There was something special about Annette Funicello that allowed her to capture our hearts, whether she was a Mouseketeer in the 1950s on The Mickey Mouse Club — which is where many of us met her for the first time — or the so-called “Beach Movies” alongside Frankie Avalon in the 1960s, sharing the joys of Skippy Peanut Butter in the 1970s or waging her battle with MS in the latter part of her life. Through it all, we never lost our connection with her.
Pop culture historian Geoffrey Mark points back to a remarkable moment that took place in October 1998 as part of the festivities celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the Walt Disney Company, which allowed him to spend a few minutes with Annette.
“It was a huge, huge event on the Disney lot,” Geoffrey recalls, “and I was hired by the Cable Radio Network to cover it and was there all day, interviewing all the celebrities who attended. By that point Annette was in a wheelchair, well enough to attend and have her picture taken and still looking absolutely beautiful. But her speaking was limited and, bless her heart, she didn’t mind being seen that way. We weren’t close friends, but I knew her, so I went over. I knew a radio interview wouldn’t be possible, but I wanted to say something nice to boost her up.”
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Approaching, he gave her a kiss and commented that she looked beautiful, but then added, “Are you feeling as well as you look?”
“As the words were coming out of my mouth,” he recalls, “I realized that we were in public. People were taking pictures and she really couldn’t answer well, so I cut her off and said, ‘You don’t even have to tell me. I can tell by the look on your face how happy you are to be here. I love you. It’s so good to see you.’ And I started to walk away and she grabbed my arm, looked me in the eye and she said, ‘Good to see you, too.’ She realized that I had put my foot in my mouth and she wanted, even under that extreme pressure of being there and not feeling well and with everything going on around her, to take my foot out of my mouth and reassure me that it was okay. That’s the kind of woman she was.”
Annette’s Pre-Mouseketeer Life
She was born Annette Joanne Funicello on October 22, 1942, in Utica, New York to Italian-American parents. The family moved to Southern California after she had turned four years old.
The first mention of Annette in the media came in a September 2, 1952 edition of the Valley Times of North Hollywood, which reported, “Blonde, brunette and red-haired bathing beauties, all of them between 6 and 14 years old, were aswarm at Pop’s Willow Lake, vying for the titles of ‘Little Miss’ (ages 6 to 9) and ‘Junior Miss’ (ages 10 to 14) Willow Lake. Selected as the winner of the ‘little’ division was 9-year-old Annette Funicello of North Hollywood.”
Previously, Walt Disney (the namesake for that generation-spanning company) had an idea in 1930 to launch something called The Mickey Mouse Club, a live-action event featuring kids and held at the Fox Dome Theater in Ocean Park, California on January 11. By March 31 there were 60 theaters hosting chapters of the club, with, by the next year, over 1 million members. But in 1935, that pretty much came to a close. Jump forward 20 years, and Disney had decided to bring The Mickey Mouse Club to television, with an original run that went from 1955 to 1959 (though there would be revivals over the years). The idea was that a group of young performers would sing, dance, act in sketches, and even appear in serialized dramas presented within MMC.
Annette’s being cast on the show was chronicled in 1956 by The Springfield News-Leader of Springfield, Missouri, which wrote, “Just before her 13th birthday, Annette’s dancing school staged a recital at the Burbank, California bowl, and she danced the trying ballet role of the queen in Swan Lake. By some fateful accident, Walt Disney was in the audience. The next day, Annette received a telephone invitation to audition for the ‘Mouseketeers’ troupe being organized by Disney’s then-upcoming Mickey Mouse Club TV show. Annette had never thought about becoming a performer, but she and her parents decided the audition might be an interesting experience, so she tried out. Thus Annette set out on a new pattern of life under which she and her 24 fellow ‘Mouseketeers’ film four hours a day, attend school three hours a day right on the Disney lot, and have one hour per day ‘recess.’
