WHAT WOULD MARY ANN SAY? An Interview With Dawn Wells

 

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The times, they WERE a-changing…

Indeed, 1964 was a turbulent year in history. Huge transformations were happening in politics, technology, social mores, and pop culture– both in the USA and the rest of the world. But despite all the crazy goings-on in the “seismic sixties”, there was one issue burning in the minds of American TV junkies from 1964 to 1967, keeping them awake at night and inspiring lively debates– and possibly even bar brawls:

Mary Ann or Ginger?

Gilligan’s Island, the uncharted desert isle that Mary Ann and Ginger shared with five other colorful characters, would run for three years… and, thanks to decades of reruns and the subsequent phenomenon of home video and the internet, the “Mary Ann or Ginger?” question– the sweet country girl versus the glamorous sex symbol– is likely to continue for another 53 years. But what does the REAL Mary Ann, actor/author Dawn Wells, have to say about the debate? The first thing I got to ask the eternally youthful Ms. Wells is, “Do you ever get tired of hearing ‘Mary Ann or Ginger?’ Are you ever like, ‘Enough already, people!'”?

Wells answered, “No. Because I always win!”

(How could you not love this woman?)

DAWN ICONIC SHORTS

Gilligan’s Island was vilified by critics from the very beginning for being inconceivable and silly.  As is usually the case, however, the fans had the final say. And, indeed, those fans fell in love with the show’s quirky charms– from the indisputably catchy opening theme song to the end credits, when we wondered if the next episode would be the one where the characters may finally be rescued. Wells gave one example of her fans’ dedication in her first book, where she tells the story of one Gilligan devotee who named his two daughters (Get ready…) “Mary Ann” and “Ginger”. Gilligan’s Island ran for a total of 98 episodes, spawned three television movie sequels, and made trans-generational pop culture icons out of its seven stranded castaways. However, their new fame was also a double-edged spear. Like many actors from other long-running sitcoms, the stars of Gilligan’s Island faced the risk of being typecast for the rest of their careers.

In contrast to actress Tina Louise, who played Mary Ann’s perceived rival Ginger, Dawn Wells has joyously embraced the character that made her one of television’s most beloved girls next door. Raised in Reno, the eternally youthful Wells was a former Miss Nevada and a fledgling performer when she auditioned for the role of Mary Ann Summers at age 25. Fresh-off-the-farm Mary Ann was inspired by another gingham-wearing Kansas girl, Judy Garland’s Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz. Wells’ competition included, interestingly, another newcomer named Raquel Welch. Gilligan’s Island finished its course 50 years ago, but never stopped airing on TV in reruns. Through the years, Wells has always given her fans what they wanted. In 1993, she published Mary Ann’s Gilligan’s Island Cookbook. With hundreds of user-friendly recipes from soups to desserts, the book featured dishes with such campy names as “Eva’s Grubb”, “Grass Skirt Green Bean Salad”, and “Don’t Rock the Boat Rockfish” . The book also famously featured 13(Yes, 13!) recipes for coconut cream pie. Even if the reader doesn’t cook a single dish, Mary Ann’s Gilligan’s Island Cookbook is still a must for Gilligan fans old and new.  Alongside the recipes, the book is interspersed with photos, an episode guide, cast biographies, trivia from the series, and Wells’ priceless showbiz anecdotes (“The question I’m asked most often is ‘Where’d you get all those clothes?'”). More recently, Wells can be seen in a featured role in Steven Wishnoff’s award-winning comedy web series Life Interrupted, which features quite a cast: Mason Reese (best known as the kid in the Underwood Deviled Ham commercial), Alison Arngrim (Nellie from Little House on the Prairie), Michael Learned (Mama Walton), Erin Murphy (Tabitha from Bewitched), and Robbie Rist (Cousin Oliver from The Brady Bunch). Needless to say, the series is a classic TV fan’s dream. Wells plays Annie Hughes, a barmaid who’s not afraid to flaunt her saucy side. In, in one scene, Wells’ Annie “accidentally” drops a tissue so that she can get a better view of the, shall we say… “assets” of her hunky bartender Julio (Luis Jose Lopez) Wells also appears in the campy two-episode web series She’s Still on That Freakin’ Island, which has gotten over 70,000 views on YouTube.

