Dawn Wells: Mary Ann’s financial ship never ran aground

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“Gilligan’s Island” is one of the longest-running shows in the history of television syndication. Much of its appeal is no doubt due to the sense of good, clean, innocent fun conveyed by the cast, as they spent years trying to get off that island. And the character that best epitomizes that innocence was Mary Ann.

Dawn Wells, the actress who played her, thinks the show’s appeal derives from these innocent qualities. But as a savvy businesswoman, Wells is not quite the naif her character was. In the wake of “Gilligan’s Island,” Wells maintained a busy and productive career for herself — in theater, in which she was trained pre-Gilligan, and in capitalizing on the Gilligan phenomenon.

While keeping busy with numerous film and theater projects (including a TV Movie for CBS called “Surviving Gilligan’s Island,” which she is both appearing in and executive producing), Wells sells Gilligan memorabilia on her Web site, dawn-wells.com. In addition, she also runs a film-acting boot camp at her ranch near Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Bankrate.com spoke with Wells about making a living in the aftermath of a pop-culture legend.

Bankrate.com: You hear about such outrageous salaries for sitcom performers now, $450,000 an episode, insane things. How much were you making from “Gilligan’s Island”?

DAWN WELLS: (Laughs) I don’t know, but it wasn’t anywhere near . . . it was probably $1,000 or $2,000 a week. I don’t know for sure, but it wasn’t five figures.

B: Did you save your money?

DW: I don’t know there was a whole lot to save, but I’m a businesswoman. I know this business is fickle, so I’ve tried very hard with investments. I’m not rich by any means. Had we had some of those residuals everybody had, sure. But I’ve managed to make a good living all my life and to provide for when I get old and I’m alone.

B: So you don’t make money from the show in syndication?

DW: Not a bit. Not after the first five runs of each episode, which took about two years.

B: So at this point it’s all (show creator) Sherwood Schwartz’s?

DW: No. Time Warner.

B: You’ve turned the show’s memorabilia into a Web business. Is that lucrative?

DW: Kind of. You know what it is, I get requests all the time, and for years I did everything free, I sent out pictures for free, and you get to the point where it’s just exorbitant. You need a staff of two who have to open and sort the mail. So I’m selling it, as is everyone. If there’s a person who can’t afford it, I give it away. I don’t like to say that, but I do. If there’s a sad letter, they’ll get it for nothing. I don’t make any money on it. It almost pays for itself. Some people have also come up with ideas for ways to make money on it, so I share that with them. Like someone comes up with a teddy bear, then it’s helping somebody else make a little living.

B: Can a performer from an old show make a full-time living from nostalgic memorabilia?

DW: I don’t think you could make a living. If you’re retired, if you’re married and there’s another income, if you’re doing something else, it’s a nice little supplement. You can make a nice living doing personal appearances, you could make a personal appearance every week, but you don’t want to travel and do that every second of your life. But I think “Gilligan’s Island” is kind of unique in that it has lasted this long. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. Somebody may be really hot for four or five years and make a real good living at it, and then what happens?

B: What can sales of memorabilia gross?

DW: Oh, I don’t know. Probably $35,000 a year, maybe.

B: What about appearances and things of that nature?

DW: Now you’re in the six figures.

B: Has the “Gilligan’s Island” phenomenon been your primary income over the years?

DW: No. I have a lot of real estate and I have stock, and then my acting has been pretty equal to the Gilligan’s stuff. I don’t know how to separate that. I’m sure they’ve hired me because you’ll come see Mary Ann, but my acting career has been equal to the personal appearance career.

B: You mentioned you have real estate. I’m guessing the ranch is one of the things you’re talking about.

DW: The ranch. I have property in Florida and then I have property in Nevada. At one point, I also had 10 to 14 rentals.

B: Have you done well in real estate?

DW: Very well, and I believe in it very much.

B: Do you do better in real estate or in stocks?

DW: I do better in real estate because I understand it more. Stocks I have to leave up to someone else. I was very uncomfortable with the stock market until about 20 years ago. I was never very lucky. Now I have a wonderful broker who has helped me plan for the future, which for actors is very difficult. We have a pension, but it’s nothing compared to other people’s. I woke up one day and thought, wait a minute. Since I don’t have children, and nobody to take care of me, I’ve got to be able to take care of myself at 80 and have someone to wheel me around. So I’ve been trying to plan for that, and I didn’t start until late. We didn’t start with IRAs and that stuff until I was in my late 30s. As an actor, if you’re not into the Tom Cruise salary, you have to do some careful planning, because it’s not consistent. You can’t take 20 percent of your salary and put it away like you can if it comes in every week. You have to be a little bit more creative in your financial management.

B: Have there been any stocks that have been really well or really poorly for you?

DW: I love Coca-Cola. I’ve done pretty well with a couple of mutual funds. Way back I did a couple of those investments myself, where I went out and did a Levitz or something (laughs). That didn’t do very well. I was doing a play in Dallas and got hung up on Levitz Furniture (laughs). I think I lost a lot of it. But I’m not a real gambler. I don’t put everything in one place. I’m pretty good with diversity.