Dawn Wells’ “What Would Mary Ann Do?”: Insightful, Delightful, and Perhaps Even Just a Little Controversial

Photo Courtesy of Dawn Wells

Photo Courtesy of Dawn Wells

I don’t know about you, but I always liked Mary Ann.  She was the smart one, the kind one, the not-so-self-absorbed one; genuine.  Meet the 76-year-old woman (who looks much closer to 50) behind the girl in real life and you’ll find she’s also extremely funny, full of color and life experience, along with many an opinion; some with which you may not even agree.  But in true and anticipated form, and as quoted from page 113 in her newly penned book with Steve Stinson, What Would Mary Ann Do?; “I’m a debater.  I always look at both sides.  I think it’s a wonderful way to look at life.”  And from the book to the book signing, to our inevitable handshake, she is agreeable as always, no matter which direction her pendulum swings.

“CBS thought it was a stupid show,” she will explain at the beginning of the moderated discussion in the auditorium of the Santa Monica Public Library on a sunny, blustery, November Saturday. “But it needed a good song.” Hence the steadfast toe tapper/knee slapper in the form of “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle” swiftly hammered out by George Wyle and the show’s producer himself, Sherwood Schwartz. Until the second season, Ginger was billed fifth in the song and Mary Ann and the professor were simply dubbed, “the rest”.  “’The rest’ was how we (she and the professor) signed cards [to each other for years to come]!”  But the song and any and all related billing would change, come the second season as “Bob (Denver) and Sherwood fought for us,” and the show’s popularity, along with all cast members, gained steady and increasing momentum.

Photo Courtesy of Dawn Wells

Photo Courtesy of Dawn Wells

Characters, aside from Gilligan, Skipper and the Howells, originally consisted of a teacher and some school girls, one of whom was to be Mary Ann.  The teacher was eventually replaced by Ginger and the school girls; the professor and Mary Ann.

Photo Courtesy of Dawn Wells

Photo Courtesy of Dawn Wells

One has to wonder  if Mary Ann would have been quite so racy as a travelling school girl as, “Mine were the first short shorts on T.V. [though] no belly buttons were allowed to be shown for more than three seconds…and they were always trying to hide Tina’s (Ginger’s) cleavage.”  Periodically provocative or not, it was Wells who beat out Raquel Welch for the role she would ultimately embody (in more ways than one)!

And what more could we expect really from a T.V. series launched, as the moderator puts it, “before the sixties went crazy” as Wells echoes the notion that there was something for everyone.  “Mary Ann would appeal more to the nine-year-old boys, and Ginger to the sixteen year olds.  Put a nine-year old in front of Ginger, they’d be terrified!”  It is interesting to note that the two surviving cast members of Gilligan’s Island are in fact, Ginger and Mary Ann.  “We lost The Professor (Russell Johnson) in February,” Wells will sadly reflect.

In keeping with a cast of variable longevity, “We never knew how old Mrs. Howell was.”  Many a personage was apparently asked, including her doctor, but it was never divulged until her death in 1991, that Natalie Schafer was born in 1900. “That would have put her at 64-67 when the show was on air,” the moderator will observe.  Wells will confirm this fact only to remark upon several keys to looking younger on camera as implemented by Schafer, “Wear something colorful around the face (as evinced by Mrs. Howell’s most effervescent ribboned hats), wear gloves (to hide skin cracks and age spots) and always wear long skirts (to hide thick ankles).

As for Mr. Howell, it is evident that his age was no secret but that the numerical value of anything in his billfold just might have been.  “Jim Backus was cheap and never remembered his wallet,” Wells wittily proclaims.  “He would invite Natalie and myself out to lunch and never pay!…  At the end of the run, Natalie presented him with at 360.00 bill for all the lunches he never paid for!”

Perceived idiosyncrasies, initially involving the Howells, will inevitably crop up via the analysis of the moderator and fans alike, and ultimately by Wells herself:

“The Howells went on this bargain basement cruise.”

“Why would you pack 48 bags for a three hour tour?”

And the question so deeply embedded in everyone’s mind to this day, “If they were only three hours off the coast, how is it they were never found?”

Wells will then admit,  “About 5-6 weeks into shooting, we received notice ‘The Coast

Photo Courtesy of Dawn Wells

Photo Courtesy of Dawn Wells

Guard needs to talk to you.’”  It was then admitted by the maritime service establishment that, “We have gotten telegrams saying there are seven people lost on a Pacific Island.  Why can’t you find them?”

Wells will round out the incredulity herself with a couple more observations/explanations of her own:

Yes the sound-staged island exterior looked fake, “We tried filming in Malibu the first couple of years but the fog was so bad!”

Surely if the professor had gotten off the island, he would have gone back to “teaching or something intellectual, yet he couldn’t BUILD A BOAT!”

As Mary Ann, the baker and nurturer, “I made enough coconut cream pies, but hadn’t seen a cow in three years!”

Guest stars of note included Don Rickles, a nine-year-old Kurt Russel (in one of his first roles, just as he was starting out) and Zsa Zsa Gabor stepping in for Bette Davis who had a conflicting commitment to guest star on Gunsmoke.

