(Part One of a Two Part Series by KEVIN RENICK)
Ginger or Mary Ann? It’s a simple question featuring the names of two girls, and the debate behind it, along with all kinds of underlying implications, not only continues to this day but represents an utterly singular phenomenon in pop culture. The question refers, of course, to the two comely actresses who held baby boomers in their pulchritudinous grip on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, a sitcom about a “three-hour tour” in the Pacific that essentially never left the air after its three-year run came to an end in 1967. Ginger was Ginger Grant, played by Tina Louise; the character was a movie star and glamour girl patterned more than a little after Marilyn Monroe. Mary Ann (Summers) was portrayed by Dawn Wells as the definitive “girl next door” type: Sweet, approachable and down to Earth. Why did this question about the two iconic portrayals gain such traction? Why are there multiple articles about it on the net, including a hilarious point/counterpoint essay on the RetroCrush web site that goes into great detail about why EACH lady deserves to win the argument? What could be so significant about a mere question of preference for certain kinds of women that it caused almost the entire male population of television viewers to immediately take a stand, bonding with those who agreed with their choice and driven to rag on those who didn’t? There may be more intriguing or important questions out there when it comes to pop culture history, but I can’t think of another show or even ANY other entertainment medium that gave rise to such an enduring debate about two women. That deserves some recognition, for sure, in a culture that loves polls and “hall of fame” type debates.
So then, Ginger or Mary Ann? Well, I am proud to say I’ve always been completely, totally in the Mary Ann camp. As a baby boomer, GILLIGAN’S ISLAND was one of the shows I never missed growing up; it was an essential part of my childhood. Dawn Wells was the first actress I ever developed a crush on; it was a rather immediate thing, even in the first season of the show when it was in black and white. I’ve run into many guys of a certain age that said the same thing. The easygoing charm and friendliness of Wells’ Mary Ann was arguably the heart of a sitcom that stuffier critics would often ridicule because of the absurd plots. Few of us ever analyzed the plots; we just loved the good fun of the show, the chemistry of the cast, and the pleasure of watching our favorite characters do their thing in each subsequent episode. For me, that meant Mary Ann, followed by Russell Johnson’s charismatic and brilliant Professor (only in one episode did we learn that his actual name was Roy Hinkley), and then poor besotten Bob Denver as Gilligan. There was a familiarity about GILLIGAN’S ISLAND and especially watching it in endless reruns that kept you tied to a vision of simpler, happier times. The castaways became like an extended family. It may have been just an innocuous sitcom, but Dawn Wells, in particular, did something worth examining on the show – she created a female character so fetching, so warm and caring, and so REAL, that millions of fans fell in love with her. Quite early on, the fan mail coffers started filling up more for Dawn than any of her co-stars, and once the “Ginger vs. Mary Ann” debate started in earnest, Dawn almost always came out ahead (with the arguable exception perhaps being polls that appeared in a few men’s magazines). You can find polls and “lists of faves” all over the internet, but we’ll just mention one from the entertainment site, imdb.com. When the question was put to a vote (even asking for other preferences in TV gals; it was phrased as “Ginger or Mary Ann or… “), Mary Ann was the solid winner out of 3200+ respondents, with 652 votes. Barbara Eden of I DREAM OF JEANNIE, not dissimilar in her overall aesthetic, came in second place, with 418 votes. Where was Ginger? Way down in 6th place, with 218 votes.
Let’s face it, we like our stars, and we like falling in love with characters from TV shows and movies. It’s part of the escapism that’s really quite necessary to get through life. Dawn Wells became one of the true touchstones on television to embody the concept of “the girl next door.” How she portrayed the endearing Kansas farm girl Mary Ann was to bring her huge, lasting fame and launch a million fantasies and discussions about “desirability” that would utterly transcend producer Sherwood Schwartz’s initial hopes for his unpretentious little TV show. These things can’t be planned or predicted. Audiences do their own thing (especially so in the pre-internet age), and the march of time ultimately determines who wins the popularity contests. Countless actresses earned male admiration and substantial fan bases through the years, but it takes a special combination of circumstances to make someone an icon, a hall of famer, a list topper. The kind of star fans will flock to every appearance for, or write impassioned letters to, year after year after year. Dawn Wells somehow made ALL of that happen, on a TV show that critics thought would fail right away and that was never considered a classic. So, let’s take a look at how she did it, and celebrate a lovely, vibrant woman who has been able to enjoy the fruits of her achievement for many years now.
