Avalon, Frankie and Funicello, Annette Joanne
AVALON, Frankie and Annette Joanne FUNICELLO
AVALON, Frankie (b. 18 September 1940 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), and Annette Joanne FUNICELLO (b. 22 October 1942 in Utica, New York), singers and actors who came to prominence as teen idols in the 1950s, then costarred in the successful Beach Party series of teen films in the 1960s.
Avalon was born Francis Thomas Avalone. He began his show business career as a child trumpet player, appearing on The Jackie Gleason Show and other programs and recording two instrumental records, "Trumpet Sorrento" and "Trumpet Tarantella," for X-Vik Records, an RCA subsidiary; both records were released in 1954. Avalon then joined the band Rocco and the Saints, whose lineup included the drummer Robert Ridarelli (later a teen idol himself, as Bobby Rydell). In 1957, while still in high school in Philadelphia, Avalon signed with Peter De Angelis and Robert Marcucci, songwriters who also managed Chancellor Records. At the end of the year Avalon released "DeDe Dinah," which became his first Top Ten hit.
Avalon's success coincided with the rise of the "teen idols," a crop of pleasant, nonthreatening male singers such as Bobby Rydell, Bobby Vinton, and Fabian, who represented a safe alternative to the wildness of the original rock-and-roll stars such as Elvis Presley. From 1958 to 1959 Avalon had Top Ten hits with the songs "Venus," which was his biggest hit, selling more than one million copies in less than one week; "Why," which topped the charts; "Ginger Bread"; "Bobby Sox to Stockings"; and "Just Ask Your Heart." After 1960 his records charted increasingly lower, but by then he had moved into films. He made his screen debut performing the song "Teacher's Pet" in Jamboree (1957), and later appeared in The Alamo (1960), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), Panic in the Year Zero (1962), Sail a Crooked Ship (1962), Drums of Africa (1963), and Operation Bikini (1963).
Funicello was the only girl of three children born to Joe Funicello, a mechanic, and Virginia Albano, a homemaker. When Funicello was four years old the family moved from New York across the country to the San Fernando Valley outside Los Angeles. She began taking music and dancing lessons, and in 1955 she was discovered by Walt Disney, who saw her performing the lead role in Swan Lake in an amateur dance revue at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank, California. That same year he cast her in his new television program, the Mickey Mouse Club, where she quickly became the most popular "Mouseketeer" and even had her own line of licensed merchandise. Funicello subsequently appeared in the Disney television serials Adventures of Spin and Marty (1955) and Zorro (1957), as well as the Disney films The Shaggy Dog (1959) and Babes in Toyland (1961). She launched her singing career on the Disneyland and Buena Vista labels, having Top Twenty hits with "Tall Paul" (1959) and "O Dio Mio" and "Pineapple Princess" (both 1960). Her albums Annette Sings Anka and Hawaiiannette (both 1960) and Annette's Beach Party (1963) all charted in the Top Forty. She received a high school diploma in 1960.
In 1963 Avalon and Funicello were cast as the stars of the American International Pictures (AIP) film Beach Party. Seeking to capitalize on the success of the teen comedies Where the Girls Are and Gidget, Beach Party stuck to a basic formula: the on-again/off-again relationship of "Frankie" (Avalon) and "Dolores" or "Dee Dee" (Funicello), set against a backdrop of teen exploits including surfing or drag racing. There were guest spots from adult actors such as Don Rickles and Buddy Hackett, and plenty of dancing, to the music of Dick Dale and the Del Tones and "Little" Stevie Wonder. Although promoted with titillating advertisements ("When 10,000 biceps go around 5,000 bikinis … you KNOW what's gonna happen!"), the proceedings were invariably wholesome; even the obligatory biker gang proved to be ludicrously inept. The initial film was highly successful, and a series of sequels was produced.
Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach (both 1964), and Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (both 1965) adhered to the basic scenario of Beach Party. Occasionally the storyline did move off the beach, as in Pajama Party (1964) and Ski Party and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (both 1965). Fireball 500 (1966), set in the world of drag racing, was the last AIP feature in which Avalon and Funicello costarred; the film also starred Fabian.
Funicello's other films in the 1960s include the Disney films The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964); The Monkey's Uncle (1965); another drag racing film, Thunder Alley (1967); and the off-beat feature Head (1968), starring the musical group the Monkees. She then largely curtailed her career to raise a family. Funicello married her manager, Jack Gilardi, on 9 January 1965; they had three children. Funicello continued to do television work and became a spokesperson for the Skippy brand of peanut butter, among other endorsements.
Avalon appeared in light comedies and teen exploitation films during the 1960s, including I'll Take Sweden and Sergeant Deadhead (both 1965), The Million Eyes of Sumuru (1967), Skidoo (1968), which was Groucho Marx's last film, and the thriller Horror House (1969). In 1976 he released a disco version of "Venus," which peaked at number forty-six on the pop chart. In 1978, in a gentle parody of his teen-idol persona, he appeared in the successful musical Grease, and in 1985 he toured with Rydell and Fabian in a show billed as the "Golden Boys of Bandstand. "
Following the tour he reunited with Funicello, and they were coexecutive producers of the 1987 film Back to the Beach, which spoofed their beach-party films and poked fun at Funicello's Skippy peanut butter endorsements. The two made further appearances parodying their wholesome personas in the television show Pee-Wee Herman's Christmas Special (1988) and the feature film Troop Beverly Hills (1989).
Funicello divorced Gilardi in 1981 and married Glen Holt, a horse trainer and breeder, on 5 March 1986. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1987, though she did not announce the condition publicly until 1992. She told her story in her 1994 book A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes and later appeared in the television film based on the book. As she fought the disease, Funicello launched two new ventures, the Teddy Bear Company and a perfume, "Cello, by Annette." Funicello also set up the Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases, which receives a portion of the profits of her businesses. Avalon married Kay Diebel in 1962; they have eight children. He continues to make public appearances, and his company, Frankie Avalon Products, sells a variety of health supplements.
There are no biographies of Avalon. Funicello's autobiography, written with Patricia Romanowski, is A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes: The Annette Funicello Story (1994). An interview with Funicello is "Mighty Mouse," Los Angeles Magazine (1 Apr. 1994). She also wrote the foreword to Lorraine Santoli, The Official Mickey Mouse Club Book (1995). The late 1950s to early 1960s rock period is detailed in Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker, eds., Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll (1986). Detailed information on the Beach Party films is in David Ehrenstein and Bill Reed, Rock on Film (1982), and Marshall Crenshaw, Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock 'n Roll in the Movies (1994).
Gillian G. Gaar