This would not be the last time Gilligan’s Island would be outbid by Gunsmoke as, in 1967, by the series’ end after having just experienced the death of her father and a divorce, Wiliam Paley’s wife–rendered ex-wife–would pick Gunsmoke over Gilligan’s Island to continue its run.

Suffice it to say, the stories woven by Ms. Wells not to mention any and all related witticisms are quite wonderful and captivating to behold.

Photo Courtesy of Dawn Wells

Photo Courtesy of Dawn Wells

What Would Mary Ann Do is essentially an advice manual interspersed with the occasional anecdote, and brief memoir pertaining to Wells’ career, family, cherished remembrances, and overall joie de vivre.  “There’s a responsibility that I feel for this character,” Wells will pensively declare during the course of our enlightening afternoon together. “I wrote it for the fans.” And arrestingly enough, on page 2, she will add “Every character on Gilligan’s Island was given a broad ‘stock’ comedy role to fill – captain, mate, wealthy man, wealthy wife, professor, movie star – except, Mary Ann was not given a character description.  She was given a name and location – Kansas farm girl.  I had to fill in the blanks.  She wasn’t a Hollywood Creation. She was molded by me, from me.  So from the get-go, the Mary Ann character was different.” Different as well in that she was the one character of whom people would ask advice and expect a sound answer. “People talk to me like I’m their sister, their wife.  Men will tell me, ‘I married a Mary Ann.” Wells’ book in part is a nod to a world in which all too many school girls (college age in particular) are of the opinion that in this cyber-image ridden, technological age more than ever, “there are too many Gingers,” to speak nothing of the sexual competitiveness that this engenders rendering most young girls to declare Mary Ann “out of date”!  As a woman of a certain age (44), I must confess I see both sides of this coin.  During the course of my read I will feel inspired, intrigued, and in certain instances, rubbed completely the wrong way.

Much of Wells’ musings center around wisdom commensurate with her generation.  Though it is written for fans, I cannot always tell which age range she aspires to instruct and/or if this even matters.  A few of her ideas are fairly refreshing and eye opening; chiefly that limitation gives you freedom.  Fascinating!  I never would have thought of it this way.  “When you have restrictions, it frees you.  If you could go any speed limit, how many more accidents would there be?”  There is additionally some bantering comparison within her seemingly inner-written monologue between what she calls the Big Brain (encompassing all logic) and the little brain (consisting entirely of ego). “Your little brain and your Big Brain are both optimists. There’s a difference. One is a wishing brain. The other is a working brain. Your little brain sees through rose-colored glasses. Your big brain looks for a clear space in your windshield.”

Equally arresting is her admission that her studies in science assisted her in keeping a

Photo Courtesy of David Laurell

Photo Courtesy of David Laurell

clear head to soldier on in the world of entertainment: “I made a deliberate choice to be in Los Angeles. I didn’t just show up in L.A. wanting to be a movie star, I wanted to work…I think my background in science helped me.  I had a plan.  I was prepared.  This kind of analysis can be hard for people in the arts.  You have to put aside your emotions.  At any given time, I could—and still can—only be the best that Dawn Wells can be. It’s a matter of me knowing me.  I knew me. I was naïve, but not so naïve as to think I truly understood Hollywood.  That I had to learn.” She will go on to explain that the scientific method of trial and error assisted by her objective eye pertaining to success and/or failure fueled her drive—a very intelligent contender to be sure, and to think if she had not gotten the role of Mary Ann, she might have been a doctor. Most auspicious career choices either way!

The balance of the book is comprised of advice on manners, keys to success, and how to be in the world in the most motherly of modalities, yet harbors nothing much that’s new in the way of maternal musings and, frankly, smacks of a generation against which I still rebel in certain key moments:  A generation (going back in time ad nauseum) wherein women were still just a bit Stepfordly servile and a world where keeping up appearances via propriety itself was far more important than any sort of soulful and holistic human authenticity. Counsel runs the gamut from complete run of the mill parental advisement to downright dis-compassionate stiff-upper-lipisms.

In a subchapter entitled Nobody Wants You When You’re Down and Out, Wells will opine, “They don’t [want you when you’re down and out].  Ask yourself, what do you do when you find yourself in the presence of constant complainers?  I get out as fast as I can.” The taboo of complaining is mentioned several times in the course of the 240 pages.  While I understand what she means about manipulative, self-absorbed constant complainers, no qualifiers are ever posed, which take into consideration good people who might just have something to complain about to get it out of their system. Moreover, just because someone is “down and out” as she calls it, does not mean they are malevolent complainers, but perhaps just need a little compassion to get them over the hump.  (I know when I hear the phrase “down and out” all I can think of is someone in need of compassion.) No allowances are made for life’s ups and downs pertaining to the art of venting and/or co-commiseration, both of which I find highly underrated, particularly betwixt girlfriends as a means of unearthing solutions thereafter or, if nothing else, a better and possibly therapeutic understanding and resolve of one’s emotions.  Complaining (whatever the motive) according to Mary Ann, is all bad.