Wells’ latest project is the audiobook version of her 2014 book What Would Mary Ann Do? A Guide to Life, which comes at the 50th anniversary of the end of Gilligan’s Island’s run on TV in 1967. In her book, Wells offers smartly direct advice about sex and dating, self-esteem, age, beauty, manners and etiquette, the entertainment business, finding one’s true self, and much more– all told with a sense of humor. Is Wells’ Mary Ann still a role model for 2018, a year when common sense is proving to be an endangered species and good manners are all but extinct? Wells thinks so. She introduces her book with, “At first glance, Mary Ann doesn’t seem to fit in this age today, does she? Her manners.  Her innate sense of propriety.  Her ponytails, gingham dress, and short shorts.  Her plainspoken demeanor… Or, would Mary Ann use emoticons today? I think, ‘Maybe’… Birth control pills, the feminist movement, the sexual revolution: They were barely even known when Mary Ann landed on the island 50 years ago. The whole idea of a ‘good girl’ has evolved: Gilligan’s Island, to That Girl, to Dallas, to Sex and the City… oh, to reality TV! You get the idea! Many a good girl today will publicly say or do things that would have made her ‘scarlet letter material’ on the island. But, still, Mary Ann does fit. She fits today as she fit two generations ago. She fits, because she’s timeless. The values and the principle of her character are timeless. I know this, because the core of Mary Ann is really me!” Later on, Wells offers her opinion on the state of interpersonal communication in the era of social media: “Communication has changed. I sense there’s too much drama out there. It’s like your life doesn’t have meaning if it doesn’t have drama. Ah, there are emotions, but the way they’re expressed is almost impersonal. I miss the beautiful language of love. Does anyone really believe you can express it with hashtags and emoticons and tweets? Sonnets, they ain’t… Hold it, hold it… If I had children I wouldn’t want them saying ‘ain’t’! Sonnets they AREN’T! What a combination: Too much drama and too little meaning!”

Who could argue with that? As youthful and energetic as ever, Dawn Wells spoke to me about her new audiobook, the enduring legacy of Gilligan’s Island, and more:

JR: Thank you for speaking with me, Ms. Wells! Greetings from New York City!
DW: My pleasure!

JR: So, for starts… Congratulations on the release of the audiobook for “What Would Mary Ann Do? A Guide to Life”?
DW: I think we should all learn a little from that, don’t you? There is no Mary Ann today. It s kind of hard raising children. I don’t have any, but there are so many things to distract them today, as opposed to when I was growing up. Back then, you went roller skating or skiing, and that was about it. Nowadays, there’s everything. I think that Mary Ann is a pretty good example. We’ve been losing track of manners, losing track of studying hard, losing track of art… The world is in so much disarray. That’s why I think that the book What Would Mary Ann Do? is a pretty good example… because Mary Ann was a pretty good character. She was sort of the “rudder” of the seven of us.
JR: Yeah! Mary Ann had so many great qualities: her gentle nature, her common sense, her practical attitude on life, her work ethic, the fact that she was so down to earth… She was a great role model for girls and women– and men too. But what makes her such an enduring heroine as we progress into 2018?
DW: I think that it’s her ethics: who she really was. You can’t take that away from anyone. She was kind, she was helpful, she was smart, she was cheery, she was polite… and she carried her load. She also wore short shorts, which wasn’t bad! (Laughs)
JR: (Laughs) Agreed! SHort shorts are always good!
DW: That’s a whole other chapter! But we all wore short shorts back when I was a kid. Nowadays, everything is twice as naked! Anyway, Mary Ann could be your sister. She could be your mother. She’s a great role model… and I don’t think that there are many of those anymore, especially on TV.
JR: Even when Mary Ann was being sexy, she was still “the girl next door”. It wasn’t an “in your face” sexiness. She didn’t have to ACT sexy, because she just WAS sexy!
DW: Exactly! And of course, you had Ginger to take the other side! Sherwood Schwartz had seven people with seven definite personalities. He covered everything. As silly as the show seems, I think it was very well done.
JR: We all know that the critics didn’t like Gilligan’s Island, but the fans loved and still love it. You and the rest of the cast really cemented your status in pop culture forever…
DW. And worldwide!
JR: Yes! What was it that made the show endure so long? Fans from my generation, as well as the ones before and after mine, can recall entire plots and even specific lines from some episodes. They can remember all those little idiosyncrasies from the show…
DW: (Laughs) For one thing, Gilligan’s Island took the sitcom out of the living room. Sitcoms before that were always about families: the “Mom and Dad and the kids living in the Midwest” kind of thing. Also, Gilligan’s Island was very pretty to look at, with the water and the flowers and all that. . It wasn’t “Mayberry, USA”! (Laughs).
JR: Well, we can all be grateful for that! (Laughs)
DW: I liked Mayberry though! (Laughs) Also, I think, that with the seven characters, he covered everything: wealth, greed, laziness, happiness, intellect, sexy shorts, the love between Allen (Hale) and Bob (Denver)— I mean, even though Gilligan was always getting into trouble, there was love between him and the Skipper. Sherwood did a very good job in creating the seven of us. Natalie Schafer was such a joy. And she WAS the character. It was wonderful working with her. Did you know of an actor named Louis Calhern? He was a great Shakespearean actor, and Natalie worked with him a lot. She was always so proud of that! Jim Bacchus was also wonderful. He was his own person. He brought his own personality and sense of humor to the character. And then there were the two body types with Allen and Bob: Great big Allen was the size of my Dad. Bob was the size of a 14-year old. The contrast between the two was wonderful. It was a great cast, and half the reason that a series works is the casting. The plots weren’t so great… so you have to have the right people with it. The casting made the writing work. And, the characters all managed to get along: all walks of life together. We had the wealthy, the hard worker, the intellect, the goofy kid. All of that put together. We survived it, and we liked each other. That’s a lesson that kids need to learn.

