In the summer of 2003, an iconic U.S. television star came ashore in Petrolia for a short time.
Dawn Wells, who played castaway and all-American girl Mary Ann in the 1960s series, Gilligan’s Island, starred that summer in the North American premiere of the play, Make Me a Match, at Victoria Playhouse Petrolia.
Wells died Wednesday of complications from COVID-19. She was 82.
“I was hit so, so hard,” said Costin Manu, a Toronto-based actor who directed Wells in Petrolia.
It was the last of his nine seasons as artistic director at the restored opera house built in the Lambton County town when it was the centre of Canada’s oil industry in the last 1880s.
Manu had secured the North America premiere rights for Make Me A Match, penned by U.S. screenwriter and playwright Lawrence Roman, and was looking for a way to draw in an audience, particularly U.S. patrons from nearby Michigan.
He had experience working at Stage West, which often brought in U.S. television personalities to appear in shows, and was looking to do the same when he saw Wells’s name on a list of actors represented by an agent he knew.
“She’d be perfect for that part,” he remembers thinking.
Wells didn’t agree, at least right away, Manu said.
“We’re a small summer theatre in Petrolia,” he said, but she was travelling to an event in Toronto and promised to meet for lunch to talk about it.
Manu and others from the theatre met her at Bistro 99, a former hot spot for celebrities in the city, and lunch was such a success that Wells said she’d be in the play.
The show was also a success and Roman, who attended the premiere in Petrolia, was very happy, Costin said.
Wells claimed a spot in the hearts of those who worked with her that summer.
“She was very kind – very generous,” Manu said.
The theatre rented Wells a home while she was in Petrolia, where she hosted cast members for rehearsal lunches, parties and gatherings. She also joined the cast when they would go out together to restaurants in town after the shows.
She would also meet with audiences after performances, where her stock answer to men who told her about how they watched Mary Anne while growing up was, “I raised two generations of young American boys,” Manu recalled.
“The character was a wholesome American girl, and that’s who she was.”
Born in Reno, Nev., Wells appeared in all three seasons of Gilligan’s Island. She studied theatre at the University of Washington, and had headed to Hollywood after winning the Miss Nevada title in 1959 and competing in the Miss America contest.
Wells continues acting after Gilligan’s Island ended and appeared in televisions shows in the decades that followed, as well as taking parts in made-for-TV movies based on Gilligan’s Island, writing books, acting in theatre and teaching.
“She’s worked with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood but was very down to earth,” Manu said. “There was no pretence about her.”
A few years after the Petrolia play, Manu was working at the Rose Theatre in Brampton when a director there asked Wells to star in a production of Over the River and Through the Woods. She agreed but asked if Manu could be in the cast with her.
It was another wonderful experience and they stayed in touch, talking on the phone about the theatre, and getting together when Manu travelled to Los Angeles for work.
“She was extremely, extremely gracious,” he said. “It’s a great loss.”