Mary Ann also advises against talking about one’s self, which is ironic considering the book we are reading and the very notion that we WANT her to talk about herself, perhaps even a little bit more than she is!

“To me, the best conversations leave me knowing something new.  That in itself if refreshing.  It is uplifting.  You can’t learn anything talking about yourself.”

Photo Courtesy of Dawn Wells

Photo Courtesy of Dawn Wells

But perhaps you can.  Particularly when it is self examination.  And if not, perhaps others of us can!!!  How dull a world it would be if people felt beholden to constantly talk about the weather.  People should talk about themselves, it’s what they know!—Provided the conversation is balanced betwixt the two plus people involved, and provided that it is not in a self-absorbed, holier-than-thou, obsessive manner.  But, again, there are no qualifiers, no exceptions to this rule for Mary Ann.  I’m sure Wells did not intend this to be the case.  But without any un-blanketed specifics, it is simply how it reads.

Despite all the matriarchal advice, Ms. Wells will declare on page 170—“I’m not a mother—I’m not trying to be your mother.  I am absolutely not trying to tell your mother how to be a mother!!!…three exclamation points…” Yet on page 37–she will recount a rather strident tale of justice, in her eyes anyway, upon meeting an expectant father:

“At a restaurant in Florida, a waiter recognized me.  He was very excited and told our table that his girlfriend was pregnant.  I asked him how he felt about that, bringing his child into the world with no name.  I asked him if he knew the meaning of a bastard child.  Did he know how his girlfriend truly felt about that?”

Um, really?  The only problem with so-called “bastard children” it seems is that certain people insist on perpetually stigmatizing them as such.  Moreover, involvement of an overpriced ceremony, sharp rock from Africa usually marketed through unscrupulous methods, some drawn blood, and jointly filed tax returns does not necessarily ensure any added love between a couple!  (As a matter fact, I have known quite a few unmarried couples whose relationships have lasted longer than those who have a joint tax guy and a perpetually unmarried girlfriend still clutching the bride’s ex-bouquet in her sweaty little fist!)

Wells continues, “It shocked him, not to mention everyone else at the table, but I didn’t care.  If I’m old enough to be your mother I may as well act like it.” (Thank you—no Mary Ann.  I already have a mother whose unsolicited advice I already kindly ignore, yet she raised me more liberally and non-judgmentally than all that!)

Yet again on page 170 it is writ:  “I’m not trying to be your mother.  I am absolutely not trying to tell your mother how to be a mother!!!”

My offense is tempered only by my confusion.

Moreover, on page 105 it is declared, “Manners and etiquette are nothing more than self censorship.”  It would seem to me ol’ Mary Ann might have taken some of her own advice regarding the above scenario.

In all fairness, and as the tale is woven, it is admitted that all worked out well betwixt the haplessly unhappily un-married waiter, his ex-girlfriend—now-wife, and their presently unbastardized child.  Even still, I loathe to think on any sort of unpleasant and unnecessary ending to the above scenario had she not picked someone so open to changing for her–a complete stranger otherwise, for all intents and purposes.

The aspects of the book I enjoyed most were the stories and anecdotes centering around

Photo Courtesy of Dawn Wells

Photo Courtesy of Dawn Wells

Wells’ life and her time spent working on Gilligan’s Island.  Had it been written such that her words of wisdom had been fueled by her stories as side-notes, I think I would have enjoyed it even more. But it is indeterminate as to whether her taboo about “talking about yourself” might have hampered that a bit…?  Tales centering around her experience as Ms. Nevada are to die for. Anecdotes from her days on the set of Gilligan’s Island, not to mention her own personal drive, inspiration, and the stories pertaining to the special relationship with her mother, most touching.  In particular the fact that they share a birthday and would make and have the same cake each year!  Moreover, Wells even admits, “She never lectured me about manners. I was taught by example.  She watched me like a hawk.  She loved me and I came first in her life,” so beautiful, yet somewhat opposite of the manner in which this book was written at times.  In short, I wish Ms. Wells would have led us more by example when pitching proprieties rather than stating them outright as, on the book’s downside, it started to feel a little preachy to me encompassing much I had already heard, some that went against my natural sensibilities and yes, a sliver of it, offensive.

In a way however it’s almost refreshing: That it can even be said that Mary Ann/Dawn Wells from Gilligan’s Island offended me; what a compelling surprise!—No?  All the same, I still love her and encourage her to bestow upon us her stories ad nauseum! I would hope a full-out autobiography would be next in the works!

For more information on Dawn Wells and her most recent book, please visit:




Jennifer K. Hugus

About Jennifer K. Hugus

Jennifer K. Hugus was born at a very young age. At an even earlier age, she just knew she would one day write for the LA Beat! Having grown up in Massachusetts, France, and Denmark, she is a noted fan of Asian Cuisine. She studied ballet at the Royal Danish Ballet Theatre and acting at U.S.C. in their prestigious BFA drama program. She also makes her own jewelry out of paints and canvas when she isn’t working on writing absurdist plays and comparatively mainstream screenplays. Jennifer would like to be a KID when she grows up!
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