In the annuals of pop culture there have been three great debates: Coke or Pepsi? Ford or Chevy? Ginger or Mary Ann? The answers to the first two questions may never be settled, but the third is a no-brainer. The overwhelming majority of men and women everywhere prefer girl-next-door Mary Ann Summers, a fictional character from the 1960s comedy series, Gilligan’s Island, played expertly by Dawn Wells. Dawn was a stage and screen actress, a teacher, and author of What Would Mary Ann Do? Dawn Wells passed away on Dec. 30 from complications of COVID-19. She was 82.
Dawn Wells was born Oct. 18, 1938, in Reno, Nevada. Her father Joe was part owner in a Las Vegas hotel, and her mother Evelyn was a homemaker, and a bit over protective of her daughter. “My Mother knew where I was every single second. My junior year in college, I’m driving from Reno to Seattle with my boyfriend, and the highway patrol pulls us over. I rolled down the window and the policeman said, ‘Is there a Dawn Wells in the car?’ ‘Yes’, I said. ‘Call your mother,’ he said (Dawn laughs)”.
Dawn won the Miss Nevada contest in 1959, competed in the Miss America pageant, and then caught the acting bug in college. Soon afterward, she found steady work on television; often guest starring in Westerns like Cheyenne, Maverick, Wagon Train, and many others. She was a natural fit for Westerns because her great, great grandfather was a stagecoach driver, and Dawn had ridden horses since she was a child. “I remember one of the first western episodes I did, they asked me, ‘Can you drive a buckboard?’ I hadn’t driven a buckboard in my life, but I said ‘Of course I can!’ My horse got away and they had to come get me (laughs).”
Dawn portrayed Mary Ann from 1964 until 1967, but thanks to syndication, Gilligan’s Island has been playing somewhere in the world ever since. As a result, Dawn became one of the most recognizable actresses on the planet, and was in constant demand at nostalgia conventions and on talk shows.
I first met Dawn in 2013 when she attended the Western Film Festival in Winston-Salem. We re-connected five years later when she performed at the High Point Theatre to promote her book.
JL: Why did you write the book in the first place?
DW: Because we don’t have a Mary Ann today, and I think it’s very difficult being a parent, or a best friend. There are no guidelines. My generation was pretty black and white. There were no drugs, no sex before marriage. Now with all of the temptations and all of the permissiveness everywhere, it’s much harder to raise a child. But there still needs to be a guideline behind it, and I think that’s Mary Ann.
JL: Mary Ann herself had a pretty good upbringing because she never engaged in intimate relations with the Professor on Gilligan’s Island.
DW: Back then there was never any romance. They couldn’t even show my navel. We’ve come a long way. If we were doing the show today, we’d all be living in the same hut (laughs)”
JL: Your touring show is for the entire family, especially for fans of Gilligan’s Island, but what do you want the audience to take away from your presentation?
DW: When you’re in the audience, I want you to know that I’m relating to you. I’m not talking to you, I’m one of you, and that’s what I feel Mary Ann is. And what do I want you to take away from it? Don’t lose the values you’ve been raised with.
That’s pretty good advice from America’s girl next door. Rest in peace, Dawn.