MARY ANN, THE APPROACHABLE “FRIEND”
It’s not a put-down to say that almost everyone on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND was a bit of a caricature or exaggeration. Bob Denver’s Gilligan, though well-meaning, was always messing things up and preventing rescues; NO ONE would screw up that much in real life. The Skipper, played by Alan Hale Junior, was a commanding if often blustery presence, and spent an inordinate amount of time reacting to Gilligan’s screw-ups. The Professor made too many improbable creations out of crude elements on the island and came up with all sorts of far-flung solutions to problems faced by the castaways. There was likely not much resemblance to any real life scenarios in what he did on that island week after week, but let’s acknowledge just how charismatic and energetic Russell Johnson’s performance was; he deserved more credit than he got. How patently bizarre that the first season’s theme song said “and the rest” instead of naming “the professor and Mary Ann,” something corrected in subsequent seasons. It might’ve made more sense if the lyric said “and the BEST,” since Wells and Johnson were arguably just that. Continuing, though… Ginger? Way too much of a stereotypical “glamorous actress” type, with, again, too many Marilyn Monroe-isms, even if Tina Louise was a game and devoted actress with the part she was given. The Howells? Silly, exaggerated rich people caricatures, though you can hardly fault the quirky and enjoyable acting of Jim Backus and Natalie Schaefer.
That brings us to Dawn Wells. Not only was she a totally believable character, with her earnest attempts to help her fellow castaways figure things out and her easygoing charm, she transcended the limitations of the show in almost every way by acting and talking like someone you know or would WANT to know. She was a friend to all. She was tender and caring. She was sometimes motherly, sometimes sweetly innocent, sometimes vulnerable in the most beguiling of ways. I truly think Mary Ann was the genuine heart of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND – the character who provided the most balance and real-life levity. She tended to dole out the lion’s share of reassurance and hope. Her good nature and steadfast loyalty provided forward momentum for a show based on a wacky premise. And emotionally, Mary Ann responded believably to a wide range of situations, her eyes sparkling with vitality and eager curiosity, befuddlement or straightforward concern and empathy. Dawn Wells was a fine actress to accomplish all this; if she was perhaps playing a version of herself, well, it had to take amazing discipline and yes, acting chops, to maintain that level of sweet, affable charm throughout the preposterous scenarios the castaways had to endure. And let’s also acknowledge some of the sassy, sexy moments Dawn gave us on the show. Her physical beauty may have been less showcased, or less “in your face” than Tina Louise’s, but that only made it more distinctive and subtly mesmerizing at times. Who could forget the episode where the girls create a singing group called the Honeybees to compete against fictional pop stars the Mosquitos? One of those “honeybees” generates more BUZZ than the others, and you can guess who it is. Or how about the episode where Mary Ann gets knocked unconscious and wakes up thinking she is Ginger? It’s quite a kick watching Mary Ann wear all her rival’s showy outfits. And there’s the memorable “beauty contest” episode, where the all-knowing Professor promotes Mary Ann as his candidate for “most beautiful woman on the island,” priming her in the important art of showcasing her beauty and talent in different areas. (Professor and Mary Ann ‘shippers must’ve delighted in this scenario.) For the record, Mary Ann’s leggy tap-dancing display would’ve been the most memorable thing in that contest were it not for the glue placed on stage by rivals’ supporters. Every fan can name their favorite episodes and moments, but for me, what Dawn Wells brought to the show was crucial, game-changing. I’d be willing to bet that if you went out and asked a bunch of GI fans who was the heart of the show, the majority of them would probably say Dawn Wells. That says a great deal about a show that started out with such a simple, oft-ridiculed premise.
