Thursday December 31, 2020
Dawn Wells (1938-2020)
Our dreamgirl next door.
It was the great question of the second half of the 20th century. It's also a question with no wrong answer. You either went with a tall, beautiful, red-haired seductress or a supercute girl next door with a smile that brightens the room and legs to die for who somehow makes coconut cream pies on a deserted island. But if we're honest about it, the proper response is this: “They're both out of our league.”
This, however, is the answer I've tended to give: “The time Mary Ann thought she was Ginger.”
That episode, “The Second Ginger Grant” (original airdate March 6, 1967, the seventh-to-last episode of “Gilligan's Island,” thank you, IMDb), knocked me for a loop when I was a kid. And for years afterward. Probably to this day. And I don't think it's because I wanted the girl next door to act like the seductress—or maybe I did, and do—it's more the scene where Mary Ann wants to make out with Gilligan but he runs away. But then he's told, by either the Professor or the Skipper, that because they're worried about Mary Ann's pyschic state he should return. So he does. He plops his head into her lap and she plants a long one of him while the soundtrack makes that mwaa mwaa mwaa mwaa sound. I don't think I ever wanted to be someone as much I wanted to be Gilligan with his head in Dawn Wells' lap while she plants a long one on him and you hear mwaa mwaa mwaa mwaa.
Dawn Wells, everyone's not-so-secret crush, the dreamgirl next door for several generations, died yesterday from complications with COVID.
My father went out with her. I know, I'm burying the lede. in 1979, Dawn came to Minneapolis as part of a touring company for Neil Simon's “Chapter Two,” and he did a feature on her for the Star-Tribune. He also asked if he could show her around town. Just the typical journalistic graciousness, you understand. Journalism 101 stuff, really. Dad did it with everybody.
I was a little fuzzy on the details, so I asked about it when I talked to him yesterday. He thinks he bought her lunch. He doesn't remember what sites he showed her. I cut to the chase. “Did you kiss her?” “Well, at the end, she gave me a kiss,” he said. “To thank me.” From the sound of it, it was not a romantic kiss. It wasn't mwaa mwaa. Even so, my father got to first base—or halfway there—with Mary Ann. Jealousy doesn't begin to describe it.
He might've done better if he'd given her a better lede:
Dawn Wells is an alumna of two of the most ridiculed phenomena in American culture—the “Miss America” paegent and “Gilligan's Island.”
That's actually a pretty good open. And he was only beginning with the negative to accenctuate the positive: her starring role in “Chapter Two” and other theatrical productions; her artist-in-residence position at her alma mater—Stephens College in Columbia, Mo. The idea was: Dawn Wells isn't who you think she is.
It's a good piece. I learned a lot. She was a fourth-generation Nevadan, her great-grandfather drove a stagecoach, and her father was an original stockholder in the Thunderbird Hotel in Vegas. She was an extra on the set of “The Misfits,” which was filming close to where she grew up. That was her first brush with show business. She finished her B.A. with a major in drama at the University of Washington, then became Miss Nevada. She flipped a coin whether to go to NYC or LA and LA won. After “Gilligan's Island,” she had trouble overcoming the Mary Ann image and went back to theater. She retained a warm feeling for the show and stayed in touch with most of the cast members, “particularly Natalie Schafer, who vacations with her at Wells' gulfside home near St. Petersberg, Fla.” The looks they must've gotten hanging at the beach.
The piece also mentions all of her investments: another home in Nashville, land in Vegas, three oil wells. These must've fallen through because in 2018 she announced she was broke and relied on a GoFundMe to pay medical expenses and back taxes. Articles mention “an unexpected accident” and “life-threatening surgery” but not why Medicare didn't cover it. She died in a nursing home in LA.
Dad also said she was what she seemed on the show: enthusiastic, sweet, lovely. Take us out, Leonard Cohen.