I’m always hot on the trail of something elusive — a free drink, a genuine compliment, two-for-one begonias at the local gardening center. Today, I am chasing down a tip that “Gilligan’s Island,” one of America’s most beloved shows, was filmed at Echo Park Lake, in the middle of downtown Los Angeles, an Eden-like urban oasis.
Essentially, that’s what “Gilligan’s Island” represents to me, a Garden of Eden — innocence, danger, lust and a ton of smiles, because I always read the Old Testament as satire. I don’t mean any disrespect, since I read everything as satire: the Wall Street Journal, the Congressional Record (especially).
A reader told me recently that she wished to see the world through my eyes. I have one word for her: satire. If that fails: tequila.
Anyway, an internet site claims that the show’s lagoon scenes were filmed near the north end of Echo Park Lake, and if you’ve been there, you know the busy park resembles the show’s tropical setting.
Jungle overgrowth curls around its tiny island, and it is alive, really alive. Palm fronds and lily pads — nature’s sedative — are all over the place. Makes me think that “Gilligan’s Island” easily could have been filmed here during its mid-’60s run.
But I need to confirm.
Like the Beatles, the “Gilligan’s Island” cast is now down to just two: Ginger and Mary Ann.
I chose Mary Ann (you surprised?).
“Yes, I think we might’ve shot there,” says Dawn Wells, who played Mary Ann Summers, at an initial meeting in Altadena.
“Are you single?” she asks.
If you think this is a bizarre moment, how do you think I feel? I mean, I’m just a C-student from Chicago, nothing special. I’ve never won any sort of award, never been promoted. Yet here I am, unremarkable in appearance and intellect — barely tall enough to drive — and I’m sitting on a couch with America’s sweetheart.
Indeed, the template for Wells’ character was Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz,” a Kansas farm girl with pigtails and gingham dresses. Certainly, it wasn’t the bare midriffs so much as it was a reassuring girl-next-door allure that made her a star.
Sure, in real life Wells was a former Miss Nevada and all that, and she reportedly beat out Raquel Welch for the Mary Ann role. But it was her simple, earnest decency that charmed millions of viewers. CBS paid her a whopping $700 a week when she started.
As with Barbara Eden in “I Dream of Jeannie,” the network wouldn’t let Wells expose her navel, for fear of offending advertisers and audiences. (There we go with another Eden reference.)
“Between my belly button and Tina’s cleavage, we had to reshoot a lot of scenes,” Wells says now.
Tina was Tina Louise, of course, who played Ginger Grant, the on-the-make movie star. Wells denies reports that Louise was standoffish and disliked on set.
“I learned a lot from her,” she says now, though she admits to being friendlier with the other castaways.
Other insights: The straitlaced Professor (Russell Johnson) was the funniest person to hang with; goofy Gilligan (Bob Denver) was the most serious, but a kind and beloved friend.
When the Professor and Mary Ann were initially left out of the catchy theme song, it was Denver who insisted on adding them for later seasons.
“He and Alan [Hale] were just magic, the physical humor … they were like Laurel and Hardy together,” she says fondly.
“We were just seven characters with nothing in common, trying to get along on a tropical island,” she says of the simple premise, though I still see traces of Sumerian mythology and a sly ode to lost souls.
Like “Star Trek,” the show ran for only three years, showing longevity in reruns far beyond its original campaign.
Something about those ’60s shows snagged our hearts. It wasn’t Paddy Chayefsky, yet think of how far-fetched and inventive those sitcoms were: “Bewitched,” “My Favorite Martian,” “Mister Ed,” “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
They may have been escapist television, big on sight gags, but they were brilliantly executed. And they were enormous fun.
Consider too, the fever-dream storylines on “Gilligan”: the radioactive seeds, the crashed NASA satellite, the tree-sap pancake syrup that might help them repair the SS Minnow.
Another piece of “Gilligan’s” trivia: A young Kurt Russell played Jungle Boy.
America could use a rebirth of this kind of audacious television, rather than the tired domestic sitcoms the networks trot out each season.
Rant over. Back to the lagoon … back to our fond childhood memories.
Wells, who followed “Gilligan’s Island” with a long career in live theater, agrees to join an impromptu tiki party I’m planning for this Postcard series, a pop-up event with a few friends on the edge of Echo Park Lake. There, I tell her, we will celebrate tiki culture, bongo music and her classic sitcom.
That’s right, a half century after Mary Ann got off the island, we’re taking her back.
In Echo Park, she settles into a beach chair, grabs a faux pineapple cup and starts to have second thoughts on whether the show has much connection to the place. She remembers shooting beach scenes in Malibu and Santa Barbara but probably not here. Once the show was a hit, CBS built a permanent lagoon at the Radford lot.
Remarkably, the internet appears to be wrong.
The family of the show’s creator, Sherwood Schwartz (who died in 2011), thinks some publicity sessions with the cast were shot in Echo Park, though.
That’s enough for me, for it gives us the chance to tiki-toast the ultimate survivor, Dawn Wells, who still has that girl-next-door glow, and an appreciation for what has turned out to be a mostly fantastic life, sans the residuals that current shows generate.
After all, at 80, she’ll always be an American reference point, in a postmodern Norman Rockwell way.
In a world that runs on cynicism and satire, she’ll always be the ponytailed crush who never got kissed (“three years on the island,” she says, “not a one!”). She’ll always be the former beauty queen from Reno who showed up in Hollywood carrying a suitcase and little else.
And made America smile.
Echo Park, 751 Echo Park Ave., is a family-friendly destination featuring a large lake, lotus beds and a 200-foot fountain. Swan-shaped pedal boats are available for rent, from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. ($11 for adults, $6 for ages 17 and under). Info: (213) 444-9445.
Wells’ outfits and other memorabilia from “Gilligan’s Island” will be on display starting Sept. 26, at the Hollywood Museum, 1660 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. Info: thehollywoodmuseum.com