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A very long three-hour tour

Updated: Jan 18, 2021

It was much more than a three-hour tour for Reno's own Dawn Wells, who died of Covid-19 complications in southern California as 2020 ended. Miss Nevada in 1959 and a 1960 contestant in the Miss America pageant, Dawn rode to fame as Mary Ann Summers on Gilligan's Island. Both she and the show remained popular throughout the decades, and her name often came up as a local hero during my tenure with the Nevada Film Office. Our paths crossed a few times over the years, both in person and by email (including this past year). In that time she always showed warmth, friendliness and good humor. She never did any official work with the film office, but I regarded her as a sort of ambassador for the Reno. Her bios regularly mention her status as a Miss Nevada who grew up in Reno, so many people knew about her connection here. She maintained those ties, showing up for Reno High School reunions and attending benefits for causes she supported. And mentioning Dawn’s name made people smile; though Gilligan’s Island only aired a few years, it generated a big and loyal fan base. I suspect that warm feeling comes from the show’s premise that people whose world gets upended can find ways to adapt and survive. They discover that important issues in regular life like money and status lose importance, and basic humanity shines through. And while Gilligan got the title role, Dawn’s character Mary Ann drew a boatload of fans because of her wholesome likeability. These qualities came from Dawn herself, and she maintained them throughout a career that continued right up to producing a movie in 2019. Dawn worked on other television shows including Bonanza, which featured a Nevada setting. Her name came up in the Al Pacino movie Danny Collins, when his character mentions her as one of his ex-wives. That struck me as amusing, so I e-mailed her about it; she also found it funny—and a surprise. She never married anyone like the character in the movie, but told me quote, “I got a laugh out of it.” She talked to Pacino shortly after the movie’s 2015 release and discovered the screenwriter was a fan. That’s the thing about Dawn: she created fans who stayed dedicated and sincere. So years later, that little three-hour tour—and Dawn--live on in our memories.

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