“On October 3, 1955,” they continued, “The Mickey Mouse Club went on the ABC-TV network. Three days later, Annette Funicello got three fan letters, which she delightedly pasted in a scrapbook. By the following week, the fan mail had outgrown scrapbook proportions and was far beyond anything anyone else on the show was receiving. At last Disney count, Annette was getting around 1,200 fan letters a month.”
An Instant Connection
The television audience fell in love with the cast of The Mickey Mouse Club, but right from the start, there was something about Annette that separated her from the rest of them. Muses Jennifer Armstrong, author of Why? Because We Still Like You: An Oral History of the Mickey Mouse Club, “I never want to say something is the first of anything because there’s always something that came before it, but the way I like to describe the show is that it was the first TV show made for kids, starring kids. And I think that’s why it was such a sensation. And it wasn’t just about one kid, it was lots of kids. And if you think about it, it’s really what the entire Disney Channel or Nickelodeon is built on.
“They had dozens of kids on that show over the years, because they would rotate some out and bring in new ones each year,” she continues. “Some of the kids were more like the background players, and in some ways that could be really good for them psychologically, because they weren’t their own phenomenon. On the other hand, I talked to some who were really affected by the show, which is not really surprising, especially being told, ‘You’re not first string.’ They had a red team and a blue team and they understood at a pretty young age when they were demoted or promoted, they understood that Annette was the star and that she got the most attention.
“They struggled with just being told, ‘You’re cute, just not that cute.’ That’s a really young age for that to happen. I’m being a little bit generous to the adults involved, but I would say maybe we didn’t understand as much the kind of impact that could have on children. Even at school, this affects you. On top of that, they understood Annette is getting thousands of pieces of fan mail every week, they pick that up and they don’t get any. They sort of do understand all of that and what’s happening. I remember how brutal it sounded when I heard that at the end of the season they would just not call certain kids back. That’s how they found out they were fired. They understood that, too: ‘Oh, I guess I go to regular school now with regular kids.’ And everyone’s, like, ‘Why aren’t you still on The Mickey Mouse Club?’ ‘Uh, because I’m not with them anymore.’ They don’t really have an answer.”
But why Annette?
The real question is what was it about Annette that made her so appealing to the audience? Actress Eva LaRue, who played Dr. Maria Santos Grey on 135 episodes of the daytime soap opera All My Children, gained some insight into Annette by playing her in the 1995 biographical TV film A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes: The Annette Funicello Story. She points out, “The interesting thing is that Walt Disney was never looking for amazing professional children. He was looking for children who were talented, but not extraordinarily so. He wanted them to have connectivity to all the other children in the United States who were taking dance classes or singing in their local choir or tap dancing or whatever. He wanted them to be relatable to anybody.
“So, for The Mickey Mouse Club they went about casting kids who were good, but not amazing. Isn’t that crazy?” she laughs. “And Annette has a decent voice, but she didn’t have a good voice. And she wasn’t a bad dancer, but she wasn’t a good dancer. So she was moderately talented in those areas, but she had a lovability factor that was off the charts. She had a girl next door lovability. She was every girl and she happened to have huge boobs for a 13-year-old, so every boy in America had their first crush on Annette Funicello. She’s this little brunette Italian bombshell at 13. And everybody was in love with her sweet quality, which is how she ended up being the standout.”
Jennifer notes that because she was not alive in the 1950s, she came to her Mickey Mouse Club book with residual knowledge she’d picked up of her here and there. “When I went to watch the show,” she smiles, “I was really, like, ‘Oh, she does have big boobs.’ It’s creepy to be even thinking about this, but it was such a big deal at the time. Truthfully, though, she wasn’t that chesty that early. She had charisma that came through on the screen and people just loved her. She was unbelievably sweet.”
What’s so interesting is the way that Annette seemed unaffected by her popularity on the show. In fact, in 1956 she suggested to the press that her time with the series could be limited. “I’m just about the tallest girl in the Mouseketeers now,” she said. “I’ve grown half an inch since May, I’m sure to be dropped. I just don’t see how I can go back to normal living, with no excitement, but that’s what my mother says I have to do. She even wants me to go a girls’ convent school. Of course, there isn’t much work for girls my age. Don’t know what I’m going to do. I worry about it all the time.”
