Annette Funicello, America’s favorite Mouseketeer in the 1950s and the star of the 1960s “beach party” films, died Monday of complications from multiple sclerosis, the Walt Disney Co. said. She was 70.
Walt Disney discovered Funicello at a dance recital when she was 12, and she became famous on The Mickey Mouse Club, which featured stories, songs, and dance. She always wore the children’s uniform of mouse ears, a pleated skirt, and a sweater emblazoned with her name.
She soon started receiving 8,000 fan letters a month, 10 times more than any of the 23 other young performers. When The Mickey Mouse Club ended in 1959, she was the only club member to remain under contract to the studio, appearing in Disney movies such as The Shaggy Dog, Babes in Toyland, and The Monkey’s Uncle.
She also became a recording star, singing on 15 albums. But as she outgrew Disney movies, she transitioned to the “beach party” series, targeted to teen audiences. Teaming with Frankie Avalon, the two starred in movies like Beach Blanket Bingo, Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.
The movies didn’t aim to create art, but combined songs, a few laughs, and romance to garner a large teen following. Walt Disney reportedly asked her not to wear navel-baring swimsuits, but she broke away from her squeaky-clean image by donning two-piece bathing suits in all of the “beach party” movies.
Funicello married her agent, Jack Gilardi, at 22 and mostly stepped out of the limelight to become a full-time homemaker, raising three children. Her daughter in 1994 told In Style magazine how Funicello focused on being a mom: “She was always there for car pools, Hot Dog Day and the PTA.”
She later divorced Gilardi in 1981 and married Glen Holt, a horse breeder, five years later.
She only appeared occasionally on TV in the 1970s and ’80s to do commercials. In 1987, she and Avalon reunited to make a parody of their “Beach Party” movies. During the filming, she first noticed she had trouble walking, a sign of M.S. She went public with her illness in 1992.
“My equilibrium is no more; it’s just progressively getting worse,” she said. “But I thank God I just didn’t wake up one morning and not be able to walk. You learn to live with it. You learn to live with anything, you really do.
“I’ve always been religious. This just makes me appreciate the Lord even more because things could always be worse. I know he will see me through this.”
She set up the Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Disorders in 1993, and underwent brain surgery in 1999. By 2004, she had lost her ability to walk. She lost her ability to speak in 2009. She died Monday at a hospital in Bakersfield, Calif.
“She will forever hold a place in our hearts as one of Walt Disney’s brightest stars, delighting an entire generation of baby boomers with her jubilant personality and endless talent,” Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger said in a statement released Monday. “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. All of us at Disney join with family, friends, and fans around the world in celebrating her extraordinary life.”