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Dreama's island: Gilligan's legacy is alive

Douglas Imbrogno
Of her late husband, Bob Denver, "I feel a huge responsibility to represent him," Dreama Denver says, standing on the deck of the Mercer County house where they raised their severely disabled child.

PRINCETON, W.Va. -- If you live in West Virginia, you likely already knew the curious fact that "Gilligan" had come to live in these hills, moving here in 1990.

You may even know that Bob Denver, made world famous by his adventures on "Gilligan's Island," had fallen for a West Virginia woman named Dreama and that they'd moved to a house near her old stomping grounds.

But if that's about all you know, read on.

Because the full story of how an iconic actor ended up living out his days in West Virginia is not just a true-love romance, although it certainly is that. It's also the drama of a couple faced with life-shaking decisions after the birth of a profoundly disabled boy.

And it's a tale that unfolds to this day, six years after Denver's death. Through Little Buddy Radio and the Denver Foundation, Dreama Denver devotes her waking life to her husband's legacy not just as a beloved TV character, but as a parent confronting the difficult hand dealt his family.

Kissing Gilligan

One day in 1977, the phone rang with a call that would redirect Dreama Peery's life.

"You should try out for this theater production of 'Play It Again, Sam' in St. Petersburg," a friend told her.

Peery, a Bluefield native who then called Florida home, was a busy professional actress at the time. "I think I will," she said.

She landed the female lead of Linda, who's in a relationship with a character named Allan, so there'd be some kissing during the show's six-week run.

"Who's playing Allan?" she asked the director.

"Bob Denver," replied the director.

"Gilligan?" she said. "I'm going to have to kiss Gilligan?"

Within two years from the time their lips first met onstage, Dreama Peery had become Mrs. Denver.

It must have been some kiss.

Sitting at her Southern West Virginia home in the Mercer County hills, Dreama Denver picks up the tale of how a small-city girl ended up marrying a cultural touchstone known around the globe.

"I came to rehearsal the first day and got there first," she recalled. "They had a marquee on the theater that said: 'Bob Denver starring in 'Play it Again, Sam.' Also starring 'Dreamer Peery.'" Bob walked into rehearsal, going kind of at the top of his lungs: 'What the hell is a Dreamer?'"

She walked up to introduce herself. They shook hands.

"The minute we shook hands it was like, 'Ah, there you are!' It was like we'd been looking for each other forever. I was 26. He was 42, but looked 30," she said.

Their onstage romance in "Play It Again, Sam" soon led offstage.

"We got together and kissed personally, not onstage, at the opening-night party. From that moment on we were pretty much together for the next 28 years. We both knew the moment we saw each other we were meant to be together.

"Corny as it sounds," she added with a smile, "it was true."

They married in Las Vegas, during the filming of one of the several movies spun off from the "Gilligan's Island" TV show, "The Castaways on Gilligan's Island." That was in 1979, yet when asked in interviews in what year he and Dreama were married, Denver would reply '1977,' she said. "Bob always answered '77, since we felt married from the get-go."

Someplace peaceful

Bob Denver was not the first prominent actor with whom Dreama had worked onstage.

"I'd been on the road for about eight years working with all kinds of celebrities," she said. "Sal Mineo. Gale Gordon from 'The Lucy Show.' Robert Horton from 'The Virginians.' Bob Cummings from 'The Bob Cummings Show.' Al Lewis from 'The Munsters.'"

She continued working even as she began to experience her husband's circle of fame. At one point, she even got a small role in one of the "Gilligan" made-for-TV movies. It was a movie with one of the more absurd premises inspired by a show that traded in absurdity: "The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island."

"I was Mrs. Howell's social secretary in 'Globetrotters.' Kind of a cult fave," she recalled of the 1981 production. "Silly movie. But so much fun!"

In 1984, they had a child. It was Dreama's first and would be her only child. Denver already had three children from two previous marriages. They named their newborn son Colin.

"We were living in Santa Barbara [Calif.] when Colin was born," Dreama recalled. "We moved from there to Las Vegas and lived there for about five years."

It soon became apparent that Colin was not passing the usual developmental benchmarks of a growing infant and youth. He was eventually diagnosed as being severely autistic.

He would need full-time care, the doctors said, for the rest of his life.

The couple had little hesitation about who Colin's full-time caregivers would be. Where that care would take place was the question.