JR: Definitely! They world could also use more of Mary Ann’s common sense, work ethic, and positive attitude on life! . So, what is your relationship like with your fans today?
DW: It’s just the same as it used to be. I am treated with respect and love because as a kid, I was in your living room all the time… and if you were a girl I would have been your best friend, and if you were a boy I’d probably have been your first crush: You would have taken me to the prom, and I’d be the one you’d marry. So, Schwartz covered all bases. There was more depth then you’d think. We grew up watching Father Knows Best. That was all about the family and the kids. With Gilligan’s Island, you have seven misfits, from all walks of life, trying to make it work. That’s civilization today. He put us on a beautiful island that was pretty to look at. The critics hated us. They just thought it was the stupidest thing. But we’ve never been off the air.

JR: How true! Now, there’s also a web series, Life Interrupted…
DW: Yes! I play a barmaid– from one end to the other! Her name is Annie Hughes
JR: Oh yes! The creator of the show, Steven Wishnoff, has said that the character Annie Hughes was written for you, right from the beginning. He described Annie Hughes as “So NOT Mary Ann!”… and after watching the series, I know why he said that!
DW: (Laughs) That’s kind of funny because I played the ingenue from Day 1. I had a little round face and all of that. You get typecast. The first thing I did after Gilligan’s Island was to go on the road with The Owl and The Pussycat. I played a hooker. I wanted to show that I could do two things at the same time! So, I’ve always played the ingenue and “the sweet young thing”… that said,  my hooker WAS a nice girl! As an actress, you want to have a range. But I do think that the character of Mary Ann is really me. I’m a little more sophisticated than that, but I was raised a Mary Ann. No question!
JR: As we progress into 2018, do you find that the “percentage” of Mary Ann in Dawn Wells has changed? (Laughs)
DW: Well, the world is a little bit more complicated now! And I’m not a mother. I think that when you have children, that keeps you on the straight and narrow. My mother knew where I was every single second. We were born on the same day: October 18th was our birthday. I have some funny stories. I can remember being a junior in college, and a boyfriend was driving me from Reno to Seattle. It’s about a 12 to 14 hour drive. Somewhere on the highway, the highway patrol pulled us over. We rolled down the window, and the policeman asked, “Is there a Dawn Wells in the car? Call your mother!” That’s a true story. My mother was worried about me! She wasn’t sure I was gonna get there. So, she found a policeman somewhere and said, “She’s on the highway!”… and he found me! So, Dawn was raised a Mary Ann, no question… in Reno, Nevada, which was not easy!

