Brian O'Neill: Let us now praise Mary Ann, TV's all-time best 'good girl'


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An old friend and I exchanged emails last week and he floored me when he mentioned he'd just written a book with Dawn Wells, a.k.a. Mary Ann from "Gilligan's Island.''

Maybe you have to be a guy from the baby boom to fully appreciate the casual grandeur of my friend's answer to the obligatory, "What's new?" Rare is the man from my generation who has not grappled with the question, "Ginger or Mary Ann?"

(I was a Mary Ann guy all the way. I'd also take Betty over Veronica in the Archie comics, and Wilma Flintstone over Betty Rubble. So, yes, I'm complicated.)

Steve Stinson, staff cartoonist when we both worked at the newspaper in Roanoke, Va., and a children's author since, says he met Ms. Wells through a mutual friend. They hit it off. They spent a week last summer at a lake cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and if that ain't a boomer boy fantasy, I'm out of suggestions.

Sure, Mr. Stinson is 62 and Ms. Wells will be 76 this year. Mr. Stinson's wife Becca (daughter of Steelers Hall of Famer "Bullet Bill" Dudley) was there, too. But the result of all the talking and typing is "Mary Ann's Good Girl's Guide to Life,'' part advice book, part memoir and part 1960s TV nostalgia trip, due out in September and already being pre-sold online.

I asked my friend the question generations of American boys have had since "Gilligan's Island'' first aired 50 years ago and soon began its endless reruns: Could you set me up with Mary Ann?

Later that morning, Ms. Wells called from Charlotte, N.C. She came as Mr. Stinson had advertised: a smart, independent woman who absolutely knows who she is "but also understands the Mary Ann phenomenon -- and it is a phenomenon.''

A bit like that other fictional Kansan, Dorothy Gale in "The Wizard of Oz,'' Mary Ann Summers was thrust into a strange land and surrounded by broadly drawn comic characters on that uncharted desert isle. We rooted for her.

"I do believe she was the moral compass of the show,'' Ms. Wells said. "Fair, honest, a hard worker -- and fun.''

What she isn't, Ms. Wells insisted, is a goody two-shoes. She had to go through three writers before she found in Mr. Stinson an author who understood her voice.

She's not a mother herself, but her father passed away when the show was still running and she helped raise her then-adolescent stepbrother and stepsister. Not that a good girl should have to explain herself.

Ms. Wells grew up in Reno, Nev., land of legal gambling, prostitution and quick divorces, "but my mother raised me as a Mary Ann.'' In the 1960s, Playboy magazine offered her a pile of money to pose nude but she said no and "it didn't take more than 10 seconds to think about it.''

If she chose, Ms. Wells would have plenty she could be bitter about. None of the seven castaways ever got a dime in residuals while producer Sherwood Schwartz made millions, and her ability to get other roles was hindered because she was so typecast as Mary Ann. But that fame also gets her a little more money in her theater work, be it "The Lion in Winter'' in Bowling Green, Ky., or "Steel Magnolias'' in Pinehurst, N.C. It also means unique adulation.

When she toured the Pentagon a year and a half ago, war-hardened generals emerged from their offices and presented her with ceremonial tokens because "I was their first crush'' and "I turned them into 14-year-old boys.'' When she canoed the Solomon Islands in a reunion with old college friends, a chief's wife on an island without electricity recognized her from decades before when she'd seen TV in the capital city.

If Mary Ann had gotten off that island, Ms. Wells said, she likely would have moved back to her hometown in Kansas and married, and perhaps put her energy and sense of fair play into politics.

"Would she be a Hillary Clinton or a Sarah Palin? Maybe that's the next book.''

In this one, all we know is the good girl wins.

When she asked me to send her a copy of this column, I told her she could find it on post-gazette.com by typing in her name. She assured me she would.

"Mary Ann doesn't know a thing about computers,'' she said, "but I'm working on it.''

The Dawn Wells Official Facebook page: facebook.com/therealmaryann

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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