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Annette Funicello, Mouseketeer and film star, dies

By Frazier Moore

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 01:35 p.m. HST, Apr 08, 2013

NEW YORK » 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 up 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 and had dropped from public view years ago.

"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 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 were reunited in the 1987 movie "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. She gradually lost control of her legs. Fearing people might think she was drunk, she went public with her condition 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."

Kathy Lennon, who was one of the singing Lennon Sisters and became friends with Funicello after appearing on "The Mickey Mouse Club," said she and Funicello stayed in touch until a few years ago, when Lennon made her usual call to wish the actress a happy birthday and learned that MS had robbed her of her ability to speak.

"Annie's just not talking now," Lennon recalled Funicello's husband saying.

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."


Associated Press writers Bob Thomas, Greg Risling and John C. Rogers and AP Television Writer Lynn Elber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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cojef wrote:
A likeable and popular celebrity with much class, which is much lacking in many stars of today.
on April 8,2013 | 07:48AM
allie wrote:
I was not even alive when she was active. I must say that someone like that, forced on children by Hollywood, would never have been a sweetheart for my tribal people. Sorry but we prefer our own heroes and heroines...our own history and culture. Not the pabulum put out by Hollywood for mass consumption.
on April 8,2013 | 10:13AM
phyllum69 wrote:
Wow. Just...wow.
on April 8,2013 | 10:16AM
kiragirl wrote:
Typical asinine comment!
on April 8,2013 | 10:38AM
pandadaddy wrote:
"forced on children"? You're mental.
on April 8,2013 | 10:49AM
kispest wrote:
allie, get off the drugs.
on April 8,2013 | 11:59AM
onevoice82 wrote:
Wow allie, I usually do not comment about people that comment on these threads and there are a handful of us that regularly voice our opinions about various topics but you my friend have gone off the deep end with this comment. Respect level has dropped precipitously, such a shame.
on April 8,2013 | 12:45PM
allie wrote:
disagree.. what I say is true, fresh and provocative.
on April 8,2013 | 12:48PM
copperwire9 wrote:
...false, stale, and generally showing a lack of understanding about whatever you're an 'authority' on at the time. Get a grip, darlin'.
on April 8,2013 | 01:25PM
Publicbraddah wrote:
Hi gang, I just downloaded the latest version of anti-allie software free. It directs allie's comments into what is referred to as a toilet folder which continually flushes allie's comments into deep space.
on April 8,2013 | 02:09PM
cunfuzd4 wrote:
Public - forget the comments, they're just annoying because he's such a dolt. How about software that will flush ALL-LIE down the toilet?
on April 9,2013 | 03:22AM
cunfuzd4 wrote:
ALL-LIE you have been caught in too many lies to count...it would be easier to count the number of times you KNOWINGLY told the truth...NONE
on April 8,2013 | 08:46PM
Publicbraddah wrote:
Uh, you forgot HUMBLE!
on April 9,2013 | 05:55AM
Publicbraddah wrote:
Right Allie, your generation doesn't have the same kind of heroes and heroines. Your generation has Bieber and the Kardashians and Paris Hilton and all the "reality" trash. You know nothing about our generation and yet you spew your garbage. Looks like you lack social skills.
on April 8,2013 | 12:54PM
allie wrote:
Not at all. I agree with you that the new Hollywood idols are a total waste of time. They are not my icons or models. You might be surprised that Abe Lincoln is more my idol. My point was that Hollywood manufactures mass wax idols for the masses to enforce their values and their profits. Annette was just a tool of that. I have nothing against her personally. She was used. She played a role given her by others.
on April 8,2013 | 02:20PM
Publicbraddah wrote:
You weren't even born then so how do you know? How can you opine about a time you know nothing about? Like you idol Abe Lincoln, you garnered your opinion based on movies. You didn't live the time so you don't know.
on April 8,2013 | 02:39PM
cunfuzd4 wrote:
ALL-LIE Abe Lincoln...your idol? How can that be? Lincoln had a reputation of being ethical, moral and educated...you on the other hand are known to be a pathological liar and a complete dolt.
on April 8,2013 | 08:50PM
Valleyisle57 wrote:
geez allie....someone needs to put you out of your misery!!!!!!
on April 8,2013 | 01:06PM
cunfuzd4 wrote:
Valley - yes, ALL-LIE is a compelling argument in favor of 1) abortion and 2) euthanasia.
on April 9,2013 | 03:28AM
copperwire9 wrote:
Ignorance of an issue has never slowed you down a bit, has it allie?
on April 8,2013 | 01:23PM
allie wrote:
My wisdom is misunderstood..but not by my professors who find me direct, honest and challenging. I was taught to be that by my Mom. I was a Head Start child after-all.
on April 8,2013 | 02:21PM
AmbienDaze wrote:
i think you're mom is a head job. how's that?
on April 8,2013 | 06:48PM
cunfuzd4 wrote:
ALL-LIE and what are those professors names? By your own admission you were treated like a dog by your mom since she would not ever let you ride in the cab of her truck. You are clearly a product of your environment...and multiple head injuries
on April 8,2013 | 08:32PM
Publicbraddah wrote:
Allie, so young and innocent. Hon, your professors are just humoring you. And, I believe you were in Head Case, not Head Start.
on April 9,2013 | 05:59AM
Slow wrote:
Annette's innocent heart still shines. She did an album titled "Hawaiiannette". Annette had a weak chirpy singing voice but her album of Hawaiian songs is a total delight. And for some reason I keep playing her music. Aloha Annette.
on April 8,2013 | 08:14AM
allie wrote:
innocence? That was her role hon..not her. Listen to her late interviews...
on April 8,2013 | 02:22PM
psimmons wrote:
Another gem passes away. Thanks for the wonderful memories of an innocent age. Class act all the way. RIP Annette.
on April 8,2013 | 08:27AM
Allenk wrote:
She will always be remembered as part of that cadre of performers that perpetuated the teenage beach party scene to our popular culture. Aloha Annette.
on April 8,2013 | 08:33AM
allie wrote:
many Hawaiians find these Hollywood beach party movies to be horribly insulting to their culture. I agree with them. Hollywood has rarely treated Hawaii well.
on April 8,2013 | 03:24PM
cunfuzd4 wrote:
ALL-LIE and you are an insult to all humanity...how can so much st*pidity be concentrated in one person!??
on April 8,2013 | 08:34PM
jamrus36 wrote:
She was one of the reasons the Disney empire became the industry that they are today. She was the face and image of what Mr. Disney intended his business to mirror. The boomers will miss her. Disney, Mickey Mouse and Annette.
on April 8,2013 | 09:15AM
loquaciousone wrote:
I remember when they filmed one of those beach shows in Haleiwa. Frankie Avalon didn't know how to surf so they put his board on the beach and added the background later. They took over one of those stores by short bridge and called it Mr. Ching has Everything.
on April 8,2013 | 10:00AM
residenttaxpayer wrote:
Love you Annette....you were America's sweetheart and we were swooned by you.
on April 8,2013 | 10:02AM
allie wrote:
not mine
on April 8,2013 | 12:48PM
Publicbraddah wrote:
allie, my history teacher warned us about people like you. She called people like you "emotionally starved". I think that's why you're constantly here. You never had any attention so you'll do anything to get it even if it makes you sound like a fool.
on April 8,2013 | 01:16PM
allie wrote:
I am here because I care about Hawaii. I speak for many others. I multi task in class and during lunch hour.
on April 8,2013 | 02:23PM
Publicbraddah wrote:
Funny, we don't hear those "many others" here. You wanna make up a few more logins, hon.
on April 8,2013 | 02:41PM
allie wrote:
I only have one. I have the right to speak the truth. I am lalways polite and kind.
on April 8,2013 | 03:25PM
MizuInOz wrote:
on April 8,2013 | 06:47PM
cunfuzd4 wrote:
ALL-LIE you NEVER speak the truth and are always sophomoric and condescending.
on April 8,2013 | 08:35PM
cunfuzd4 wrote:
ALL-LIE you only have one login? What happened? the 2 week mini subscription on the other ALL-LIE larvae ran out and you didn't have 2 bucks to extend it?
on April 9,2013 | 03:17AM
Publicbraddah wrote:
You're also a comedian.
on April 9,2013 | 05:53AM
cunfuzd4 wrote:
ALL-LIE you are here because the folks in North Dakota wanted to get rid of you so they sent you here instead of dealing with an id*ot of their own creation
on April 8,2013 | 08:43PM
RetiredWorking wrote:
Publicbraddah, you nailed it about allie.
on April 8,2013 | 02:41PM
copperwire9 wrote:
We get it, we get it.
on April 8,2013 | 01:26PM
