As a young boy growing up in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, there were a few things I had in common with almost every other kid my age. Almost all of us wanted to play baseball like Willie Mays, fight outlaws like John Wayne, sing like Elvis Presley, and date a girl like Annette Funicello. Suffice to say, a piece of my heart broke earlier today upon hearing the sad news of Annette’s death at age 70, after a 25 year battle with multiple sclerosis. While our dads had Lana Turner, Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth, and later Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, Annette belonged to us, and the bond lasted almost 60 years. Debuting on Disney’s “Mickey Mouse Club” in 1955, it was obvious almost from the start that Annette Funicello had that hard to define “something special” going for her.
In the early 1950’s, much of Walt Disney’s attention was focused on a project we now know as Disneyland. To help finance the building of his theme park, Disney partnered with ABC, with the TV network providing Walt with much needed capital, while the Disney studio would provide ABC with high quality television programming. Disney’s first effort was the weekly “Disneyland,” an anthology show which included the highly successful “Davy Crockett” episodes during the 1954-1955 season. By the summer of 1955, Disney began working on a kids variety program that would be televised after school on week days, and had his production staff set about casting the show. But Walt made it clear that he wanted “real” kids, not seasoned child actors who often came across as adult midgets. On October 3, 1955, the “Mickey Mouse Club” premiered, and America was introduced to the “Mouseketeers.”
Looking now at the early MMC episodes, it’s clear what made Annette stand out. While most of the other children had what I might describe as stereotypical all-American waspish looks, Annette Funicello had dark curly hair and dark eyebrows…almost exotic, at least for a 13 year old. Within a few weeks, Annette was getting the majority of the fan mail, and the “Mickey Mouse Club” had its first breakout star. The following season Annette, although still a Mouseketeer, joined the cast of the MMC’s popular serial, “Spin and Marty,” which, to my chagrin, completely changed the dynamic of the series. While before, Spin (Tim Considine) and Marty (David Stollery) would ride horses and rope cattle, now they spent most of their time fighting over Annette. Annette returned for the third season of “Spin and Marty,” during the final year of the “Mickey Mouse Club,” and also starred in her own serial, “Annette.”
When the “Mickey Mouse Club” ended, Annette was the only Mouseketeer that Disney kept under contract. From 1959-1962, Annette was kept busy, appearing on Disney TV shows (“Zorro,” Elfego Baca”), feature films (“The Shaggy Dog,” “Babes in Toyland) as well as becoming a recording artist, with hit records “Tall Paul” and “First Name Initial.” But Annette’s biggest post “Mickey Mouse Club” success started in 1963 when she made the first of several “Beach” movies with co-star Frankie Avalon. “Beach Party,” produced by American International Pictures, was a formulistic film, which featured comedy, surfing, music, and plenty of bikini clad girls. Immediately acquiring a solid cult audience, “Beach Party” was quickly followed by “Muscle Beach Party,” “Bikini Beach,” “Beach Blanket Bingo,” and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.” Throughout the entire series, Annette, at the insistence of Walt Disney, never appeared in a bikini, opting for a less revealing one piece bathing suit. By the late 1960’s Annette, now married with children, pretty much withdrew from show business, appearing infrequently in “Mouseketeer” reunion shows and other nostalgic venues. It was while filming “Back to the Beach” in 1987 that Annette first started noticing the symptoms that would later to be diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. Annette went public with her disease in 1992, after various tabloids began reporting her difficulty to walk as alcohol related. From that point on, it’s fair to say that Annette Funicello dealt with her illness with courage and dignity.
My first recollection of Annette was during the original run of the “Mickey Mouse Club” (1955-1958), but I really started to take notice when the program went into syndicated reruns in 1962, giving boys like me the chance to contrast the 1955 Annette to the much developed version we were seeing on “American Bandstand.” I was such a huge fan of Annette Funicello, I actually resented Hayley Mills, who began to grab all of the featured Disney female roles once Annette turned 16. It’s unfortunate that Annette’s only star turn in a major Disney production, “Babes in Toyland” (1961), was not a huge hit.
At first glance, Annette Funicello’s career does not seem that impressive. After the “Mickey Mouse Club,” her TV work became somewhat sporadic, and her time as a teenage singing star was somewhat brief. Her “Beach” movies, while fondly remembered, did not result in any Academy Award nominations for Annette, or anyone else. So what made Annette Funicello an icon? I guess she was, with little or no effort on her part, the embodiment of the perfect, wholesome 1950’s girl…sweet, smart, a bit shy, and unmistakably beautiful. The Disney brand always stood for something wonderfully innocent, and Annette Funicello represented that to the hilt.
My favorite Annette Funicello story: Sometime during the 1970’s, Annette went on a Las Vegas vacation, and was spotted by one of her fans relaxing, with a cigarette and a cocktail, at one of the gaming tables. The woman gasped at the sight, saying, “Annette Funicello, drinking, smoking, gambling?” Annette smiled at the lady, and said, “I have three children, so guess what else I do.”
Note: The second photo shows Annette with the Beach Boys, performing the title song to “The Monkey’s Uncle.”