R.I.P., Mary Ann: Actress Dawn Wells visited West Palm Beach just before start of COVID-19 outbreak
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
The COVID-19-related death of actress Dawn Wells, best known for playing Mary Ann on the 1960s hit TV show Gilligan's Island, offers a reminder of one of her last public appearances -- in West Palm Beach in the early days of the pandemic.
Wells, 82, died today of complications related to COVID-19, her publicist said. It is not known how and when she contracted the novel coronavirus. But more than 10 months ago, the pandemic forced her to cut short her last public tour.
On March 7, as the public was still struggling to grasp the severity of the virus, Wells kept her meet-and-greet at the Palm Beach County Convention Center. Her appearance was part of the Free Life Boomers and Seniors Expo hosted by my former employer, The Palm Beach Post.
At the time, the state had only confirmed its first two cases -- in Manatee and Hillsborough counties -- five days earlier.
But the novel coronavirus was on the minds of many people in the convention center that Saturday morning, even though there was little to no social distancing among giddy Gilligan's Island fans who waited nearly an hour in line to pose for photos with the actress.
I was there. No one in line -- including me -- wore a protective mask. And in the hour or so that I attended the convention, I remember seeing just one man wearing a mask.
Although the seriousness of the virus hadn't taken a firm grip on the public at the time, it was well known that older people were vulnerable to it. I remember overhearing some people in line remark about how surprised they were that Wells, who was 81 at the time, kept her appearance.
Wells was warm and friendly with her fans. She put her arms around a few and even playfully tugged the beard of one man.
When it was my turn to pose for a photo, we shook hands and she asked my name. When I told her, she smiled and replied, "My dad's name was Joe.'' We smiled for the camera -- click-click -- and I was ushered away. (I later joked to my wife that I had been "stranded" alone with Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island -- for about 15 seconds.)
It went on like that for an hour. Her fans were not disappointed. Some couldn't contain their enthusiasm; one man took a selfie with Dawn on his smartphone, then came back a minute later, interrupting her pose with another fan, to do a re-shoot after his initial selfie was too fuzzy.
If she was bothered or upset, she didn't show it. She also seemed to get a kick out of posing with another guy's New York Islanders hockey T-shirt.
As COVID-19 became a more and more serious threat in the coming days, I reached out to Wells' agent to ask if she had any second-thoughts about her close contact with fans.
He said she did not. But he also said she was canceling the rest of her appearances as a precaution.
I want to emphasize that I have no idea when or how Wells contracted the virus. And I am not at all suggesting she contracted it in West Palm Beach in early March.
In fact, the first two Palm Beach County cases were reported March 12 and both were men in their 70s who had traveled abroad.
Wells will be missed by legions of fans who remember her as one of the shipwrecked castaways on Gilligan's Island, which debuted in 1964 (the year I was born!).
Her formal name on the TV show was Mary Ann Summers, a farm girl from Kansas who set off on the fateful "three hour tour" after winning the trip on a local radio contest.
Raquel Welch auditioned for Mary Ann. But the part went to Wells, the 1959 Miss Nevada who competed in the 1960 Miss America pageant.
Wells reported receiving thousands of letters from fans every year, mostly from men, including a few marriage proposals. And a debate among many male fans boiled down to a simple question: Ginger or Mary Ann?
In many informal polls, Mary Ann was often the winner.
Tina Louise, who played Ginger the castaway actress, is the only surviving main character from Gilligan's Island.
In the last post on Wells' Facebook page Dec. 24, she is seen in a short video offering holiday greeting.