Annette Funicello’s TV-film career flowered in the late fifties thanks to Walt Disney’s unerring eye for talent and all-American appeal, and his entertainment corporation’s ability to market her as America’s sweetheart and “triple threat”: dancer, singer, and actress.
Her earliest training was in dancing, well displayed on the Mickey Mouse Club (1955-1959) where she caught Walt’s (she always called him “Mr. Disney”) attention as a dark-haired standout among the “mice.” Annette thought of herself as a dancer, and with characteristic modesty, judged herself as merely adequate as a singer and actress.
There seemed to be no artificial sweetener about her; her modesty never came off as though it had been manufactured by an agent or studio coach.
The plan for countless teenage boys of the late fifties and sixties was to date a sexy beauty like Ann-Margret but eventually settle down with a sweet, reliable “doll” like Annette.
On a flood of fan letters, she emerged from the MMC chorus line to be featured in two seasons of the popular “Spin and Marty” serial (1956-1957), and then in a serial titled simply “Annette” (1958), in which she plays an unsophisticated but honest farm-bred orphan confronting the cruel snobbery of some suburban teens. Guess who wins.
For a while she was entirely a Disney property, appearing in “The Shaggy Dog” (1959), “The Horse Masters” (1961), and “Babes in Toyland” (1961) opposite Tommy Sands. “Babes” was not a particularly successful effort, but she was subsequently deemed a good match-up with Frankie Avalon for a series of “B” sand-and-song movies starting with “Beach Party” (1963) and never rising much above this level.
Disney’s insistence that she not wear navel-exposing bikinis in these loan-out films has been criticized as somewhat tyrannical, but she herself accepted it as coming from someone who cared about her image and career.
Her latter day sequel with Avalon, “Back to the Beach” (1990), was noteworthy mainly as her nostalgic farewell feature film.
The courage and dignity she showed in dealing with the onset of Multiple Sclerosis (revealed publicly in 1992) is well known by her fans. (Read more at The Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases.)
She said in a late interview that in her dawning stardom, she thought she should anglicize her name as so many stars had done. Walt asked if she wasn’t proud of her Italian heritage. That convinced her to keep her family name.
This may be just one of the reasons that in interviews after his death, she would tear-up when recalling the days when she was guided by “Mr. Disney.”
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