Commented the News-Leader, “Actually, Walt Disney is about as likely to drop Annette as 20th Century Fox would have been to drop Shirley Temple in her profitable hey-day. To Annette, the advantage of being a Mouseketeer is simple: ‘There’s always something different happening and you never know what it will be.'”
‘How Will I Know My Love?’
In the “Annette” serial on The Mickey Mouse Club, Annette sang the song “How Will I Know My Love?”, which was issued as a single and the success of it resulted in Walt Disney signing her to a recording contract — not something that she really wanted. As it turned out, by 1958 she was the last of the Mouseketeers still under contract, “When I started, there were 24,” she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Then Mr. Disney dwindled us to 16 and then to nine. Now they’ve all been let go except me.”
As per her contract, she was part of the Tower of Talent, featuring the Everly Brothers and other teenage talent. “When I’m touring,” she explained, “I hit usually five schools a day, do TV appearances, hospitals for crippled children and disk jockeys. When that’s done, it’s sure great to get home. Most weekends and holidays we’re expected to go to Disneyland to help draw crowds. Every time he goes there, Mr. Disney adds something new. He says Disneyland will never be finished. There will always be room for something new.”
It didn’t sound like an easy life. In 1959 she detailed to the Tucson Citizen, “It’s not easy for me to meet other teenagers. And when I’m in a crowd and they start staring at me, I really get scared. I’m much more at ease with grown-ups, because I’ve been with them most of my life. I seldom see teenagers. I’m the only one of the Mouseketeers left at the Disney Studios, so I go to school there alone. It’s almost like having a private tutor. Naturally, I missed the proms and other school activities that kids have. I can’t have many dates when I’m working and I don’t get to meet many boys, anyway. When I have to go to a social affair for the studio, I have to ask a boy myself.”
Things really picked up for Annette once MMC came to an end. In 1959 she appeared on five episodes of Make Room for Daddy, the sitcom starring Danny Thomas. In those shows, she portrays Italian exchange student Gina Minelli. She would also appear in four episodes of the Disney series Zorro, starring Guy Williams (later of Lost in Space) in the title role as Constancia de la Torre. In 1961 she would return for one episode as a different character, Anita Cabrillo.
That same year there was also the feature film The Shaggy Dog, in which she plays Allison D’Allessio. The film is about a kid (Tommy Kirk as Wilby Daniels) who mystically transforms into a dog. Starring is Fred MacMurray and Tim Considine, both of whom appear on television the following year on the popular sitcom My Three Sons.
In 1961, Annette co-starred with Tommy Sands, Ed Wynn, and Ray Bolger in the Christmas musical fantasy film Babes in Toyland. Despite the fact everybody put their best efforts into it, the critics weren’t kind to the film and it was not a hit at the box office, but Annette was not quite ready to move on from Disney. She even re-signed with the company, having come to a point where she was trying to figure out her role in the world — a stage that many child actors have to deal with as they transition to the adult world.
“I may look like a woman,” she suggested to the Waco Tribune, “but I’m still a girl. My measurements are 36-22-36, which are sort of adult, but I have a baby face and producers say I haven’t graduated to womanhood yet, which is why I keep playing teenage roles. It’s kind of confusing for me. I feel more like a woman than a girl, but I have a difficult time convincing people. I’ll be 18 years old very soon. Actually, I don’t mind playing teenage roles right now. After I’m 21 I’ll be more interested in playing glamor girl parts. It was all right for Lana Turner to play sexy roles when she was a teenager, because she looked more mature.”
During all of this and beyond, Annette would continue recording music. According to an interview she gave to The Courier of Waterloo, Iowa in 1962, she was dividing those efforts between Disney and her own publishing company, explaining, “Disney and I have a simple agreement over which firm gets which song. If it’s a song that comes to me, it goes into one of my companies. If Mr. Disney gives me the song to record, it goes into one of his companies. No problem.” Although the idea of Annette having her own music publishing company was something that may have been floated around at the time, in the end, all of her music — including the Beach movie songs — was released on Disney’s Buena Vista label.