"When we knew he had problems and the two of us were going to have to give full-time care for him, we decided we wanted to do it someplace quiet and off the beaten path. Bob suggested West Virginia. I said: 'Really? You would want to live in West Virginia?'"

"Sure," he answered. "Someplace beautiful, someplace peaceful."

All right, then.

She was going home.

"We had a Realtor start looking for a house for us. And we moved here, mainly to take care of Colin."

Is Gilligan home?

The house sits at the end of a curving road up in the Mercer County hills, with a deck overlooking a small pond.

With the couple's move to the state in 1990, both gave up their acting careers, although Denver would continue to do celebrity appearances as Gilligan.

It was difficult for Dreama, who still has the Equity card of a professional actress, to walk away from the stage.

"That was really hard. I mean really, really hard for me to let that go. I liked it more than Bob did. But you do what you have to do."

Word got around that Dreama was back in the area and that she'd brought a certain someone with her.

"I went to some store, and somebody who had known me from the past and that I didn't recognize was like, 'Dreama?!' And I'm like, 'Yeah?' And she goes: 'Oh my god, it's Dreama! She came back and she brought Gilligan with her!'

"So, I'm like, 'Yeah.'"

Then, the gawkers started driving up their road. They were hunting for Gilligan.

"One time, an SUV pulled up in the driveway and it was a family -- kids and parents. So I yelled out, 'Can I help you?' The man got out of the car and said, 'We hoped to be able to meet Gilligan.' He caught me in a good mood. Sometimes it was really invasive to have people coming up here all the time."

She said she could maybe get them an autographed picture.

"He was like, 'OK.' And I say, 'How did you find out that this is where Bob lived?'"

His family was vacationing at nearby Pipestem State Resort, the man said. He'd asked at the front desk whether it was true the "Gilligan" guy lived in the area.

"So they drew us a map," he told her.

"I'm, like, oh, god! They're drawing maps at Pipestem of how to get to Gilligan's house!"

The stargazing never settled down completely until Denver's death six years ago.

"The first year or so it was really bad because we were here to take care of Colin. You never knew what he'd be doing -- he could be screaming or pitching a fit.

"One day we watched them put down a blanket and have a picnic on the gravel there, and they were all sitting on the fence with our house behind them. Somebody was taking a picture with everybody -- and Gilligan's house behind them."

Little Buddy airs

It's a sunny morning in Southern West Virginia. Coffee cup in hand, Dreama Denver strolls into the studio of Little Buddy Radio, located on the second floor of her house.

The studio is outfitted with mics, a console, computers and two swivel chairs, one for her and her co-host, Charlie Thomas. From 6 to 10 a.m. each day, they co-host "Sunny Side Up," a music and talk show, which resolutely stresses positive things going on around the region.

On one wall, framed photos trace Bob Denver's acting career. In a corner, stands a fake palm tree decorated with green and gold tube lights, a nod to the palm-filled Pacific isle that made "Gilligan" a household name. (In actuality, the show was shot on an L.A. soundstage, with Coconut Island in Oahu, Hawaii, used in long shots.)

"Little Buddy," of course, was what the Skipper, played by Alan Hale Jr., called Gilligan on the sitcom, which debuted in 1964.

The nonprofit station can be heard in the Mercer County area at WGAG-FM 93.1. But its varied mix of music and talk streams 24 /7 onto the Web at www.bobdenver.com/radio.

"It really is, musically, a great station," says Dreama, who makes a point to play not only a broad blend of pop, rock, jazz, blues and classic acts, but also high-profile area performers like Nat Reese and Option 22.

The station's Web address is instructive. Its mission is one element of BobDenver.com, a growing website and archive for all things Bob Denver-related, plus the official home of the Denver Foundation.

You can learn from the site, for instance that the full name of Gilligan's character was "Willy Gilligan," which was never used on the show.

Also, that in an episode featuring a live lion in the hut of Thurston and "Lovey" Howell ("The millionaire and his wife" in the show's famous theme song), the lion lunged at Denver on set. A trainer saved the day, as well as the actor's skin, as Denver recalled once in an interview:

"The only thing that saved me was the twin beds splitting apart when he tried to push off. Then I turned to see the trainer in midair as he tackled the lion to keep him away from me."

It may also come as a surprise to learn that the show ran only three seasons and for just 98 episodes. It was the constant airing in syndication that burned its characters into the world's collective consciousness.

