Idaho resident Dawn Wells knows she is part of television history ever since the U.S.S. Minnow shipwrecked in a storm and stranded those seven familiar "types" on an uncharted tropical island known (through endless reruns) as "Gilligan's Island." Wells played Mary Ann, the attractive general store clerk from Kansas. The popular show premiered in 1964 and posed a dilemma for all adolescent boys. Which woman would they choose between the "wholesome" but sexy Mary Ann and the "provocative" Ginger? Mary Ann was the girl you married to bear children; Ginger was the wild one-night stand.
Dawn Wells was one of 350 actresses who auditioned for the cute castaway. The former Miss Nevada got the part that made her famous and created the stereotype of everyone's favorite "nice girl" next door: Mary Ann Summers. Dawn Wells spoke to BW on the phone from the Red Lion in Idaho Falls and proved an easy interview subject, spilling over with information and enthusiasm.
When the successful show ended, her career might have evaporated like many other television stars who vanished, but Dawn Wells survived. She continued working as an actress, producer, motivational speaker and in 2004, she launched Spudfest, a family film festival and benefit. It brought 36 films and 14 musical groups to Teton Valley; 3,500 people attended, including filmmakers and film industry representatives from both coasts. Wells currently operates a summer "boot camp" for actors in Driggs, Idaho. She is particularly excited about her new professional film school, the first such school in Idaho.
BW: You were born in Reno, Nevada but settled in Driggs. Why not Ketchum or Sun Valley where many other Hollywood celebrities live?
Wells: "My father had interests in Idaho. He brought his family for summers in the Teton Valley in the 1950s. This was before it was discovered by resort-minded developers. I spent many summers in Driggs and liked it."
Every summer, new drama students will discover Driggs. Wells' boot camp for actors is an intense one week session where actors jump into the "reality" of the business, learning about the practical things: resumes, photos, appearance, what to wear, how to get and keep the job. To have talent is good; to know how to market that talent is even better. Much of it sounds Darwinian, since an actor has to be prepared and able to adapt.
"Students are treated as though they're on location, starting at six in the morning," explains Wells. "After breakfast and the first session discussing marketing skills, they study commercials, voice over, and industrials. We do scene work after lunch. They leave with a video of their work. Not every actor has the versatility of Dustin Hoffman or Meryl Streep, so every actor has to find his or her niche and develop that."
Doesn't Hollywood stereotype actors?
"Absolutely! 'So what type are you and what can you do within that range?' Clint Eastwood might not have succeeded on the Broadway stage but became an icon in westerns and then a marvelous director."
She continues, insisting her boot camp takes up where acting classes end. "We don't teach acting craft, necessarily, but how to adapt to the film technique. Actors need to develop the skills to do feature films, commercials, sitcoms and soap operas. We help actors avoid common mistakes when they go to Hollywood. Of course, students do become better actors in the workshop process."
What if someone just doesn't have it?
"We are honest and point out short comings, but we also encourage them to develop and market their talents."
Was the Mary Ann role a curse as well as a blessing?
"Yes. At first, I was typecast and not even asked to certain auditions."
Sally Field said she played a hooker to wipe out the memory of the Flying Nun and Gidget.
"I also played a hooker. Life is unfair but playing a hooker helped break that stereotype. I eventually found salvation in doing theatre and played Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
Maggie is no Mary Ann.
"Exactly. Still, there were also good things that came out of playing Mary Ann. It's given me an identity and name recognition. She's a great role model. I've also developed many projects on the Gilligan's Island theme, including a cookbook."
I asked Wells what she thought about the current reality show that uses Gilligan's Island characters, stranding them on an island.
The rich voice on the other end of the line exploded.
"Disgusting," Wells says. "The so-called Real Gilligan's Island? Exploitation! It's like Mickey Mouse porn, having Ginger and Mary Ann mud wrestling."
Talent and skill are important, but would you agree much of show business success is luck?
"Yes, but you still have to be ready if that break comes. My first part was in Jackson Hole at the Pink Garter. I played a 14-year-old boy and got the part when it became available and I was ready to do it."
While researching Wells for this story, little personal information emerged. When asked about this, Wells isn't sure why.
"No one asks personal questions," she says. "My husband died of leukemia. I don't have any children. Aside from film work, I love painting and I love Africa."
One article did mention that Wells is a seasoned world traveler when not developing cinema arts in Driggs, and she has spent time in remote areas, even climbing the rugged terrain in Rwanda to view the mountain gorillas.
Wells had to cut the interview short for another engagement at the Red Lion in Pocatello, where a number of community speakers would discuss their projects over lunch. The second interview would be face to face. Near a poster advertising the new film school, Wells sat at a table. In her sixties, Wells is still attractive, radiating the same exuberance and charm of the youthful Mary Ann. She still connects to that childlike delight at the world that all actors need. With a casting director's eye, she observes details: who is left-handed like herself, or who has a good color combination in their clothes, including this reporter. Articulate and friendly, Wells is quick to put people at ease, but her conversation takes a sudden businesslike turn while distributing brochures.
"Why aren't more films shot in Idaho?" she asks. "Think about it. Idaho loses film business because we aren't film friendly like North Carolina and New Mexico. There are no incentives in place, like allowing access to state buildings. So much money is spent out of state. Why not in this state? Idaho has so much to offer," insists Wells, "especially its people. For a start, we are going to build Idaho's first sound stage. The Idaho Film and Television Institute will provide educational programs for filmmakers."
She has a point. Though Idaho has many fine scenic locations, there are few facilities to process and edit film and fewer trained crews ready to assist. Only one film was shot in Idaho in 2003, Napoleon Dynamite. Filmed in Preston, this film about a geek other geeks avoid became a cult classic and proved extremely lucrative. Tourists now visit the location as though Elvis grew up there; Pocatello school children watch the Preston bus as though it were traveling to Oz. Not every film will succeed, but if filmmakers were encouraged to use the Teton Valley as a filming location, it would bring economic development to Southeast Idaho. A working sound stage would be a great asset.
According to that brochure, Wells has a plan. The Idaho School Film and Television Institute (www.idahofilminstitute.org) will share its facility with Tri-Power Studios and provide a professional working studio for the production of movies, television, music videos and commercials. Animation and other aspects of the "biz of showbiz" will be included. Eventually, course credit will be given through Idaho State University. The mission of the school is simple: to find, develop, train and mentor new and established artists in film and television. Wells wants screenwriting taught to schoolchildren.
There wasn't much left to ask. Crowds of people came into the room to hear the various community members. Fans soon surrounded Wells for photos and autographs. For them, there was no dilemma; they had decided Mary Ann was the best bet for a ticket to a long-ago paradise called Gilligan's Island.