Beach Party Movies
In the early 1960s, a new film genre known as “Beach Party” movies came about. In these comedy adventures, the focus is squarely on a group of teenagers (who clearly aren’t, but they try to pull it off anyway) that usually end up on the beach singing, dancing, getting romantically involved, and moving through generally silly storylines. American International Pictures (AIP) came up with the brilliant idea of teaming up Annette with Frankie Avalon.
The first film was Beach Party (1963), followed by Muscle Beach Party (1964), Bikini Beach and Pajama Party (both 1964), Beach Blanket Bingo, Ski Party, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (all 1965) and then, due to dipping box office, a switch of the formula from the beach to car racing, Fireball 500 (1966) and Thunder Alley (1967).
Many of the films were either produced, written, or directed by William Asher, whose other accomplishments include the television series Bewitched. He was also friends with Geoffrey Mark, with whom he discussed their making. “What he liked about Annette was that she was a pro,” Geoffrey says. “She wasn’t a great singer, but she could certainly sing. She wasn’t a great dancer, but she could dance. And almost all of those films revolve in some way around Annette’s character guarding her virginity. In less capable hands it would have been unwatchable to see these extraordinarily healthy young people in bathing suits, all of whom are older than teenagers in real life. Anyone concerned with guarding their virtue, even in 1963, was laughable, but she was able to make it stick. It was that same gracefulness about her. You believe her and she made that sort of behavior believable. It’s why her private life was not riddled with a lot of gossip and drama. Not that she didn’t have her problems — everybody does.”
Rita Rose, who headed the Annette Funicello National Fan Club for 28 years beginning in 1961, was invited to Annette’s 1965 wedding to Jack Gilardi and, most recently, compiled the book Annette Funicello: Tributes from Fans and Friends, which is a fascinating look at the actress from many people whose names you’d know (including Annette’s best friend, actress Shelley Fabares) and many that you don’t, who offer up an insight to who she was that you couldn’t get anywhere else.
She observes, “Unlike a lot of child stars who became typecast or grew out of their cuteness, Annette made a seamless transition from Mouseketeer to pop singer to film star. By the time the beach movies came along, the fans were ready to see what she could do outside of the Disney fold. She was no longer under contract with Disney, but because of her respect for Walt, she always wanted to please him and asked him if she should accept the role in Beach Party. He said yes, as long as she kept her navel covered. That lasted until Bikini Beach when she wore a modest bikini with bellybutton in full view.
“The beach movies were silly and fun with thin scripts about young romantic conquests, with Annette and Frankie Avalon at the center,” Rita elaborates. “We loved seeing Annette in a more mature role where she was able to show off her acting skills and comedic timing. Pairing her with Frankie was genius, because we already loved them as teen pop idols.”
In looking back at those films, and addressing people who thought they were filled with sex, Annette commented, “It’s flirtatious, not sex. There are certain sexy lines, but nothing definite.” In 1970 she expressed to The Los Angeles Times the true highlight of them for her: “Frankie Avalon always makes me laugh. I don’t know why. It’s great, childlike. Making the beach pictures he’d say my line or wink to break me up. And they always got mad at me. He can make me laugh anywhere.”
The Fans Continue to Follow Annette
Whatever her concerns may have been when she was younger about her career, it had become pretty obvious that the journey from The Mickey Mouse Club to recording artist and a bit more adult roles was something that her fans were happy to accompany Annette on.
“Oftentimes, child stars get older and nobody wants them anymore,” Rita suggests as to how Annette was able to go from child performer to adult, “or they can’t project their talent anywhere else. Or they’re typecast. She kind of made a smooth transition. After The Mickey Mouse Club, she started a singing career and being on American Bandstand and doing a lot of tours with the Dick Clark caravan. From there she got into the Beach Movies, and it wasn’t shocking to anybody. I think if they were like me, if they were a true fan, they followed her along through all of this and just kind of grew up with her. And even after she got married and started having kids, she would still like to do occasional TV shows, but she was devoted to her family. That was number one.”