hawaiianmickey wrote:
Your heroes are like they said the Kardashians and all these reality star who have now value in society. Annette was the kind of girl every parent who hope to have. Very respectful and true to herself. Allie people like you make people like Snooki a celebrity. You values are like the N. Korean leader. Irrational and shortsighted.
on April 8,2013 | 01:40PM
allie wrote:
huh? Read above
on April 8,2013 | 02:23PM
residenttaxpayer wrote:
Go play in traffic.....
on April 8,2013 | 04:24PM
bpet wrote:
Annette personified all that was good and innocent about growing up in the fifties and sixties . . .never once did I feel that she was forced upon me by Hollywood . . . I thank Hollywood for giving me the opportunity to enjoy her, first as a Mouseketeer, then as a teen star . . .and perhaps most of all, as the epitome of grace under fire as she faced and coped with one of the most horrible diseases one can have the misfortune of contracting. Aloha and God speed Annette.
on April 8,2013 | 12:53PM
allie wrote:
that is why she played her role so well. If you had known the game it would not have been as effective. We Mandans know these things...we hear the message of the zephyr on the open plains...
on April 8,2013 | 02:25PM
Publicbraddah wrote:
allie, seriously. It's time to take some quaaludes and take off that aluminum foil hat and come back to planet earth. Seriously!
on April 8,2013 | 02:45PM
allie wrote:
Why attack me? Why not address my points about Hollywood manipulation of our culture?
on April 8,2013 | 03:26PM
false wrote:
Really, you her the zephyr but what are your statistics on teen pregnancy, substance abuse, incarceration? At least Annette represented making wholesome, moral choices. No harm in the music on the beach or surfing. We really didn't live the vile choices so apparent in today's generation reflected by your comments.
on April 8,2013 | 05:14PM
AmbienDaze wrote:
yo, publicbraddah, you showing you're age if you know 'ludes, man.
maybe i staggered into you at the point after.
on April 8,2013 | 06:52PM
cunfuzd4 wrote:
ALL-LIE the Mandan and the MHA Nation have higher rates of teen pregnancy, meth addiction and binge drinking well above the national average...truly a rich source of heroes for the truly doltish such as you
on April 8,2013 | 08:39PM
Publicbraddah wrote:
Now I get it. Allie tried out for American Idol and didn't make it thru the front door, thus her apparent hatred for Hollywood.
on April 9,2013 | 05:55AM
MizuInOz wrote:
So, allie, you are from North Dakota? That is where the Mandans are from. Question, since you are so into your Native roots : have you ever dance The Dance To The Sun, have you ever sat a purification lodge? Have you ever danced The Lone Man Dance? IMHO, your points are not about any attack upon a culture but on people who cannot defend themselves. Annette is dead. You attacked a religious leader, who has no beef with you, about the death of his son. All I see is that you don't care about anyone else but your Self. You certainly do not care about your "native" culture - which ever one it is. One moment you are Hawaiian and then another you are of the Plains Indians. I think the zephyr you are hearing is the hot air from your own self-delusionary self importance. If you are an indigenous man, you are an insults to all of us. You obviously are not embracing the traditions of your ancestors. You are only using your "specialness" to make your self look big. I also notice you haven't answered any of my other questions. Too deep?
on April 8,2013 | 06:57PM
cunfuzd4 wrote:
ALL-LIE that zephyr you hear is merely receptor burnout caused by chronic meth use.
on April 9,2013 | 02:58AM
iwanaknow wrote:
I was a small kine kids back in the day watching her on the black n' white TV screen........it made me want to visit Disneyland which I did in 1957.
on April 8,2013 | 01:37PM
RetiredUSMC wrote:
Godspeed Sweetpea ! We Love You
on April 8,2013 | 02:13PM
allie wrote:
on April 8,2013 | 03:25PM
cunfuzd4 wrote:
ALL-LIE!! umm...so you learned a new word and have added it to your vocabulary!!
on April 8,2013 | 08:40PM
WaialaeGuy wrote:
Annette was always a classy person, never displaying too much skin, never appearing in a scandalous role. She will be missed.
on April 8,2013 | 04:26PM
false wrote:
We all tried to be that classy. She was a role model for girls to be successful as girls.
on April 8,2013 | 05:15PM
RetiredWorking wrote:
I will try to remember that "false" is of feminine gender.
on April 9,2013 | 12:20AM
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