Monday, April 08, 2013
By Dennis McLellan
11:05 AM PDT, April 8, 2013
Annette Funicello, the dark-haired darling of "The Mickey Mouse Club" in the 1950s who further cemented her status as a pop-culture icon in the `60s by teaming with Frankie Avalon in a popular series of "beach" movies, died Monday. She was 70.
Funicello, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1987 and became a spokeswoman for treatment of the chronic, often debilitating disease of the central nervous system, died at Mercy Southwest Hospital in Bakersfield, Walt Disney Co. spokesman Howard Green said.
Funicello and her husband, Glen Holt, had moved away from the Los Angeles area after a 2011 fire gutted their home in Encino.
Funicello was a 12-year-old dance-school student when Walt Disney saw her performing the lead role in "Swan Lake" at her dance school's year-end recital at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank in the spring of 1955.
She joined a group of other talented young performers hired to become Mousketeers on "The Mickey Mouse Club," the children's variety show that debuted on ABC in October 1955 and quickly became a daily late-afternoon ritual for millions of young Americans.
Like her fellow female Mousketeers, Annette wore a blue pleated skirt, a white, short-sleeved turtle-neck sweater with her name emblazoned in block letters across her chest and a mouse-eared beanie.
But there was something special about the Mouseketeer with the curly black hair that unexpectedly turned her into the ensemble cast's biggest star.
Funicello made her acting debut on "The Mickey Mouse Club" serial "Adventure in Dairyland." She also appeared in two of the popular "Spin and Marty" serials about a Western dude ranch for boys, with Tim Considine and David Stollery in the title roles. And in 1958, Disney showcased his prized Mousketeer in her own "Annette" serial.
Mr. Disney, as Funicello always called her boss, also licensed Annette lunch boxes, Colorforms dolls, coloring books, comic books and even mystery novels featuring her in fictionalized adventures.
After "The Mickey Mouse Club" ended production in 1958 and went into reruns, the 15-year-old Funicello was the only Mouseketeer to remain under exclusive contract to the Disney studio.
She made her feature-film debut in "The Shaggy Dog," a 1959 comedy starring Fred MacMurray. It was the first of four Disney feature films she appeared in over the next six years, including "Babes in Toyland," "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones" and "The Monkey's Uncle."
Funicello launched her recording career in 1958 with a waltz-tempo ballad, "How Will I Know My Love?," which she originally sang on the "Annette" serial.
In early 1959, her single "Tall Paul" became a top-10 hit. It was followed by other singles such as "O Dio Mio" and "Pineapple Princess." She also recorded more than a dozen albums, including "Hawaiiannette," "Italiannette," and "Dance Annette."
Funicello, who was the first to concede she was not much of a singer, credited producer Salvador "Tutti" Camarata and the songwriting Sherman brothers, Richard and Robert, for coming up with the successful idea of double-tracking her voice and adding echo.
"I never liked singing," she told the Chicago Tribune years later. "I was always so frightened. But the echo chambers and double tracking gave me confidence and made my voice stronger. And it was time for a new sound. Soon, people started copying 'the Annette sound.'"
The fan magazines, meanwhile, chronicled her tooling around in her 1957 Thunderbird, customized by the legendary George Barris, with purple tuck-and-roll upholstery, three-inch deep purple shag carpet and 40 coats of glossy purple paint — a Christmas present from her parents.
There also were fan magazine "date layouts" with Fabian and stories on her "romance" with fellow teen idol Paul Anka who, Funicello later said, wrote "Put Your Head on My Shoulder" and other songs on the piano in the Funicello family's living room in Encino.
But for all the Hollywood glitz and glamour, Funicello remained the same reserved and relatively sheltered young woman her friends called Annie. Extremely close to her tight-knit family, she continued living at home until she was married.
"Nowadays when writers profile me for magazines, they write something to the effect that back in those days I 'represented' wholesomeness. In fact, though, I lived it, and it wasn't an act," she wrote in her 1994 autobiography, "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes," on which a 1995 TV movie was based.
Born on Oct. 22, 1942, in Utica, N.Y., she was the first of three Funicello children. In 1946, her auto mechanic father sold his business and the family moved to California, where they settled in the San Fernando Valley.
