Mouseketeer Funicello loved as girl next door -
go logo
article photo
article photo
Annette Funicello, who first gained fame as a Mouseketeer and starred with singer Frankie Avalon in “Beach Party” in 1963, has died. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1987 and died of complications of the disease at age 70. Though she was known as “America's girl next door,” she preferred a quiet life as a mother.(The Associated Press)


Mouseketeer Funicello loved as girl next door
By Douglas Martin
The New York Times

Annette Funicello, who won America's heart as a 12-year-old in Mickey Mouse ears, captivated adolescent baby boomers in slightly spicy beach movies and later championed people with multiple sclerosis, a disease from which she suffered, died Monday in Bakersfield, Calif. She was 70.

Her death, from complications of the disease, was announced on the Disney website.

As an adult Funicello described herself as “the queen of teen,” and millions around her age agreed. Young males enjoyed watching her blossom into womanhood, while females liked her because she was sweet, forthright and plain nice. Parents saw her as the perfect daughter.

She was the last of the 24 original Mouseketeers chosen for “The Mickey Mouse Club,” which began in 1955, when fewer than two-thirds of households had television sets. Walt Disney discovered her at a ballet performance.

Before long, she was getting over 6,000 fan letters a week and was known by just her first name in a manner that later defined celebrities like Cher, Madonna and Prince.

Sometimes called “America's girl next door,” she nonetheless managed to be at the center of the action during rock 'n' roll's exuberant emergence. She was the youngest member of Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars tour, which included LaVern Baker, the Drifters, Bobby Rydell, the Coasters and Paul Anka. Anka, her boyfriend, wrote “Puppy Love” for her in her parents' living room.

As a Mouseketeer, she received a steady stream of wristwatches, school rings and even engagement rings from young men, all of which she returned. She wrote in her 1994 autobiography, “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” that irate mothers often wrote back to say “how hard Johnny or Tommy had worked to save the money for the gift and how dare I return it?”

She said if she had charm (she undeniably had modesty), it was partly a result of her shyness. Disney begged her to call him Uncle Walt, but she could manage only “Mr. Disney.” (She could handle “Uncle Makeup” and “Aunt Hairdresser.”)

At the height of her stardom, she said her ambition was to quit show business and have nine children.

With minor exceptions, like her famous commercials for Skippy peanut butter, Funicello did become a full-time homemaker after marrying at 22. One reason, she said, was her reluctance to take parts at odds with her squeaky-clean image. She had three children.

Her cheerfulness was legendary. Her response to learning she had multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease of the central nervous system, was to start a charity to find a cure.

There was no irony, only warm good feeling, in her oft-repeated remark about the world's pre-eminent rodent: “Mickey is more than a mouse to me. I am honored to call him a friend.”

Annette Joanne Funicello was born on Oct. 22, 1942, in Utica, N.Y. At age 2, she learned the words to every song on the hit parade, her favorite being “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive.”

In 1946, her parents decided to move to Southern California in the hope of doing better economically. They lived in a trailer park until her father, a mechanic, found work. They settled in Studio City and later moved to Encino.

Annette took dancing lessons, learned to play drums and, at 9, was named Miss Willow Lake at a poolside beauty contest. She did some modeling. Disney, who wanted amateurs and not professional child actors, discovered her when she danced in “Swan Lake” at a local recital.

“The Mickey Mouse Club” was instantly popular. Annette quickly became the most popular Mouseketeer, and Disney marketed everything from Annette lunchboxes and dolls to mystery novels about her fictionalized adventures.

But she did not receive special treatment. When she lost a pair of felt mouse ears, she was charged $55. It was deducted from her $185 weekly paycheck.

She once decided she wanted to change her last name to something more typically American. She chose Turner. But Disney, whom she considered a second father, convinced her that her own name would be more memorable, once people learned it.

As “The Mickey Mouse Club” was ending its run in 1958, Disney summoned Funicello to his office. She feared she was going to be fired for growing too tall, but instead he offered her a studio contract — the only one given to a Mouseketeer.

