A few words of praise for Annette Funicello, a Mousketeer on the Mickey Mouse Club who died Monday at the age of 70, and who captivated and inspired many adolescent baby boomers.
Most people remember her from the beach party movies of the 60’s she made with Frankie Avalon – “Beach Party,” “Muscle Beach Party,” “Bikini Beach” – where the couple had miscues and misunderstandings and then fell in love, over and over. The movies were supposed to be a little racy because Annette wore a two-piece suit that was really modest but passed for a bikini in those days. Those were innocent times.
I wasn’t surprised to read in the New York Times obituary that she was the last of the 24 original Mouseketeers chosen for the show. Walt Disney personally discovered her at a ballet performing Swan Lake at a dance recital when she was 12.
Disney, who was known to have white bread tastes, must have had a hard time deciding whether to include Funicello in the program since her ethnic looks didn’t fit into the Mickey Mouse Club mold. But even he could not deny her talent and charm and winning ways. The camera and the public came to love her.
I used to race home every day from my boring and vanilla high school in Columbus, Ohio to see the program, always because of Funicello. She was the only one I could identify with. All the other girls had blond hair and big blond eyes. But Funicello, with her brown curly hair and dark skin, was someone who looked more like me.
I particularly loved her in the television segments with Shelley Fabares, who played the beauty with the prom-queen looks; the snooty, rich girl who looked down at Annette’s background, clothes and simple decency.
In one heartbreaking plot line, Fabares’ character accused Funicello of stealing. Everyone turned against Annette. But at some point, Funicello would sing and dance, and her essential goodness would come through and she’d win everyone over.
I remember seeing a People magazine cover in the early 90’s that announced that Annette Funicello was battling multiple sclerosis. It was a shock. Except for the occasional Skippy peanut butter commercial, she had dropped out of the public eye when she was about 22 to get married and have children. To most of us, she was forever young.
In July 2005, I ran into Frankie Avalon at the afterparty for Suzanne Sommers’ unfortunate one-woman Broadway show. I asked Avalon about Annette Funicello. He’d stayed in touch with her over the years, he told me. He looked downcast and sad as he told me he’d spoken to her recently and she was not doing well.
She’d been battling the disease every since, out of the public eye.
Sometimes called “America’s Girl Next Door,” many of us remember that prior to Annette, the girl next door was a beauty with blonde hair and blue eyes. Then a brunette with curly hair and saucer-shaped eyes wearing Mickey Mouse ears came along, and that all-American beauty could look like us.
To many of us, that was huge.