THOSE LEGS, THOSE LEGS!
Here’s a fun fact that is likely only meaningful to male viewers, but for a show that made such a big deal out of having a sex symbol/glamorous actress in the cast, it’s the sweet girl next door who eventually earned a permanent place in the “Legs Hall of Fame” (especially once the internet came along and allowed for endless scrutiny and analysis of, well, every star EVER). Between Sherwood Schwartz’s amiable open-mindedness and Dawn Wells’ evident desire to set herself apart from Tina Louise, the decision was made early on to feature Dawn in the shortest shorts ever to appear on a TV show at the time. They wouldn’t let her show her navel due to absurd censorship standards then in existence, but boy, they let her show her legs, in tiny shorts cut high on the thigh. I would posit that it was the combination of Mary Ann’s sweet innocence and her continual display of leggy beauty that put her over the top with male viewers. These days we don’t think that much about a star merely wearing “hot pants” or other skimpy outfits on their show. It’s commonplace. But in the mid-‘60s, this was groundbreaking stuff. If I’m not mistaken, a pair of Dawn Wells’ shorts is even headed for the Smithsonian. Sure, she also wore that omnipresent gingham dress and a handful of far more conservative outfits, but it’s the shorts that made the biggest impression with fans. And there were other leg-baring outfits such as the maid uniform she wore in the “Gilligan and the Beanstalk” episode and the short yellow dress from the above mentioned beauty contest, an outfit that she donned again in the “radioactive vegetables” episode. Remember that one? When the Professor tells everyone they need to keep walking and exercising to offset the negative effects of eating radioactive crops, Dawn starts pacing around in that hard-to-ignore outfit. At one point, she complains to the Skipper that she’s too tired and can’t keep walking. “I haven’t got your legs!” she complains. “It’s a good thing you don’t, Mary Ann, or you wouldn’t be able to fit into those shorts,” the Skipper slyly replies. That was one of the few times that Mary Ann’s attire was even acknowledged on the show. But, let it be said that, through the wonders of syndication and endless repeats, hardcore fans got to know every outfit of Mary Ann’s. Who could forget the short little white number she only wore in two or three episodes, including the infamous “vampire” episode (early syndication runs angered some fans by cutting various scenes to accommodate more commercials; one such scene featured Mary Ann and Ginger fighting off a bat until the Professor comes to the rescue. Thankfully, the DVDs and later syndication runs restored the scene). That girly-style frock was also worn by Dawn in the “Tongo, the Ape Man” episode that featured actor Denny Miller as an actor preparing for his role as, well, an ape man. So, yeah, Dawn had legs, and she knew how to use ’em. If we’re talking about the history of women on television, and the evolution of the medium in showcasing female beauty, Dawn Wells pretty much deserves an entire chapter. Giggle all you want, but she wore the shorts noticed ’round the world. Anything that’s a first has relevance and deserves to be mentioned, and appreciated. Ms. Wells gave us a first on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. With freshness, ease and undeniable sex appeal. Take THAT, Ginger!
THIS IS HOW A STAR SHINES!
The annals of stardom are littered with the cases of performers who couldn’t handle their fame, stars who became bitter due to typecasting, or who succumbed to substance abuse or other destructive behavior. Rare is the star, especially one who rose to fame on a single show or movie, that consistently handles their fame with grace and puts it to good use. Of all the “castaways” from GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, Dawn Wells seemed most grateful for her success and most determined to make it count. Professionally, she did a ton of theatre (THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT and STEEL MAGNOLIAS were among her credits in that realm), and acted in various – mostly low-budget – films such as WINTERHAWK, THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, RETURN TO BOGGY CREEK, SUPER SUCKER and CYBER MELTDOWN, as well as three GILLIGAN’S ISLAND reunion movies for television, the weirdest of which was THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS ON GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, actually quite entertaining if you’ve had a few drinks. Dawn has written two books: MARY ANN’S GILLIGAN’S ISLAND COOKBOOK, and the new WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? A GUIDE TO LIFE, which she has been promoting with bookstore and media appearances for the past year or more. In Idaho, Dawn runs Wishing Wells Collections, an organization that makes clothing for individuals with limited mobility. She also helps her pal, Dreama Denver (Bob Denver’s wife), with the Denver Foundation charity.
