Funicello, Annette (1942—)

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Funicello, Annette (1942—)

During the height of her fame at Walt Disney Pictures, Mickey Mouse Club star Annette Funicello received more mail than the studio's two most popular leading "men": Mickey Mouse and Zorro. To young people she was, quite simply, the quintessential dream girl. Males liked her because, over the course of the series' run, from 1955 to 1959, she blossomed into a buxom beauty before their eyes. Females liked her for her sweetness and sincerity, and for her winning smile. She was so beloved that she became known, and was often billed, by her first name alone.

Born in Utica, New York, Annette was twelve years old when Walt Disney saw her dancing the lead in Swan Lake at a school recital. Annette had dreamed of becoming a ballerina. She instead donned mouse ears to become an original member of Disney's pioneering children's show. Emerging as the series' most popular performer, Annette was increasingly showcased, even starring in her own Mickey Mouse Club serial, "Annette." Disney also licensed Annette merchandise, including paper dolls, lunch pails, and jewelry. And in the tradition of "girl detectives" Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, a fictional Annette starred in a series of books in which she helped solve mysteries.

Meanwhile, fan magazines recounted the seemingly fairy-tale existence of the real-life teen idol. Readers learned of her romance with another teen idol, Paul Anka, which was inspiration for his hit tune "Puppy Love." Fans likewise were treated to details about her customized T-Bird, with its forty coats of purple paint, purple tuck-and-roll upholstery, and purple carpeting. Along with cruising the streets of Burbank, home to the Disney studio, Annette cruised the airwaves. It was her popularity, more than vocal talents, that led to strong record sales for songs including "Tall Paul," "First Name Initial," "How Will I Know My Love?" and "Pineapple Princess." Among the 15 albums she turned out on the Disneyland/Vista label were those bearing the titles Hawaiiannette, Italiannette, and Danceannette.

When the Mickey Mouse Club ended its run, Annette was the only Mouseketeer to remain under contract to Disney. She appeared in a string of movies for the studio including The Shaggy Dog (1959) and Babes in Toyland (1961), and then segued to American International Pictures for Beach Party. The 1963 sand-and-surf youth picture found her cast opposite Frankie Avalon, whom she had dated in the 1950s. In Beach Party, the raven-haired Annette managed to be both voluptuous and wholesome. Honoring the request of her mentor, Walt Disney, she would not wear a navel-baring bikini. Nor would her screen character succumb to her boyfriend's romantic urges. As an unapologetic Annette once related, "My big line was always, 'Not without a ring you don't'… [and] I believed what I was saying wholeheartedly." In large part because of the Avalon-Funicello chemistry, Beach Party spawned a series of sequels, including How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965) and Pajama Party (1964). Annette also ventured into the fast track with a pair of innocuous car-racing movies opposite Avalon and Fabian, respectively. And she put in a cameo in the 1968 cult picture Head, starring the Monkees.

During the 1970s and for much of the 1980s, the twice-married mother of three made only intermittent appearances on TV, including as a pitch woman for products such as Skippy peanut butter. She did not return to the screen until 1987's Back to the Beach, in which she and Avalon poked fun at their anachronistic images. Their reunion prompted a wave of nostalgic publicity. In fact, such was Annette's status that her watershed moments have become media milestones. When she was married for the first time, the famed Peanuts comic strip depicted Snoopy the dog lamenting, "I can't stand it! This is terrible! How depressing—Annette Funicello has grown up!" A more sobering milestone was Annette's 1992 disclosure that she suffered from multiple sclerosis. An entire generation suddenly felt much older, as well as sadder.

Despite her illness, Annette went on to launch several new business ventures, including a line of collectible teddy bears. She also authored an optimistic, scandal-free autobiography, which became a highly rated TV movie. With hopes of finding an eventual cure for MS and other neurological disorders, she has also set up the Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases.

—Pat H. Broeske

Further Reading:

Anderson, Nancy. "What Is an Annette? Who Is She? How Did She Get That Way?" Photoplay. September 1959, 57-58, 71-72.

Broeske, Pat H. "Annette, Frankie on Nostalgia Wave in Beach Film Update." Los Angeles Times. August 3, 1987, VI, 1, 8.

Funicello, Annette, with Patricia Romanowski. A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes: My Story. New York, Hyperion, 1994.

Santoli, Lorraine. The Official Mickey Mouse Club Book. New York, Hyperion, 1995.