Girl next door Annette Funicello dies at 70
Tuesday, April 9, 2013
NEW YORK (AP) — She was the first crush for a generation of boys, the perfect playmate for a generation of girls.
Annette Funicello, who became a child star as a cute-as-a-button Mouseketeer on “The Mickey Mouse Club” in the 1950s, ruled among baby boomers, who tuned in every weekday afternoon to watch her on their flickering black-and-white television sets.
Then they shed their mouse ears, as Annette did when she teamed with Frankie Avalon during the ‘60s in a string of frothy, fun-in-the-sun movies with titles like “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.”
Decades later, she endeared herself to baby boomers all over again after she announced in 1992 that she had multiple sclerosis and began grappling with the slow, degenerative effects with remarkably good cheer and faith.
Funicello died on Monday at Mercy Southwest Hospital in Bakersfield, Calif., of complications from MS, the Walt Disney Co. said. She was 70.
“She really had a tough existence,” Avalon told The Associated Press. “It’s like losing a family member. I’m devastated but I’m not surprised.”
Avalon said that when they were working together, she never realized how beloved she was. “She would say, ‘Really?’ She was so bashful about it. She was an amazing girl,” he recalled.
The pretty, dark-haired Funicello was 13 when she gained fame on “The Mickey Mouse Club,” a kids’ variety show that consisted of stories, songs and dance routines. It ran on ABC from 1955 to 1959.
Cast after Walt Disney saw her at a dance recital, she appeared in the Mouseketeer uniform of mouse ears, a pleated skirt and a turtleneck sweater emblazoned with her first name, and captivated young viewers with her wholesome, girl-next-door appeal.
She became the most popular Mouseketeer, receiving 8,000 fan letters a month, 10 times more than any of the 23 other young performers.
“It was a happy time. They were wonderful times,” she recalled in a TV interview as an adult — and she might just as well have been speaking for her “Mickey Mouse Club” audience.
Singer and composer Paul Anka, the one-time teen idol who briefly dated Funicello when they were on the concert circuit in the late 1950s, said that like seemingly every young American male of the time, he was in love with her.
“She was just the girl next door and they were drawn just to her,” Anka said. “She had that thing. She had the it, and there was just no stopping it.”
They eventually drifted apart, but during the brief time they were together, he said, Disney tried to end their relationship, resulting in one of Anka’s biggest hits, “Puppy Love.”
When “The Mickey Mouse Club” ended, Funicello was the only cast member to remain under contract to the studio. She appeared in such Disney movies as “Johnny Tremain,” “The Shaggy Dog,” “The Horsemasters,” “Babes in Toyland,” “The Misadventures of Merlin Jones” and “The Monkey’s Uncle.”
She also became a recording star, singing on 15 albums and hit singles such as “Tall Paul” and “Pineapple Princess.”
Outgrowing the kid roles by the early ‘60s, Annette teamed with Avalon in a series of movies for American-International, the first film company to exploit the burgeoning teen market.
The films had songs, cameos by older stars and some laughs. The 1965 “Beach Blanket Bingo,” for example, featured subplots involving a mermaid, a motorcycle gang and a skydiving school run by Don Rickles, and comic touches by silent film star Buster Keaton.
Among the other titles: “Muscle Beach Party,” “Bikini Beach,” “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” and “Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.”
The shift in teen tastes begun by the Beatles in 1964 and Funicello’s first marriage the following year pretty much killed off the beach-movie genre.
After that, she had no interest in edgier, more “adult” roles.
“People are more interested in changing my image than I am,” she said in an interview. Scripts were sent to her, and “I read the first 10 pages and I’m a prostitute or a doper, and I fold them up and send them back.”
In the 1970s, she made commercials for Skippy peanut butter, appearing with her real-life children.
She and Avalon staged a reunion in 1987 with “Back to the Beach,” in which Lori Loughlin played their daughter.
It was during the filming of “Back to the Beach” that Funicello noticed she had trouble walking — the first insidious sign of MS.
When it was finally diagnosed, she later recalled, “I knew nothing about (MS), and you are always afraid of the unknown. I plowed into books.”
She gradually lost control of her legs, and she feared people might think she was drunk. So she went public with her ordeal in 1992.
Funicello was born Oct. 22, 1942, in Utica, N.Y., and her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 4. She began taking dance lessons, and she won a beauty contest at 9. Then came her discovery by Disney.
Funicello’s devotion to Walt Disney remained throughout her life.
“He was the dearest, kindest person, and truly was like a second father to me,” she said. “He was a kid at heart.”
In 1965, Funicello married her agent, Jack Gilardi, and they had three children, Gina, Jack and Jason. The couple divorced 18 years later, and in 1986 she married Glen Holt, a harness racehorse trainer.
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