Which is something that Annette proved by barely working throughout the 1970s beyond a few guest appearances on shows like Love, American Style; The Love Boat, and Fantasy Island. “She was always able to make really good decisions about balancing her family with work,” Rita points out. “In the seventies, her kids were young and she pretty much stayed to herself. She would appear on talk shows like Dinah Shore or John Davidson, but there were no big commitments to movies or TV. It wasn’t until the eighties when the kids were older that she started doing a little bit more.”
Including becoming the spokesperson for Skippy Peanut Butter, which was an enormously successful campaign. Jennifer comments, “Something that was pointed out to me about her popularity, and it’s a classic Hollywood thing now, is that she appealed to both the boys and the girls and that was a huge thing. She was not overtly flirty with the boys, so she wasn’t threatening to the girls and the girls loved her, too. That’s what made her this mass star instead of just the sexy girl for one year who people then discard. Everyone loved her all of the time and all the way through her life, including the Skippy commercials she would do. I read this thing about Jennifer Garner and it turns out that she is incredibly popular with Midwestern moms. What’s funny is they weren’t going for that with Alias, but it doesn’t matter. There’s something about Jennifer Garner’s sweetness that just comes through and people respond to. That’s the most analogous person I can think of. You can imagine her praising Skippy Peanut Butter and you’d be, like, ‘You know, I should have that.'”
‘Back to the Beach’
In 1987, Annette and Frankie Avalon reunited in the big-screen comedy Back to the Beach, a fun parody of those ’60s movies that nobody takes too seriously, and that’s why it works so well. Of its making, she reflected on The Newark Advocate of Newark, Ohio, “We made those pictures in three weeks — 15 working days — but we got a lot into them. The budget of Back to the Beach is $10 million and we shot it in 8 1/2 weeks. I have been trying to retire for a long time. A couple of years ago, I went back into a recording studio for the first time in 18 years. I did a Country and Western album in Nashville and I was scared to death. Singing has always frightened me, so I decided I had to do it. I loved it.”
She added to The Herald of Jasper, Indiana, “The old beach pictures were innocent fun compared to the kind of pictures they make for teenagers today. So we’ve had to keep up with the times. In the old days, I was always given a variation on the line, ‘No, Frankie! Not without a ring you don’t.’ That is all passe. In Back to the Beach, my movie daughter is 19 and living with a guy. Today, nobody 19 is a prude.”
Notes Rita, “Back to the Beach, is a quirky parody of the beach movies that gave Annette the opportunity to deliver some funny lines to an audience of Baby Boomers. We ate it up, because, well, Annette was back. What we didn’t know was that she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis during the filming, after having trouble walking on the sand. She kept the diagnosis secret from Frankie and just about everyone else in her life for five years. We look at that movie with a bittersweet fondness.”
‘A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes’
Annette’s battle with MS was a tough one. After Back to the Beach she dictated her autobiography — A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes: My Story — to Patricia Romanowski, which saw publication in 1994 and was made into the TV movie A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes: The Annette Funicello Story the following year. As Eva LaRue notes, by that point she was already using a wheelchair and in great pain. “She was angry and this was not a person who was usually angry,” says Eva, “because she was trapped in this body. Her mind was working beautifully, just like it always did, but she’s trapped in this body that simply won’t speak and won’t walk or do anything. That was heartbreaking to me. But, man, the amount of love around her — it was just magical to experience. Because she was suffering so much when I did the movie, I thought about her many times over the years.”
Her final public appearances were in 1998, at the Disney event Geoffrey Mark discussed and then, on September 13, at California’s Multiple Sclerosis Society, where she was accompanied by Frankie Avalon. Over the next few years, her health deteriorated rapidly. Sadly, it all came to an end on April 8, 2013, when she passed away at the age of 70.
