Obituary: Annette Funicello, 1942-2013

Annette Funicello, who rose to prominence as a “Mouseketeer” on Disney’s original Mickey Mouse Club TV show and, later, as both a pop singer and actress in the popular Beach Party movies of the mid-1960s, died today from complications of multiple sclerosis. She was 70 years old.

Annette FunicelloAnnette Joanne Funicello was an iconic representative for the post-WWII generation (I hate the term “baby boomer”). She was an original Mouseketeer when Disney magic really sparked childhood wonder. When she blossomed (as young ladies do), Disney briefly considered dropping her to preserve the show’s pre-pubescent innocence, but wisely decided to let nature takes its course. Annette filled out her Mouseketeer sweater and became an icon for a generation’s budding sexual awareness.

Then came the Beach Party movies with Frankie Avalon, featuring Annette in her modest pastel two-piece bathing suits twisting to vanilla pop and causing unwarranted consternation in a adults such as a wildly bearded Bob Cummings, Don Rickles (!), Morey Amsterdam, Harvey Lembeck and even silent film genius Buster Keaton.

Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon in 1963's Beach Party.

When the teasing coyness of the Beach Party years gave way to a more anachic spirit, Annette wisely exited the stage and, like a good Italian woman, married and raised her children. Then in the mid-1980s, Annette took the biggest risk in show business: a comeback attempt. When the film Back to the Beach was announced, cynics sneered. But she and Frankie had the last laugh as the 1987 movie was a hit: a charming, nostalgic romp with two seasoned pros gracefully laughing at their youthful images. Once again, Annette was a graceful representative of a generation as we began looking through our scrapbook and recoiling in horror at our old hairstyles.

Back to the Beach was accompanied by a concert tour, also a hit, and new possibilities seemed to open for the one-time Mouseketeer. What a great sitcom mom she would have been!

But it was not to be… During that time, she began to suffer from dizzy spells, though she kept her failing health from her friends and family. It was not until 1992 that Annette announced she was suffering from multiple sclerosis, the complications of which finally led to her passing, more than two decades after she opened the Annette Funicello Fund for Neurological Disorders at the California Community Foundation in 1993.

Annette will be missed but always be remembered by a generation that came of age with her, and younger followers who discovered her talent, charm and seemingly unending sweetness as they too came of age.

About David

David Leopold is an actor, writer and videographer who would take a Sherpa ride up a Tibetan mountain to see an Edwige Feuillère movie.