s still finding an audience as the subject of a photo exhibit sure to appeal to anyone who wants to relive the series or learn about it for the first time.
The Southlake Historical Society is hosting the exhibit, “Lonesome Dove, the miniseries: Dramatic photographs by Bill Wittliff,” through Aug. 19 in the lobby of Southlake Town Hall, 1400 Main St. Viewing hours are 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday and Saturday. A reception for the exhibit is 4-6 p.m. July 23 at Town Hall. Mike Wise, a University of North Texas associate professor of history, will give a presentation. The reception is free and open to the public.
Wittliff captured photos of stars Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones and others during filming in Austin and Del Rio, Texas, and in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The photographs, part of The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos, make up the traveling exhibit, sponsored by Humanities Texas.
The Southlake Historical Society has tried to nab the exhibit for years.
“We’re glad we did, because I think the book and the miniseries are tied to Lonesome Dove Church,” said Connie Cooley, society president. “It was obviously well-received and won all kinds of awards in 1989. They really hit the jackpot.”
Wittliff, who died in 2019 at 79, was more than a photographer on the set. He also adapted the book for the small screen and co-produced the miniseries, among other major projects. Born in Texas, Wittliff was a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin.
The images he captured during filming — of actors, sets and escapades behind the scenes — depict what filmmakers thought the American West was like. Wise will address the accuracy of those depictions, or lack thereof, during his presentation. His college course titled “Hollywood and the Wild West” focuses on the critical historical perspective of the West.
Most people, he said, get their knowledge of American history from TV and movies.
“These are representations,” Wise said. “What artists are trying to evoke is approximations of the truth.”
The TV series and book were historical fiction focused on recurring concerns, anxieties and changes of the 1980s.
“All of these Western films give us moments to reflect on our desires of what we want our lives to look like and what we want our communities to look like,” Wise said. “It’s a way of reshifting the framework of the way you view your world.”
The photo exhibit offers modern perspectives on the miniseries’ 1980s influences and the source material’s 1870s story, all in the air-conditioned comfort of Southlake Town Hall.
While concerns from other eras might echo, some things do change.
“At the end of the day, you don’t have to worry about getting bitten by a water moccasin,” Wise quipped.