Though painfully shy — she'd hide behind her mother's skirt every time the doorbell rang — Annette began taking dance lessons (tap, ballet, modern and even hula) when she was in kindergarten.
Concerned about her extreme shyness after she became a young star, she once asked Disney if she might see a psychologist.
"Annette," she recalled Disney firmly yet gently telling her, "you have a certain charisma that people respond to. I think your being a little bit shy is part of your appeal. Going to see a psychologist would change that. Why do you want to change that?"
Disney also offered his advice when Funicello proposed changing her name to Annette Turner. Disney, she recalled in a 1987 Los Angeles Times interview, told her, "You have a beautiful Italian name, and once people learn how to pronounce it they won't forget it."
Funicello received a big career boost when Disney agreed to loan her out to American International Pictures to make "Beach Party," the song-filled, low-budget 1963 comedy in which she was first teamed on the big screen with Avalon.
Though he deemed the script "good clean fun," Funicello recalled in her book, Disney took her aside one day to tell her he had "a special little request."
"I see in here that all the other girls are going to be running around in bikinis, which is fine," he said. "But Annette, I want you to be different. You are different. I would simply like to request that you not expose your navel in the film."
Funicello, who wore a bikini around her own pool at home but never in public, wrote that she replied that she'd be happy to comply with Disney's "no navel" request. Long after she left the Disney studio, she spurned efforts to change her wholesome image.
"I've been offered roles as a hooker, as a druggie, all kinds of sleazy things," she told the St. Petersburg Times in 1990. "No, thank you. I always had Walt Disney in the back of my mind, whatever I did. I really considered him a second father."
Guys adored Funicello, Avalon told the Los Angeles Times in 1995, because she was the "untouchable girl next door that every male wanted to touch but knew she was untouchable. Every girl related to her and wanted to be that kind of a girl she portrayed on the screen. She was very feminine, very sweet and very vulnerable."
In the wake of the success of "Beach Party," Funicello and Avalon co-starred in "Muscle Beach Party," "Bikini Beach," and "Beach Blanket Bingo."
But for all her success in Hollywood, Funicello later wrote in her book, "by my teens I had decided to quit show business as soon as I married. Even as early as sixteen, I was telling interviewers that I wanted to have nine children, and I meant it."
In January 1965, 22-year-old Funicello married her agent, Jack Gilardi, who was 12 years her senior.
On the morning of the wedding, Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" cartoon strip marked the occasion by showing Snoopy howling, "I can't stand it! This is terrible! How depressing ... ANNETTE FUNICELLO HAS GROWN UP!"
While making "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini" with Dwayne Hickman a few months after the wedding, she was already in the early months of pregnancy with the first of her three children.
Choosing marriage and motherhood over her career, Funicello went on to make only occasional film and TV appearances over the next few decades, along with a memorable string of commercials for Skippy peanut butter.
Funicello and Gilardi's marriage ended in divorce in 1982. In 1986, she married Holt, an old Funicello family friend who bred racehorses.
The following year, she came out of semi-retirement to reunite with Avalon for "Back to the Beach," a comedy that poked fun at the "beach party" genre they had popularized. While shooting the movie, Funicello experienced the first inkling that something was physically wrong.
"We'd be shooting a scene on the sand," she later told People magazine, "and when I'd try to get up, I couldn't balance. Shortly after that, I noticed that my eyesight was getting worse."
A neurological exam in 1987 confirmed that she had multiple sclerosis, although she did not publicly announce that she had MS until 1992.
After disclosing her illness, Funicello formed a fund in her name to benefit research for neurological disease and became a national ambassador for the New York-based Multiple Sclerosis Society.
In 1993, she received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. By then, she needed a walker to get around, but she reportedly still radiated the same childlike innocence as when she was America's mouse-eared sweetheart.
When she appeared at the Walk of Fame ceremony, she later told the Chicago Tribune, "I thought, 'I wish Mr. Disney was here.' I get real choked up when I think about it. Mickey Mouse was by my side, though. He's always there — he's a part of my life. That really is something not everyone can call their claim to fame."
Besides Holt, Funicello's survivors include three children from her first marriage, Gina, Jack Jr. and Jason, and three grandchildren.
McLellan is a former Times staff writer.
Posted by Michael Godin at 4:55 PM