The site also has placeholder links for more to come on "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis," the 1959-1963 TV show that launched Denver's career before The S.S. Minnow ever was tossed upon that fateful isle.

As the bearded, bongo-playing beatnik Maynard G. Krebs, Denver began his rise to fame as another iconic character, a coffeehouse slacker who shrieked every time someone uttered the word "work."

Those West Virginia Hills

Dreama Denver walks over to glass doors that open onto her second-floor deck. Waves of green hills stretch to the horizon. She begins to sing "West Virginia Hills," the state song.

"Oh, the hills, beautiful hills, how I love those West Virginia Hills ..."

She stops, chuckling at her tunelessness.

"It is pretty and Bob really did love it here. It's nice to be able to tell people that, you know, honestly, he loved it."

When they were not taking care of their son in one room, the couple launched a project they could do together in another room. They first founded a nonprofit organization 11 years ago to raise money and awareness for autism. Little Buddy Radio, a low-power FM station, was part of that goal.

It hit the local airwaves in 2004. Together, they hosted a syndicated oldies music show, "Weekend with Denver and Denver." Dawn Wells, who played the lithesome, wholesome Mary Ann on "Gilligan's Island," was their "castaway correspondent" and phoned in weekly reports.

Bob and Dreama worked on the station together for only eight months. Then, Denver was diagnosed with throat cancer. Complications related to his treatment would end his life just six months later.

Her husband's death in 2005 hit her hard.

"I always thought I couldn't live without him," she said. "I couldn't imagine how I could go on. My close friends and family were worried about me."

Given their circumstances, the couple had been each other's support network.

"We spent all our time taking care of Colin. There was no social life to speak of. I ended up having a lot of responsibility alone, the biggest of which, of course, was now making all decisions on Colin's behalf. I had no one who cared about him and loved him as I did. I had no one to bounce things off of anymore. It was terribly frightening."

She spent long days curled up on a couch. What got her going again was the idea of honoring her husband's life and legacy through the radio station and the Denver Foundation. How might she build them up to help other families who wrestled with caring for their own disabled children?

Colin, now 27, lives next door in a small house. Extended care is provided by ResCare, a national human services company she finally hired that helps people with severe challenges live more independently.

From ResCare, Dreama got the idea of focusing the Denver Foundation on funding small but significant assistance for special-needs children and their families in Southern West Virginia.

The Denver Foundation is not wealthy, despite what people may imagine given her husband's worldwide fame, she said. Denver and other "Gilligan's Island" actors never made any more money than what they earned from the show's original run, so there was no residual check bonanza for them from its syndication and spin-offs, she said.

"In light of the fact the foundation isn't rich, it's not like I can build an assisted-living home or give a family $100,000. I can't do that," she said.

But things that seem small from the outside looking in "are huge if that's what you need and get overlooked. My foundation can do that," she said.

"Colin was always incontinent. So, I had to have a washer and dryer. If you are taking care of a special-needs person who needs that, and you have an old washer and it breaks down and you can't afford one, that's a very, very, very big deal.

"So, we started doing that kind of thing. We've supplied wheelchairs. We've supplied a bathtub chair to a little 10-year-old hydrocephalic girl. We've supplied generators to keep respirators going. We're right now getting ready to give an iPad to a young boy. They do therapy with him on an iPad, which is a wonderful, wonderful thing.

"Hopefully, as the foundation gets richer we can up the price of the things we can do. Either way, it's all good, as far as I'm concerned. As long as we're helping."

'Keeper of the flame'

When talking of her late husband, Dreama sometimes rolls her eyes up to the sky, as if checking up on him. Or checking in with him.

"When I need him, it's the oddest thing -- and people, please don't think I'm crazy! But when I need him and call on him, it's almost like I can feel him fill me up and give me the courage to do whatever it is."

She laughed, then grew more serious.

"I feel like I am the keeper of the flame, so to speak. I feel a huge responsibility to represent him. When he was dying, I mean literally taking his last breath, one of the things I told him was I would live my life to make him proud. That I would do everything I could to serve his memory well."

She agreed to be a commencement speaker last year, which her famous husband would never do, she said. "Public speaking scared him, which people find odd if you're an actor. But I looked at Bob ..."

Her eyes roll heavenward. She points a finger that way.

"... And I went 'Ha! Look what I'm doing. You wouldn't even do this!'"

Her eyes returned to earth.

"He was such a good man. He was such a good father to our son. There's nothing I wouldn't do to represent him well."

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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