On Jan. 9, 1965, Funicello married her agent, Jack Gilardi. Charles M. Schulz in his “Peanuts” comic strip showed Linus reading a paper, clutching his security blanket and wailing, “I can't stand it! This is terrible! How depressing. ... ANNETTE FUNICELLO HAS GROWN UP!”

She made a few films in the 1960s, including “Fireball” and “Thunder Alley,” but her attention was focused on her children, Gina, Jack Jr. and Jason Michael. During the 1970s and early 1980s, she appeared occasionally on TV but was known for commercials, including her memorable issuance of the Skippy peanut butter challenge: Which has more protein? (Bologna and fish were not the correct answers.)

In 1987, she and Avalon reunited to do a self-mocking beach party movie. She wore polka dots with matching hair bows, and he portrayed a work-obsessed car salesman who hates the beach. Their fictional son wore punk clothes and carried a switchblade.

But Funicello's main concern was being a good mom. Her daughter said in a 1994 interview with In Style magazine: “She was always there for car pools, Hot Dog Day and the PTA.”

In 1981 she divorced Gilardi, in part because he was intensely social and she preferred to stay home. After being single for five years, she married Glen Holt, a horse breeder.

Funicello learned she had M.S. in 1987 but kept her condition secret for five years. She announced the illness after becoming concerned that her unsteadiness would be misinterpreted as drunkenness.

She set up the Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Disorders and underwent brain surgery in 1999 in an attempt to control tremors caused by her disease.

But for many, Funicello remained forever young, whether in mouse ears or a modest bathing suit. Some may even recognize a ditty from the long-ago telecasts:

Ask the birds and ask the bees

And ask the stars above

Who's their favorite sweet brunette;

You know, each one confesses:

Annette! Annette! Annette!

Contact the Omaha World-Herald newsroom

Copyright ©2014 Omaha World-Herald®. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, displayed or redistributed for any purpose without permission from the Omaha World-Herald.

Latest Stories

New restaurant open in One Pacific Place
New restaurant open in One Pacific Place

The Pig and Finch gastropub is open in One Pacific Place.

The increasingly popular art of hand-brew coffee
The increasingly popular art of hand-brew coffee

Design your own perfect cup with a few gadgets and a bit of patience.

Here's the deal with that outdoor art near CenturyLink Center
Here's the deal with that outdoor art near CenturyLink Center

Years ago, Alan Potash had a vision for a public art exhibition.

Nebraska's best cupcakes and tacos can be found in Omaha, say cupcake/taco experts
Nebraska's best cupcakes and tacos can be found in Omaha, say cupcake/taco experts

Another day, another mention of Omaha food on a food list. Two food lists, in fact.

Small-town Nebraska native becomes big-time comic book writer
Small-town Nebraska native becomes big-time comic book writer

Growing up in Lewellen –– a micropolis near the bottom of the Nebraska panhandle –– Van Jensen didn't have a lot of options for comic books.

Watch Alexander Payne's 1985 student film 'Carmen'
Watch Alexander Payne's 1985 student film 'Carmen'

Here's a treat for Alexander Payne fans: some of the filmmaker's earliest work, a 1985 short silent film Payne made while he was at the UCLA Film School.

Primer: Hand-brewing coffee at home

To start hand-brewing coffee at home, you need some equipment.

Keke Palmer to become TV’s youngest talk show host
Keke Palmer to become TV’s youngest talk show host

LOS ANGELES — Keke Palmer legally cannot buy beer. But she can host a daily talk show.

What to watch: Stan's personal life unravels on 'The Americans'
What to watch: Stan's personal life unravels on 'The Americans'

A botched mission impacts Philip and Elizabeth in different ways. Meanwhile, Stan’s personal life unravels.

Waxahatchee’s vague lyrics hide personal feelings
Waxahatchee’s vague lyrics hide personal feelings

Waxahatchee rose out of Katie Crutchfield’s old bands, and a few bad breakups.

Movies Opening this week

Movie showtimes and theater listings

Read this!


Tonight in Prime Time
© 2014 Omaha World-Herald. All rights reserved