Annette Funicello, TV’s Beloved Disney Mouseketeer, Dies at 70

Annette Funicello, whose youthful charm made her the most popular of the original Mouseketeers on Walt Disney’s “The Mickey Mouse Club” television show, has died. She was 70.

She died today at Mercy Southwest Hospital in Bakersfield, California, according to a statement from Walt Disney Co., based in Burbank, California. The cause was complications from multiple sclerosis, a degenerative neurological disease. In 1992 she said she had been diagnosed with the ailment since 1987.

On one of the most popular children’s TV shows of the 1950s, Funicello established herself as the most beloved of the two dozen young performers known as Mouseketeers. Her Italian-American ancestry gave her, at 12, dark brunette curls to go along with a dimpled smile that was at once shy and enticing.

Picked personally by Walt Disney for the cast, Funicello became the only Mouseketeer kept on contract after the show’s four-season run. She went on to a career in music and film, including a series of popular beach movies that paired her with Frankie Avalon.

She never was scantily clad in those movies, keeping a promise to Disney that she wouldn’t show her navel on screen.

“She’s the perfect girl next door,” Avalon once said. “She doesn’t have a mean bone in her body. She’s the sweetest girl I know, and nothing’s ever changed.”

In her 1994 memoir, “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” Funicello wrote that the carefully scrubbed innocence of “The Mickey Mouse Club” was “an honest if exaggerated reflection of an America that, sadly, has faded into history.”

Accidental Stardom

An accidental celebrity, Funicello pronounced her last name “Fun-is-sello” to downplay her heritage, she said, and once proposed changing it to Turner. Disney instead urged her to start using the correct pronunciation -- “Foon-i-chello” -- in public.

Annette Joanne Funicello was born on Oct. 22, 1942, in Utica, New York, the first child of first-generation Italian-Americans. Her father, Joe, was a master auto mechanic who met his future wife, Virginia Albano, at her brother’s diner, where she worked as a secretary and hostess.

At 2, Funicello could sing the words to every top popular song, with a special affection for Johnny Mercer’s “Accentuate the Positive,” she recalled in her memoir. Still, when her parents packed up for California in 1946, when she was 4 and her brother Joey was nine months, it was to chase not stardom but warmer weather, she said. Another brother, Michael, was born after the family settled in Los Angeles.

Disney Auditions

Funicello took drum and dance lessons and, at 12, had the lead role in her dance school’s performance of “Swan Lake.” Among those in the audience was Disney, who was looking for child performers for his new show.

She was invited to audition, then called back twice to try out for what was, she later learned, the final spot in the cast.

The two dozen Mouseketeers were divided into three groups. Funicello was among the eight who performed the show’s opening and closing numbers. Other original cast members included Johnny Crawford, later a bandleader and a star of the TV series “The Rifleman;” Paul Petersen, who would appear on “The Donna Reed Show;” and two sons of actor Mickey Rooney, Tim and Mickey Jr.

The Mouseketeers debuted in a national TV special on July 17, 1955, the day Disneyland opened. The series aired on ABC from 1955 to 1958.

When the show ceased production in 1959, the studio moved Funicello into singing and film acting.

Her first recording, “How Will I Know My Love?” sold several hundred thousand copies, and she broke the Top 10 in 1959 with “Tall Paul,” which she performed on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.”

Celebrating Innocence

Her first film was “The Shaggy Dog” (1959), with Fred MacMurray, followed by “Babes in Toyland” (1961).

“Beach Party” (1963) paired Funicello with her longtime friend, Avalon, in a celebration of youth, sun, surfing and innocent flirtation. Its success led to sequels including “Muscle Beach Party” (1964) and “Beach Blanket Bingo” (1965).

“I knew it would be a lot of fun,” Funicello wrote of her first movie. “But never in a million years did I or anyone else associated with the film dream it would evolve into such a timeless gem of pop-culture Americana.”

She and Avalon co-hosted a failed TV music-variety show in 1976 called “Easy Does It.”

In one of her final performances, she and Avalon returned to the screen in “Back to the Beach” (1987), playing parents visiting their surf-loving daughter in California. She was diagnosed with MS while making the film.

“I think you only have two choices in this kind of situation,” she said in making her diagnosis public in 1992. “Either you give in to it or you fight it. I intend to fight.”

She made few public appearances in subsequent years. To help in the fight against the disease, she created the Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases.

Funicello was married to Jack Gilardi, her manager, from 1965 until their divorce in 1981. They had a daughter, Gina, and two sons, Jack Jr. and Jason. She married horse trainer Glen Holt in 1986.

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