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Star’s Role as Designer : Dawn Wells of ‘Gilligan’s Island’ is making fashion statements with her attractive clothing for the sick and elderly.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mary Ann has gone into retail.

She is recognized as one of the “Gilligan’s Island” castaways, the sweet, down-to-earth brunette matched against the sultry Ginger.

But now Dawn Wells wants to make another statement. This one is for the sick and elderly.

Three years ago, Wells, who played Mary Ann on the eternally popular TV show, established a new clothing line for the sick and elderly--the Wishing Wells Collections in Toluca Lake. This month, Beverly Enterprises, an Arkansas-based nursing home chain that oversees 880 facilities nationwide, will test the new outfits on about 1,000 patients.

Wishing Wells features gowns, robes, dresses, nightshirts, sleep wear and caftans. Each outfit can be easily fastened with Velcro instead of zippers or buttons, and can be opened in the front or back. With colorful, elaborate patterns for men and women, the clothes, made by a St. Louis manufacturer, differ sharply from the clothes normally available to the sick and elderly.

“Why shouldn’t the elderly, who have no one, be treated as the young people they were 30 years ago?” Wells said. “It’s an event for a woman when she can wear a new dress with a little style to it. Men don’t want to be seen in bathrobes and pajamas. Their self-esteem is very important.”

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So far, Wells has designed 18 outfits. The idea for constructing the garments came while Wells was appearing in a national tour of Neil Simon’s “Playing Our Song” in 1989. She wore clothes that used Velcro fasteners, “and I figured why not provide the same principle to the elderly?”

She got tips from the fashion design faculty at Stephen’s College, her alma mater in Missouri, and interviewed the elderly and sales people at shopping malls.

“From my theater experience, I learned how to study the essence of a character,” she said. After observing the elderly, she said, “I learned how they like bright colors and that the feel of the fabrics is very important. They are practical, and won’t spend any more money than they have to.”

She said she has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the project without turning a profit, yet her confidence remains intact. “I’ve gotten a lot of letters,” said Wells, who has sent two annual catalogues to nursing homes and hospitals. “There is definitely a need out there.”

Robert Craig, senior vice president of Beverly Enterprises, said the company will make the clothes available to all its patients if the initial tests are successful. The company will evaluate whether people like the fabrics and can function efficiently in them.

“We think Dawn’s clothes are pretty, practical and dignified,” Craig said. “She is a very compassionate woman, and we think people will like her clothes.”

Wells hopes to eventually place her outfits in retail stores throughout the country, and plans to design sweats, pants and shirts for the elderly. So far, the collection is only available by mail order. The clothes are priced from $15 to $110.

She is also interested in finding a business partner so she can spend more time on her acting career.

A 19, Wells landed a role in a television show with a goofy premise that didn’t figure to last long, and it didn’t--only three years (1964-67). Yet, like “Star Trek,” the true appeal of “Gilligan’s Island” showed up in syndication. Today, 25 years since the castaways were rescued by viewer apathy, Wells is still often recognized by fans as Mary Ann. On a trip last year to an isolated village in the Solomon Islands, Wells said she was approached by the wife of an island chief.

But at 47, she wants more than recognition for past prominence.

“I just want a shot,” said Wells, who, in recent years, has done a lot of theater, including Neil Simon’s “California Suite” in British Columbia, and Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” in Reno, Nev. “I’d love to be cast against what people think of Mary Ann. I’d love to play a bitch.”

WHERE TO GO

Information: For a free catalogue for the Wishing Wells Collections, write 11684 Ventura Blvd., Suite 965, Studio City, 91604.

Call: (818) 840-6919.


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