I was saddened to learn recently of the death of Dawn Wells, who portrayed sweet Kansas farm girl Mary Ann Summers, the only normal person amidst six other (kooky) castaways stranded on “Gilligan’s Island.”
Her publicist, Harlan Boll, told the Associated Press she died peacefully Dec. 30 from COVID-19 complications at a residential facility in Los Angeles. She was 82.
“There is so much more to Dawn Wells” than the “Gilligan’s Island” character that brought her fame, Boll said in a statement. How right he was about the actress who also served as a teacher, motivational speaker and conservationist.
I immediately became a fan of the show and of Dawn at the age of 12 when the CBS sitcom hit the air in 1964. Little could I have guessed that 14 years later I would be sitting down to lunch with Dawn and getting to ask her all sorts of questions about her life. Much less could I have imagined that another 14 years later, I would be a “little buddy” with her working on “Mary Ann’s Gilligan’s Island Cookbook.”
An entertainment writer at The Tennessean, I barely had been at the big city paper a year when I found out that NBC was making a “Gilligan’s Island” TV reunion movie. I had heard that Dawn lived in Nashville. Thus, one fine fall afternoon we met for lunch at Houston’s on West End, and I quizzed her about the project and how she got started in show biz.
Among other details, I learned she was a fourth-generation Nevadan and that her great-great-grandfather drove the stagecoach from Reno to Virginia City during the gold rush of 1849. Before acting, she was Miss Nevada 1959 and competed in the 1960 Miss America Pageant. From there she went to Hollywood and appeared on such TV shows as “77 Sunset Strip”, “Maverick”, “Bonanza”, “Cheyenne”, “Surfside 6” and “Hawaiian Eye.”
Then she beat out hundreds of actresses for the role of wholesome Mary Ann, a gig that lasted three seasons and 98 episodes.
Dawn told me they shot the pilot in Hawaii while the series was produced in Hollywood and the beach scenes at Malibu. As for the lagoon, she said the network spent $750,000 to build it along with the waterfalls, palm trees and tropical plants. They taped three days a week on the set and occasionally would walk in to discover the lagoon was being used for a scene from “Gunsmoke,” as the tropical plants had been replaced with willow trees and sagebrush.
As for how Dawn came to call Nashville her home? That was due to her brother, a student at Columbia State Junior College. She visited him so much that she bought a house in Music City in 1976. She shared that Nashvillians recognized her on the street but it typically was when she looked her worst, “like when I’m at Kmart looking for a trash can or something.”
During our meal, a Tennessean photographer dropped in to take a fresh photograph. A day or two later, she called to let me know she had a really nice picture that she preferred we use, which she had left at the front counter. That picture was probably taken seven or eight years earlier. I used our photographer’s picture. I didn’t hear from her for a while after that.
Cut to the early 1990s when my friend and writing partner Jim Clark and I somehow had put together a best-selling TV-related cookbook. Our publishers were so thrilled with its success that they asked if we had any other ideas. We suggested “Mary Ann’s Gilligan’s Island Cookbook.” They liked it as did Dawn. I remember that we signed the book contract over breakfast in a downtown hotel and christened the project not with champagne but orange juice.
As she gathered recipes, Jim and I interviewed her on several occasions to capture anecdotes about the show and cast members and we also scrutinized all 98 episodes, making scores of notes to assist in writing sidebars on the fictional castaways and compiling trivia quizzes. We also gave zany names to many of her recipes. (Hut Pizza, Marooned Macaroons, Mary Ann and Ginger’s Sweet and Sour Pork, and Gang Plank Flank Steak come to mind.)
Dawn truly was an excellent cook, a skill passed down by her mother, both grandmothers and a great-grandmother. The cookbook featured over 300 recipes, most of them hers and several from her co-stars. As for desserts, well, that section starred 13 coconut cream pie recipes including Mary Ann’s Famous Coconut Cream Pie.
Dawn was easy to work with, always chipper and kind, although she was not too thrilled to find that the copyright page at the front of the book listed her birth year. She had a habit of telling the press that she was a bit younger than she was. One other quirk she had was insisting that Mary Ann’s hair-do was a ponytail rather than pigtails.
Nevertheless, she was pleased with the book. It sold around 100,000 copies.
After being alerted of her death, I found the book she signed for me. She had written: Ken: You are super! I couldn’t have done it without you. Lots of love. Dawn Wells
Truth be told, Jim and I couldn’t have done it without her. And she was super.
As for her Mary Ann wardrobe, the gingham dress and shorts, she sold them at auction in 2005 for $20,700. They can be seen at The Hollywood Museum in Los Angeles.
Closer to home, in 2013 The Elephant Sanctuary at Hohenwald, the nation’s largest natural-habitat refuge developed specifically for elephants retired from performance and exhibition, honored Dawn with the Trumpeter Award for her support over the years. And in 2014, she wrote “A Guide to Life: What Would Mary Ann Do?”
One final funny anecdote she shared with me centered on the famous TV show theme song. The original lyrics concluded “with Gilligan, the skipper too, the millionaire and his wife, the movie star and all the rest, here on Gilligan’s Island.” (Note: In a later version the words “all the rest” were replaced by “the professor and Mary Ann.”)
Dawn told me, “During the run of the original series, Russell Johnson and I were referred to as ‘the rest’ in the opening song, while the others were mentioned by name. So, Russell and I would send cards and flowers to one another now and then saying, ‘Love, the rest.’”
The takeaway on my association with the delightful Dawn Wells is that she was truly beloved by her fans and she loved them back equally. Her buoyant smile made the world a brighter place.
Ken Beck, who lives in Lebanon, was a features and entertainment writer for The Tennessean from 1977-2008 where he also wrote an entertainment column. He also edited the newspaper’s entertainment magazine, which allowed him to interview hundreds of actors, musicians and writers.