“Mary Ann Summers” has an entry on Wikipedia, even though she never existed. She was created by Dawn Wells, who was born in Reno in 1938 when it had about 20,000 people. Before 1964 she appeared in at least 16 television series, such as The Detectives and Ripcord, and a couple of movies, almost always in dramatic roles, but Gilligan’s Island nearly arrested her serious acting career while turning her into an icon and a subject of the eternal “Mary Ann or Ginger?” game. In some ways, meeting her is instructive of her acting ability, since she is not particularly like Mary Ann. She is more of a take-charge woman with a forceful voice who gives off an aura of authority, balanced by a relentlessly upbeat view of life. She was in Reno last week for student film screenings at the Nevada Museum of Art.
What was it like growing up in Reno?
I think it was an idyllic childhood. The town was just the right size. It was just—forget that there was any gambling. But I mean, we had a wonderful high school. My mother was a Brownie leader. I belonged to the Baptist Church. I went to grammar school, middle school and high school here. It was a wonderful group of friends—I just had breakfast with them this morning, we’ve stayed friends forever. It was absolutely perfect, actually. When I went away to college I couldn’t believe that everything wasn’t open 24 hours and that you couldn’t get anything you wanted on Sunday. … So it was a rude awakening when I went elsewhere. And I remember as a little girl in the Truckee River going for the gold wedding bands. … But it was a great time. I didn’t want to go to college here because I felt that I was an only child, and I felt that it was like going to high school with everybody again. And I had always wanted to go to a girls school. … I was accepted to both Mills and Stanford and a Stephens College representative came by in March and I said, “That’s Missouri. That’s a long way from home. I want to go.” So I went.
Who was your best friend?
Growing up? I think it was either Olivia Forsythe or Pat Reynolds. It’s Pat Ferraro now and Olivia Swaner now. Pat Ferraro and I—it’s Pat Klos now, I’m sorry—we were born the same day. And Olivia lived in my neighborhood. But there were a lot of friends. And we’re still close.
You gave recitals when you were little. You were in public speaking at Reno High. Were you always comfortable performing in public?
Yes, probably. I wanted to be a pediatric surgeon. I love science. And my knees dislocated from the time I was in the sixth grade. I was in a cast in high school from my hip to my ankle, one leg or the other, most of my high school. So I had never played a sport. Great scorekeeper, but I’ve never played a sport. So there [I] was looking for an alternative my freshman year to kind of—you know, your distraction. … All I could do was take a theatre course. And I liked public speaking. I was a debater. I liked debate a lot. And I’ve never been uncomfortable. …[M]y counselor talked me into becoming a theatre major and I said if I don’t work in the first two years, I’ll go back to med school. So I transferred to the University of Washington in Seattle. And when they asked me to run for Miss Nevada, I thought, “Well, that’ll be a good experience to get up in front of all those people”—not having any idea I’d win because I was so short, you know. But it was a good experience. It was. And I was lucky—Stephens had a fabulous theatre department, as does the University of Washington. So I was very, very well trained.
Are you related to Wells Avenue?
No, or Wells, Nevada, either, but I’d like to claim it [laughs]. I’m a fourth generation Nevadan. My great great grandfather drove stagecoach from Reno to Virginia City, drove some prominent people from Reno to the golden spike at Promontory, Utah. And my mother’s mother at age 9 played at Piper’s Opera House, played the piano. So I am an old Nevadan.