The Mouseketeer Who Charmed America
When Annette Funicello succumbed to complications of multiple sclerosis in April, 2013 it was the end of a long career of entertaining and charming America. Yet what was also important in her life came in 1992, as she made her diagnosis public and America’s love of her unique talents, turned to admiration as she struggled with the condition that would eventually end her life.
Born in Utica, New York to Italian American parents in 1942, Annette Joanne Funicello moved with her family to Southern California when she was four-years-old. A shy child, Annette was enrolled in music and later dance classes, to help give her confidence. Then when she appeared at age 12, in a dance recital at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank, she caught the eye of Walt Disney in the audience. He was interested in her because he was casting what would be a children’s TV series titled The Mickey Mouse Club. As it turned out she was the last “Mouseketeer” to be cast, and the only one in the series discovered and selected by Disney himself.
The original version of the club had been developed in the 1930s and membership was through theater based clubs. It was discontinued a few years later, but the Disney organization wanted to revitalize it for a 5-day a week TV series. The format was a group of adolescent youngsters who performed songs and dances, sketches, and dramatic serials. Though the cast were all talented, Annette’s popularity was evident by the amount of her fan mail.
After the Mickey Mouse Club ceased production after four seasons, Annette remained under contract to Disney for several years, and appeared frequently in his other TV and film offerings. One of these was the TV series Zorro starring Guy Williams, where she played a young woman who is searching for her father, in Old California. The role reportedly was a 16th birthday gift from Disney who knew she enjoyed the series and admired the star. She also appeared on a series of programs on the Danny Thomas show where she played a young Italian immigrant, as well as other Disney movies Babes in Toyland and The Shaggy Dog.
As part of her experience with the Mickey Mouse Club, and in particular her own Annette serial, she performed a song titled “How Will I Know My Love?” which brought such a great response that she began a recording career. Though this was somewhat uncomfortable for her, she continued to record successful numbers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which brought her to work with one of the most successful singers of the time, Paul Anka. He spent a great deal of time with Annette and her family and often worked at their piano to create the melodies and they were very close. He wrote several numbers for her, in fact a whole album titled Annette Sings Anka—a 1960 collaboration was her highest charting record. Then one time, as she wrote in her autobiography, she was sitting beside him at the piano and when she rested her head lightly on his shoulder as he picked out melodies. She wrote: “Then he sang so softly ‘Put your head on my shoulder… hold me in your arms…’” The song by that name was of course one of Paul’s major hits.
Then she began another phase of her career when she was before movie cameras in a series of popular films where she appeared with pop singer Frankie Avalon. The first was 1963’s Beach Party and was so successful that the studio signed Annette to a contract to produce several more. There followed Muscle Beach Party in 1964, and Bikini Beach in 1964, Beach Blanket Bingo in 1965. Other movies followed, such as those based in a race car setting.
Annette married agent Jack Gilardi in 1965 and after her successful movie career, she resolved to focus on her growing family of three children. However, she did make an exception when she became the television spokesperson for a brand of peanut better. In fact, in her autobiography she remembered that her three children appeared in several of the commercials, but when that became known viewers began to watch her children more than the peanut butter. That was when the sponsor began using child actors.
Then over the next few years she appeared occasionally on the small and large screens as she and Gilardi were divorced in 1981. Then in 1986 she married harness horse breeder/trainer Glen Holt and was often seen at race tracks.
In 1987 Annette was reunited with Frankie Avalon in a TV film titled Back to the Beach portraying their “Beach Party” character types, in the story line now married. In the plot, the couple got a chance to relive their former surfer life. The production starred other favorite TV performers such as Bob Denver, Jerry Mathers and Connie Stevens. To promote the film, Annette and Avalon toured but during this time she began to experience unexplained dizziness, headaches and balance issues. Sadly soon after Annette was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), she remained silent about her illness for several years, until she made the diagnosis public in 1992. That is when she had unbalance episodes that had raised questions about alcohol abuse.
In 1994 she published her autobiography A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes: My Story in collaboration with Patricia Romanowski—the title from a song from the Disney movie of Cinderella. Her book was made into a TV film the next year, starring many of her original co-stars such as Frankie Avalon and longtime friend Shelly Fabares. In the film, Annette was portrayed by actress Eva LaRue and Annette made an appearance in a final scene. There Ms. Larue, as “Annette” appeared in a wheelchair and is pushed away from the camera. As the chair is turned we see the real Annette in the chair and wheeling toward the camera. One interesting aspect is that as we see Ms. LaRue’s back as she retreats in the chair—we see her as rather tall which is quite a contrast to the real Annette—who is visibly more petite!
In 1995 she made other television appearances, such as the 40th Anniversary of the Mickey Mouse Club and other public appearances when she was named a “Disney Legend” and got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2012 a Canadian TV program profiled her at that time, revealing that in 2004 she could no longer walk, and five years later she had lost the ability to speak. Because of her deterioration, she required round the clock nursing care, directed by her husband. Annette passed away at age 70 in April, 2013 from the effects of her MS—surrounded by her family, and her dear friend Shelly Fabares. The Disney company CEO stated: “Annette was always will be a cherished member of the Disney family, synonymous with the word Mouseketeer…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.”
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.
A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes – Annette Funicello with Patricia Romanowski, Time Warner AudioBooks, 1994