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By DOUGLAS JOHN IMBROGNO | jan1.2021 | WestVirginiaVille.com
If you are noting the relentless toll of famous and not-so-famous people mowed down by COVID, you will know that actress Dawn Wells, who played Mary Ann Summers on “Gilligan’s Island,” died on Dec. 30, at age 82 of complications from the virus. That leaves Tina Louise, who played Ginger Grant, as the sole surviving cast member of the iconic series. In this 2-part tribute, I revisit the Mountain State”s connection to “Gilligan’s Island” through West Virginia-born actress Dreama Perry Denver, “who brought ‘Gilligan’ back home with her” (as a childhood friend once marveled) where he lived with Dreama and their son until Denver’s death in 2005. Also below is Dreama’s own farewell to Dawn Wells.
“Gilligan’s Island” occupies an outsize place in the psyche of those of us of a certain age. I think that is partly because there just didn’t used to be all that much mass entertainment back in the day — the latter part of the 1960s, when the series aired.
“Gilligan’s Island” only ran for three years on TV, from 1964-67, yet retains a tenacious and nostalgic hold in the cultural memory banks.
Nowadays, an avalanche of entertainment clogs our TVs, phones, and computers. So much of it clamors for our attention that it’s impossible to keep up. Plus, unlike touchstone, communal shows like “Gilligan’s Island,” it’s unusual anymore to share common entertainment reference points, except for the occasional smash hit such as “Game of Thrones” or “Queen’s Gambit.”
“Gilligan’s Island” ran for only three seasons, from 1964-67 (with spin-off movies and endless re-runs), yet it retains a tenacious, nostalgic hold in cultural memory banks. It helps that it was about as innocent an ensemble comedy as you could hope for, full of distinct characters, anchored by the goofy charm of Denver himself. For those of us with a crush on Mary Ann and/or Ginger, there was that, too. (Your “Gilligan’s Island” crushes may vary.)
These observations are by way of offering up the following 2011 video profile I did of Dreama Denver, a West Virginia native who married Gilligan himself, the actor Bob Denver, after they met while working on a theatrical production.
The video came to mind after learning of Dawn Wells’ passing. I shot it as a companion piece to a Charleston Gazette-Mail story of Nov. 13, 2011, which profiled how a young actress from a small West Virginia town met Denver on stage, and how their lives were forever changed.
They married two years after their first kiss as characters in that stage production. When their son Colin was born with a severe disability, both gave up acting and moved to Southern West Virginia to care for him full time in the peace and quiet of the mountains.
Peace. Quiet. Except that Denver’s TV character was so famous that “Gilligan” hunters came looking for the “Gilligan’s Island” and “Dobie Gillis” star in the West Virginia hills, as Dreama recounts in the video — even spreading out a picnic feast at the end of their driveway once.
Then there were the folks who came looking for John Denver …
CLICK TO VIEW VIDEO
Over on Youtube, this video has been seen 140,837 times and has 111 comments. It receives new comments all the time — a testimony to the hold “Gilligan’s Island” still has on our memories. Plus, Dreama is a real sweetie. Enjoy the recollections it may stir.
PS: I wish I could link or reproduce my print interview with Dreama, but the story is missing in action in the Internet-O-Sphere (which, contrary to its billing, is not always forever). It would give context to some of Dreama’s comments about son Colin. The piece also mentions Little Buddy Radio, which is still on the air, and the non-profit Denver Foundation with which Dreama has been long involved.
Dawn Wells, America’s Sweetheart
Dreama Denver posted the following piece to bobdenver.com on the passing of Dawn Wells (1938-2020), who died on Dec. 30, from complications of COVID. The piece is reprinted with her permission.
By DREAMA DENVER | from bobdenver.com | dec31.2020
Nothing I say in this post will be sufficient because there are no words to convey the sadness I feel. Dawn was my friend for 45 years. She was also America’s sweetheart. Her life force was not to be believed. Her curiosity was as boundless as her heart was huge. Her kindness to her fans was legendary. Just ask any fan who ever met her.
