Former Disney star Funicello dies at 70
FILE - In this 1963 file photo, singer Frankie Avalon and actress Annette Funicello are seen on Malibu Beach during filming of "Beauty Party," in California in 1963. Walt Disney Co. says, Monday, April 8, 2013, that former "Mouseketeer" Funicello, also known for her beach movies with Avalon, has died at age 70. (AP Photo/File)
FILE - In this Oct. 20, 1990 file photo, actress and former Mickey Mouse Club member Annette Funicello arrives for the 15th annual Italian American Foundation dinner in Washington. Walt Disney Co. says, Monday, April 8, 2013, that Funicello, also known for her beach movies with Frankie Avalon, has died at age 70. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
FILE - This 1955 file photo provided by Walt Disney Co., shows Annette Funicello, a "Mouseketeer" on Walt Disney's TV series the "Mickey Mouse Club." Walt Disney Co. says, Monday, April 8, 2013, that Funicello, also known for her beach movies with Frankie Avalon, has died at age 70. (AP Photo/Walt Disney Co., File)
FILE - In this January 1978 file photo, executive producer Dick Clark welcomes former "Mouseketeer" Annette Funicello to the party when ABC-TV presents "ABC's Silver Anniversary Celebration," a gala four-hour telecast. Walt Disney Co. says, Monday, April 8, 2013, that Funicello, also known for her beach movies with Frankie Avalon, has died at age 70. (AP Photo/File)
FILE - In this Jan. 3, 1978 file photo, actress Annette Funicello recalls moments when she played a "Mouseketeer" on ABC's first successful daytime television show,"The Mickey Mouse Club" in Los Angeles, while she was taping an ABC Silver Anniversary Celebration special. Walt Disney Co. says, Monday, April 8, 2013, that Funicello, also known for her beach movies with Frankie Avalon, has died at age 70. (AP Photo/Lennox McLendon, File)
FILE - In this March 24, 1959 file photo, Walt Disney studio's new star, 16-year-old Annette Funicello, poses with her Shaggy Dog doll, at Idlewild Airport in New York. Walt Disney Co. says, Monday, April 8, 2013, that Funicello, also known for her beach movies with Frankie Avalon, has died at age 70. (AP Photo/File)
FILE - In this Oct. 21, 1992 file photo, former "Mouseketeer" Annette Funicello gets set to put her hands in the cement at Walt Disney Studios Theatre, in Burbank, Calif., as she is honored with the Disney Legend Award. With Funicello is her husband, Glen Holt, right, and Jeff Hofman, left, Disney Studios official. Walt Disney Co. says, Monday, April 8, 2013, that Funicello, also known for her beach movies with Frankie Avalon, has died at age 70. (AP Photo/Nick Ut, File)
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 yesterday 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.”
“The Disney crowd, and understandably so, didn’t want her too involved at too young an age,” Anka told the AP. “We had our professional careers and what have you, and they continued to tell her it was a puppy love, and marriage should not be in question. And I wrote about it.”
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 filmmakers weren’t aiming for art, and never stumbled across it. As Halliwell’s Film Guide says of Beach Party: “Quite tolerable in itself, it started an excruciating trend.”
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 beach films featured ample youthful skin. But not Funicello’s.
She remembered in 1987: “Mr. Disney said to me one day, ‘Annette, I have a favor to ask of you. I know all the girls are wearing bikinis, but you have an image to uphold. I would appreciate it if you would wear a one-piece suit.’ I did, and I never regretted it.”
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.
Funicello was “kind and down-to-earth,” Loughlin told the AP. “She was truly the embodiment of the friendly, all-American girl that we all loved to watch in the beach movies.”
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.
She wrote of her triumphs and struggles in her 1994 autobiography, A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes – the title taken from a Disney song. In 1995, she appeared briefly in a television docudrama based on her book. And she spoke openly about the degenerative effects of MS.
“My equilibrium is no more; it’s just progressively getting worse,” she said. “But I thank God I just didn’t wake up one morning and not be able to walk. You learn to live with it. You learn to live with anything, you really do.”
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.”
Asked about revisionist biographies that have portrayed Disney in a negative light, she said: “I don’t know what went on in the conference rooms. I know what I saw. And he was wonderful.”
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.
After her film career ended, she devoted herself to her family.
“We are so sorry to lose Mother,” her children said in a statement. “She is no longer suffering anymore and is now dancing in heaven.”