Annette Funicello, who came to fame on The Mickey Mouse Club and went on to greater fame as a film and recording star, died today at the age of 70. The cause was complications from multiple sclerosis.
Annette Funicello was born on 22 October 1942 in Utica, New York. In 1946 her family moved to Southern California in hopes of a better life. They lived in Studio City for a time before moving to Encino. She was talented even as a young child. She took dancing lessons and also learned to play drums. In 1955 Walt Disney was casting The Mickey Mouse Club and wanted amateurs rather than seasoned professionals. He discovered Miss Funicello dancing as the Swan Queen in “Swan Lake” at a recital in Burbank, California. She was the last of the original Mouseketeers to be cast. Strangely enough, at one point Annette Funicello wanted to change her surname to the more typically "American" sounding "Turner." She was talked out of this by Walt Disney himself, who told her that her given surname was much more memorable.
The Mickey Mouse Club proved to be a hit and Annette Funicello proved to be the most popular Mouseketeer on the show. As the first season of the show came to an end she was already receiving 6000 fan letters a month. She was soon appearing in the various serials that aired as a part of The Mickey Mouse Club, including "The Adventures of Spin & Marty" and "Adventure in Dairyland." In the third season Annette Funicello was awarded her very own serial, "Walt Disney Presents: Annette." The serial starred Miss Funicello as a poor orphaned girl from the country who goes to live with her rich uncle and aunt in town.
Annette Funicello's success on television would also lead to success as a recording artist. In 1958 she scored her first hit record, "How Will I Know My Love." The song was originally sung in an episode of "Walt Disney Presents: Annette" and proved so popular that Disney released it as a single. From 1958 to 1964 Miss Funicello released a number of singles. Her biggest hits were "Tall Paul," which went to #7 on the Billboard Hot 100, and "Pineapple Princess," which went to #11. She also released six albums.
While Annette Funicello saw success on both The Mickey Mouse Club and on the record charts, she would gain even more fame as a film star. In 1957 Walt Disney Studios proposed a film to be based on L. Frank Baum's Oz books, Rainbow Road to Oz. In addition to Miss Funicello, the movie would have starred Tommy Kirk and fellow Mouseketeer Darlene Gillespie. Due to reasons that remain unclear today, the project Rainbow Road to Oz was abandoned. Miss Funicello then made her film debut in The Shaggy Dog (1959). The same year Miss Funicello also made guest appearances on Make Room For Daddy and Zorro, as well as her first appearance on Walt Disney Presents.
Annette Funicello began the Sixties with a starring role in the Disney film Babes in Toyland (1961). She would go on to appear in two more Disney films during the decade: The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964)and The Monkey's Uncle (1965). While Annette Funicello was under contract to Walt Disney Studios, her claim to fame as a film star would largely be due to American International Pictures' "Beach Party" series. It was in 1963 that American International Pictures approached Walt Disney about featuring Miss Funicello in a beach movie. Mr. Disney thought the film sounded like "good clean fun." Contrary to popular belief, he did not forbid Miss Funicello from wearing a bikini or bearing her navel, although her swimsuits were often more modest than those of the other girls in the "Beach Party" series. Annette Funicello would appear in Beach Party (1963), Muscle Beach Party (1964), Bikini Beach (1964), Pajama Party (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965). She also had cameos in two films related to, but not necessarily part of the "Beach Party" series: Ski Party (1965) and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965). In addition to her various Disney films and the "Beach Party" movies, Annette Funicello also appeared in Fireball 500 (1966), Thunder Alley (1967), and The Monkees' film Head (1968).
In the Sixties Annette Funicello also made appearances on television. As might be expected, she appeared in episodes of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Colour. She also guest starred on Wagon Train, The Greatest Show on Earth, Burke's Law, and Hondo.
Annette Funicello married in 1965 and had her first child in 1966. Her career then slowed as she concentrated on raising her family. On television she guest starred on Easy Does It... Starring Frankie Avalon, Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, and Growing Pains. She also appeared in the 1978 television special Frankie and Annette: The Second Time Around with Frankie Avalon. Her last film was Back to the Beach in 1987, in which she was reunited with Frankie Avalon. The film parodied the old "Beach Party" movies. Sadly, in 1992 Annette Funicello announced that she had multiple sclerosis. The following year she founded the Annette Funicello Fund for Neurological Disorders at the California Community Foundation.
Many remember Annette Funicello from her days as a Mousketeer on The Mickey Mouse Club. This is understandable given this was how many were introduced to her. The Mickey Mouse Club had long been off the air by the time I was born, so I first encountered Miss Funicello in the films she made for Disney and the "Beach Party" movies, which were frequently shown on television throughout my childhood. When I picture Annette Funicello, then, it is as Merlin Jones' girlfriend Jennifer in two of her better known Disney films or Frankie Avalon's love interest in the "Beach Party" films. Quite simply, Annette Funicello had an appeal that transcended generations. She appealed not only to Baby Boomers who discovered her on The Mickey Mouse Club, but also to the following generations who discovered her through her films.
As to the basis of Annette Funicello's appeal. that was simple. Miss Funicello combined beauty and, when she was older, sex appeal with sweetness, humility, and wholesomeness. She was often referred to as both "the girl next door" and "America's sweetheart," and both labels were fitting. Miss Funicello was the sort of girl that boys wanted to date, girls wanted as their best friend, and parents wanted as their daughter. Annette Funicello's on screen image largely reflected Annette Funicello in real life. She was an actress who, even in the days of her superstardom, maintained a rather ordinary family life and who was never affected by scandal. By all reports in real life she was much as she appeared to be on screen: a sweet, unassuming woman who was thoughtful of others. If Annette Funicello has remained popular for literally decades, and popular among successive generations, it is perhaps because she was an actress whose on screen image was more or less the same as she was in real life. In the end, it would seem that Annette Funicello truly was America's sweetheart, the ideal girl next door.