Annette Funicello will not be remembered as a great actress, though she starred on TV and in movies, or a great singer, though she had hit records. Even the
physical development that made her stand out from Walt Disney's other Mouseketeers was not the most important aspect of Funicello, who died Monday at the age of 70.
Rather, she was noteworthy for an openness and likability matched by her obvious dignity, self-respect and respect for others. (She always referred to Walt Disney, who nurtured her career, as "Mr. Disney.") She was always a nice girl, then woman. She could sell Skippy peanut butter by the freight-car-load because people trusted her. She could stroll through the skin-and-silliness of the '60s beach movies because she maintained her own modesty throughout.
For generations used to the excess and failings of other young stars, Funicello may seem mysterious, someone without an excess of either self-esteem or ambition.
"She was always there for carpools, Hot Dog Day and the PTA," her daughter Gina Gilardi said in 1994, according to People.com. (Funicello also had two sons from her marriage to agent Jack Gilardi.) "She was a normal mom."
As her friend Shelley Fabares said in a televised interview last year, "Her inherent sweetness and goodness and kindness just got through the screen."
Some 15 years after her battle with multiple sclerosis led to her retiring almost completely from public life, Funicello remains a vivid memory for people who discovered her as part of the cast of the original "Mickey Mouse Club" beginning in 1955, just before Funicello turned 13.
While the cast included a couple of dozen regulars, with many coming and going until that run ended in 1959, the Utica, N.Y., native was a prominent presence from the beginning. She was featured in various serials in the program and had her own, called "Annette." She also attracted the attention of boys and young men -- "the nation's prepubescent heartthrob," as Disney biographer Neal Gabler called her -- because she was noticeably more built than the other performers on the show. (Years later, when "Saturday Night Live" parodied beach movies, Gilda Radner's "Annette" introduced herself, her boyfriend and her breasts.) Still, her frequent co-star Frankie Avalon said in a 1998 People magazine interview, "She never tried to be sexy. People said to themselves, 'I could date that girl if I ever met her.' She wasn't untouchable."
While young people were seeing her in their homes on TV five times a week, the Disney machine helped make her a recording star ("Tall Paul" was a top-10 hit in 1959) with a boost from the songwriting brothers Richard and Robert Sherman; the Shermans, who would later win Oscars for their work on Disney's "Mary Poppins," cranked out a series of themed record albums by Funicello like "Hawaiiannette."
Even as "Mickey Mouse Club" faded in the late '50s, there were big-screen Disney efforts that employed Funicello, among them "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones" and "Babes in Toyland." It was family fare all the way, but it was enough to make her a single-name star, then and later as half of Frankie & Annette.
Funicello found post-Disney success in the '60s in a series of low-budget movies co-starring Avalon, including "Beach Party," "Beach Blanket Bingo" and "Bikini Beach." The films were sufficiently popular and enduring that Fox released a "Frankie & Annette" DVD box set in 2007, but there was always a certain amount of affectionate mockery attached to the films; Funicello's hair was noted for its near-immobility, and her swimsuits were always more demure than those worn by other women.
But, again, that was part of the key to Funicello. She drew lines. And while doing so, she managed to avoid the pitfalls of other young performers. A 1995 movie about Funicello took its name from a Disney song: "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes." And Funicello indeed seemed to have had such a dream-like life that the movie was often mild to the point of tedium.
Except that, by the time the movie was made, Funicello had gone public with her battle with MS, which began in the late '80s. Her physical limitations were evident in her few scenes in the movie, and became more marked over time. Her second husband, Glen Holt (her first marriage, to Gilardi, ended in divorce), became her main caregiver -- and kept searching for a cure -- as she weakened.
She lost the ability to read and write, People.com said, and spoke only with great difficulty -- then lost even that ability. According to Extratv.com, she had been in an MS-related coma for years and was finally taken off life support. But Monday undoubtedly sent people looking for clips of Funicello over the years, in commercials and TV and movies.
And, as you watched, you couldn't help but think, "What a nice lady."
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