My heart breaks for the loss that I and so many others are feeling today. Somehow, it doesn’t seem possible that I’m talking about Dawn in the past tense. But I’m so grateful for her 82 beautiful years on this earth—years full of adventure and joy. Her impact in television, movies and stage will live on, her legacy will never fade.
I’ll treasure our friendship until my last breath. I’ll remember the girl talks (so many girl talks); rooming together on the road; the fun we had at autograph shows; the way she lit up a room the minute she entered.
Our last visit was in February of 2019, when she came to Princeton to co-host the Denver Foundation’s “Valentines for Veterans” concert. I needed her. She came. That’s who she was. She stayed at my house and we were having so much fun she extended her visit for 2 extra days! I had no idea that would be our last time together and I’m beyond grateful for those five days of just being girlfriends.
My heart is broken. Dawn and I always said we were meant to be friends. Even if I had never met Bob, we were certain the theater circuit would have brought us together and our paths would have crossed. When we finally did meet on the set of “Rescue from Gilligan’s Island,” we became friends instantly and that friendship lasted through the loss of Natalie, Jim, Alan, Russell and the love of my life, Bob.
What a reunion they must be having. They all loved each other so much, and what a blessing that I became part of the castaway love fest.
Dawnie, I love you. I can’t believe you’re gone. I pray you’re at peace. My heart hurts. This has been so difficult to write and I’m afraid I haven’t done you justice. You were a bright light in this sometimes dark world. You were my friend, loved by me and so many others.
The ultimate dilemma was never really a dilemma at all — Ginger or Mary Ann?
It was always Mary Ann …
Rest In Peace, my beautiful friend.
CHARACTERS: The West Virginia brain drain made one of the world’s greatest popstars: dec18.2020: In a new edition of our ‘Characters’ series, we reprint a John W. Miller piece on Lady Gaga’s West Virginia roots—and how her Northern Panhandle grandma lifted her up at a low moment, sending her packing back to New York with instructions to “kick some ass.”
CHARACTERS | The “Spark-eyed” Vision of WV Poet Bob Snyder: oct20.2020: Influential West Virginia-native poet Bob Snyder died in 1995. But a new collection of his poetry exemplifies why, says a fellow poet: “Every West Virginia writer should know Bob. At least know about him. You may not ever get the whole story, but this book will help you understand some of it.”
CHARACTERS: A Portrait of the Artist in Her Garden: aug20.2020: Sassa Wilkes paints every day. Now, she is painting in a different fashion, using the Earth as a palette. A portrait of a West Virginia artist growing things in a big way for the first time, thanks to Covid-19.
CHARACTERS | Recalling Stick Artist-Poet-Philosopher-Shaman Boyd Carr: july26.2020: Boyd Carr, who died at age 88 this summer 2020, was many things. West Virginia-based poet Kirk Judd recalls a man he describes as “one of the few true geniuses I have known. He was brilliant in his use of language and in the art of storytelling.”
CHARACTERS: A Rebel of the Decidedly Non-Confederate Sort: july16.2020: She hated several things, one of which she called“narrowmindedness,” a catchall term for her that included racism, religious bigotry, homophobia, science-denying, disapproval of card playing, abstinence from wine and other offenses against humanity.
CHARACTERS | The One-Armed Bandit of No. 1 Holler, West Virginia: june27.2020: The life story of the “The One-Armed Bandit” is the stuff of heroes and legends. You may not know Gary Mays’ tale, though, as the major league career the West Virginia native might have had may have been blocked by racism. But nothing ever kept Gary Mays down for long.
DON WEST | Part 2: “May It Be So”: june6.2020: Long before it became fashionable, Don West fought the passive hillbilly stereotype by pointing to mountain labor’s traditions of struggle and solidarity.