But you can read her career stats anywhere on the web. The more important thing to say about Dawn is that she has been fan-friendly to a fault. She has never expressed resentment or even mixed feelings about her GILLIGAN stint; instead, she’s talked about those years with gratitude and the kind of intuitive understanding seemingly beyond the ability of some stars. Dawn appreciates her fans and talks enthusiastically about meeting them all over the world (even relating the tale of a native on a remote island—imagine THAT—recognizing the actress when she was vacationing). She acknowledges the tons of fan mail she gets and answers a good deal of it. She makes autographed photos and other merchandise available on her own web site for modest prices. And, in interview after interview, the divine Ms W talks about the fun she had on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, the reasons why Mary Ann was so popular, and how grateful she was for the whole experience. She even talks about the significance of her shorts with humor and verve. I’ve met quite a few people over the years who were Dawn Wells fans and had the privilege of meeting her at some point. To a person, they state how kind and friendly she was and how appreciative of anything they shared about their fondness for her portrayal of Mary Ann. THAT’S a star. Dawn Wells may not have fully escaped the shadow of GI in terms of subsequent work in the entertainment business, but she has demonstrated, consistently, that she’s at peace with her fame from the show, continuing to work in different media through the years, charming reporters and media types any time she does an interview, and essentially using her fame to keep moving forward while giving fans an ongoing opportunity to connect with her and express their appreciation for what she did on “that show.” Honestly, there just aren’t that many stars of cult TV shows or movies who have so consistently conducted themselves with class and grace, and so openly expressed appreciation for their career path, even if tied to a show with less than stellar critical praise. It’s pretty damn impressive. Dawn Wells could give seminars to fellow celebrities on how to handle fame with true style. And it’s pretty magical how fans seem to light up wherever she goes. She knows that she made an impact with her portrayal of Mary Ann Summers. And she makes it truly FUN to be a fan. That is not necessarily the norm in the entertainment business…
It’s strangely ironic that Dawn Wells and Tina Louise are the only surviving members of the GILLIGAN cast. With Russell Johnson’s death last year, the two rival actresses are the only ones left to talk about those halcyon ’60s television adventures, and Tina sure ain’t talkin’ much. In fact, she often sounds indignant and embarrassed when the subject of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND comes up. But to the pleasure of many, Dawn IS talking. She surfaces regularly when she has a project to promote, continues to act, and keeps providing plenty of opportunities for fans to enjoy images of the Mary Ann character and fresh insights into the cast and the show. Dawn could’ve been like so many other stars and simply shunned her past. But even into the latter years of her career, she has proved she is SPECIAL. She’s just one of those strong, confident, charming stars that handles it well. She has a good life because of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, and it hasn’t stopped her from doing a damn thing. Nope, Ms Wells is on the move, and her fans will follow her anywhere.
Mary Ann or Ginger? Personally I think it’s no contest. When you grow up loving a star, you want to believe they are genuine, caring, accessible and able to talk about their fame in a way that makes you glad you contributed to it. Dawn Wells does all that and more. She’s assured a permanent spot in the “America’s Sweetheart Hall of Fame.” Read her book. Watch those old episodes of GILLIGAN. Marvel at how composed and genuine she is when interviewed or chatting with fans. This is a gal more than worthy of admiration and boomer fan-ship. Just sit right back and you’ll hear her tales. She’s not just “the rest” (thankfully, Bob Denver helped rectify that absurdity). She’s genuinely the BEST, the girl who, in whatever capacity she affected you, was destined never to leave your memory. We all need a little Mary Ann in our lives.