NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Actress Annette Funicello, long-time Disney and Beach Party star, passed away on Monday April 8 at Mercy Southwest Hospital in Bakersfield, CA, at the age of 70. She died peacefully from complications due to Multiple Sclerosis, a disease she battled for over 25 years.
Born October 22, 1942, in Utica, N.Y., Funicello and her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 4 years old. She was discovered personally by Walt Disney at age 13 while dancing the lead in Swan Lake at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank and he invited her to audition for his new children’s TV series called The Mickey Mouse Club and was hired on the spot to become a Mouseketeer. The show debuted on October 3, 1955 and Annette soon became the most popular member of the group.
“On my audition with Walt Disney, he said, ‘Can you sing?’” Funicello said in an archive interview. “And I said, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t sing.”
But Disney, recognizing her star quality, built musical numbers around Funicello and designed her own show-within-a-show miniseries entitled, appropriately, “Annette.”
The “Mickey Mouse Club” series ran for three original seasons and in reruns through the 1990s.
And after Funicello outgrew the Mickey Mouse Club, Disney made sure the dark-haired starlet had sizable roles in other Disney TV series and films.
After leaving the Mickey Mouse Club, Funicello was the only Mouseketeer to remain under contract to Disney and appeared on the TV shows Zorro (1957), The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca (1958), and starred in the Disney feature films The Shaggy Dog (1959), Babes in Toyland (1961), The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964), and The Monkey’s Uncle (1965).
She also scored a number of pop hits, notably “Tall Paul” in 1959 and “Pineapple Princess” the following year.
Commenting on her passing, Bob Iger, Chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company, said, “Annette was and always will be a cherished member of the Disney family, synonymous with the word Mouseketeer, and a true Disney Legend. She will forever hold a place in our hearts as one of Walt Disney’s brightest stars, delighting an entire generation of baby boomers with her jubilant personality and endless talent. Annette was well-known for being as beautiful inside as she was on the outside, and she faced her physical challenges with dignity, bravery and grace. All of us at Disney join with family, friends, and fans around the world in celebrating her extraordinary life.”
Diane Disney Miller, daughter of Walt Disney, added, “Everyone who knew Annette loved and respected her. She was one of the loveliest people I’ve ever known, and was always so kind to everyone. She was also the consummate professional, and had such great loyalty to my father. Annette will always be very special to me and Ron.”
And Disney believed in Funicello so much, he loaned her out to another movie studio. Her popularity soared in Beach Party films, usually playing opposite Frankie Avalon.
The films were heavy on bikinis, and never but Disney insisted that Funicello not be involved in any suggestive sequences, and never show her belly button.
Meanwhile, Funicello dated Paul Anka, who in 1960 wrote the hit “Puppy Love” about her.
But later in the 1960s, her work slowed down to a few appearances, and a TV ad campaign for Skippy Peanut Butter.
But in 1987, Funicello again teamed up with Frankie Avalon to co-produce and star in Paramount’s Back to the Beach as parents of a pair of troublesome teenagers.
Paul Reubens also appeared in Back to the Beach in his iconic Pee-wee Herman role, and Funicello and Avalon appeared in turn in “The Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special” in 1988.
And in 1989 and 1990, Avalon and Funicello staged a nostalgic concert tour, performing the beach party music and pop hit singles they made famous in the 1960s.
But also in 1987, Funicello was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), a degenerative neurological disease and in 1992 went public with her illness. Later that year, she established The Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases. It is dedicated to funding research into the cause, treatment and cure of multiple sclerosis and other neurological diseases and continues to be an active charity.
“There’s a reason for this, and I know it’s to help others,” she said of her disease.
Despite battling MS, in the 1990’s Annette launched The Annette Funicello Teddy Bear Company, marketing a line of collectible bears on QVC, and developed her own perfume line, Cello, by Annette.
In 1992, on her 50th birthday, she was named a Disney Legend. However, as she became more debilitated by MS, Annette retreated from public appearances in the late 1990s and has been cared for since that time by her second husband, rancher Glen Holt, who she married in 1986.
She was previously married to Jack Gilardi from 1965 until their divorce in 1981. She has three children from her first marriage; Gina, Jack Jr. and Jason, and three young grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, donations in Annette’s memory can be made to The Annette Funicello Research Fund at annetteconnection.com.
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