JR: No doubt!  I’m very impressed that she was able to find you in an era before cell phones! God bless her! So, as an actor, you have not stopped working since arriving in Los Angeles. How have you seen the entertainment business change through the years? Has it been a good change, or bad change?
DW: I don’t know. Way back then, it was just three networks. Now, there’s everything. You can find anything you want on TV. I think that it’s good– and a little bad as well! We’ve grown. We had three networks and that was it! Back then, there were the censors. I couldn’t even show my navel! My little shorts had a point at the top. Tina couldn’t show her cleavage. Now, they’re half naked everywhere! I mean, the world has changed… but that’s why I think that Gilligan’s Island sustains. It was pretty to look at, it was “clean”, it was family oriented, it makes you laugh, and there is a little bit of a message there. Today, there are so many channels that you can get anything you want to see… but I think you need some Gilligan’s Island on the air. Or Beverly Hillbillies, ya know? It makes you laugh, you have good writing, and you have talented people. I think we’re a pretty lucky nation!
JR: That’s why I’m grateful for DVD and YouTube, and channels like MeTV. They help keep these timeless characters and shows alive for the next generations. Now… Were there any urban legends about Gilligan’s Island that you’d like to put to rest?
DW: What do you mean? Like gossip?
JR: Well, here’s something: An insider in the business– a writer for daytime drama– once told me that there was a rumored script called “Ginger Gets Rescued” that everyone in the cast knew about, which was about… well, Ginger getting rescued obviously. It was kept on the burner in case Tina Louise decided to leave the show once and for all.
DW: I have never heard that rumor! Really and truly, I haven’t! I don’t think Tina was particularly happy, But nobody could have played Ginger better. She was wonderful in the role. Because, she really is that role. She really IS a movie star. And she knows it! The casting was so perfect. The chemistry was so perfect, and that’s really important, especially with TV… because we are in your house. We’re in your living room! Day after day after day! So, I think that you HAVE to like most of the people on television!

JR: I know that working on a regular series is hard work: the long hours, the tight schedule, et cetera… but when I watch episodes of Gilligan’s Island, it really looks like you are all having fun.
DW: Yes! We were. Bob and Allen together were magic. Every time Allen hit Bob on the head, it was done with love. Even if they got angry, nobody was mean. We weren’t related, but we were a family.

JR: That’s great to hear. Thanks for sharing! Now, what does Dawn Wells like to do in her spare time?
DW: I like to read. I paint; I’m not good at it, but I like to paint with oils. I’m not athletic, because my knees dislocate– but I wish I could do a sport. I’d love to ski, but I can’t. I’m a good cook. I just love life!
JR: Speaking of cooking, in anticipation of speaking with you, I actually made four recipes from I have to say. I made the Pork Chops “Polynesian”, the “Weenie Linguine”, the “Cosmonaut Coconut Chicken Salad”, and… I have to admit, “Ginger’s Coconut Cream” pie rather than “Mary Ann’s Coconut Cream Pie”… but only because I didn’t have any cornstarch in the house. It was too cold to go out and get some!
DW: (Gasps) Oh, wow!
JR: And I don’t even like to cook! (Laughs) So anyway, do you have any New Year’s Resolutions for 2018?
DW: No! I used to always do that! I’ve been traveling so much… but I’m really a homebody. I’d just like to stay home! Of course, I’ve been around the world on the Concorde, I’ve been just about everywhere… but there’s still so much I still need to see. Recently I left my mink coat on the belt at the airport. I got on a plane, the plane took off, and I was like, “Oh, for God’s sake! I forgot to pick up my mink coat!” You get so scattered when you travel so much.
JR: Well, Mrs. Howell would have never left her mink coat at the airport! (Laughs) Sorry, I had to!
DW: (Laughs) You got that right! But they found it!
JR: Whew! That’s good. So, anything else you’d like to tell your fans?
DW: I’d like to tell the fans how much we appreciate them. You never get the chance! When you’re doing theater, you hear the applause at the end and you know whether they liked it or not. But, I’ve been in your home for 50 years. So, I’m part of your family! You know me better than most people who’ve met me. You see me day after day. I don’t think you can do a film and have the “real you” coming through. You might be able to do it in a 90 minute film, but I think that with just about everybody who plays a character on TV– unless its “way far out”– then there’s so much a part of themselves in it. I think that all seven of us were pretty much like our characters.
JR: And I think that’s why we fell in love with those characters! I think that if people took what they learned from the show– and especially Mary Ann– and applied it to life as we know it nowadays, then we’d all be much happier!
DW: I think so too!

Dawn Headshot 2014 LRSee Dawn Wells in Life, Interrupted and She’s Still on That Freakin’ Island on YouTube!

What Would Mary Ann Do? A Guide to Life is available in print and audiobook versions.

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