In her personal life, Annette was married to Jack L. Gilardi from 1965 to 1981, with whom she had three children: Gina, Jack Jr. and Jason. Then, in 1986, she married Glen D. Holt and was with him until the end of her life.
Taking a moment to reflect, at one point Annette herself explained, “Although I haven’t been seen in films or TV shows for ages, I’m amazed how much fan mail comes in from the new generation of kids seeing The Mickey Mouse Club and reruns of the Beach pictures on the tube. A lot of kids think I’m still 12 years old.”
Reflects Geoffrey, “She was a good-hearted woman, a graceful woman, a very hardworking woman and she was able to take that and make a huge career out of it to go from Mouseketeer to Disney film star, to beach movies and then MS. It just kept working for her and as she matured, she just got prettier and better. She did something very few young people in show business are able to do: she had an almost seamless transition from child star into an adult star. There was never a time when she had outgrown what we thought of her, or that she was really cute when she was young but not as she got older. At every age she was pretty. At every age she was graceful. At every age she worked hard and until she got ill, her career had peaks and valleys like everybody else does, but she worked and got married and raised a family and was extraordinarily well taken care of when she got home. Her husband took enormously good care of her.”
“She was always stable and steady,” muses Rita. “She never treated anybody differently or got a big head. She didn’t go Hollywood and she carried that over into her adult life. She raised three wonderful, productive kids. I think the saddest thing to me is that she didn’t get to know her grandchildren. She has four beautiful grandchildren and one of them was born after she died. The other three were really very young when she died, so they didn’t really know her either.
“What’s so impressive is that she would never take a role or do anything to embarrass her children,” she adds. “And she never did. Or anything that would disappoint her fans, and she came through with that. How many people can make that promise about anything and not waiver from it? She gave us exactly what we thought she would and in that way it’s kind of comforting to know that there was somebody out there like that.”
One of the things that was so impressive to Jennifer while writing her book was the view Annette’s fellow Mouseketeers took of her. “Even her costars loved her. They just talked so rapturously about her and seemed like they were as much in the thrall of her as TV viewers were. Part of it is that there was something different about being on TV back then where you were a different kind of star. Not everybody comes through well on television, but her charisma did, even though it was oftentimes tiny, even though it was black and white some of the time. You want a TV star to be somebody you allow into your living room every week or every day. That was what I think people really liked about her — she felt like somebody who you could invite over for a peanut butter sandwich.”
Please scroll down for a visual guide to Annette Funicello’s various credits.
1. ‘The Mickey Mouse Club’ (1955 to 1959 TV Series)
2. ‘Spin and Marty’ (1957, Serial Within ‘MMC’)
3. ‘American Bandstand’ (1957 TV Series Guest)
4. ‘Annette’ (1958 Serial Within ‘MMC’)
5. ‘The Shaggy Dog’ (1959 Film)
6. ‘Make Room for Daddy’ (TV Series, 1959 to 1960 Season)
7. ‘Babes in Toyland’ (1961 Film)
8. ‘The Horsemasters’ (1962, Disney Serial)
9. ‘Golden Horseshoe Revue’ (1962 Episode of ‘The Magical World of Disney’)
10. ‘Escapade in Florence’ (1962 Disneyland Television Show)
11. ‘Disneyland After Dark’ (1962 of ‘Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color’)
12. ‘Beach Party’ (1963 Film)
13. ‘The Misadventures of Merlin Jones’ (1964 Film)
14. ‘Muscle Beach Party’ (1964 Film)
15. ‘Bikini Beach’ (1964 Film)
16. ‘Pajama Party’ (1964 Film)
17. ‘Beach Blanket Bingo’ (1965 Film)
18. Annette’s Wedding Day to Jack L. Gilardi (1965)
19. ‘The Monkey’s Uncle’ (1965 Film)
21. ‘How to Stuff a Wild Bikini’ (1965 Film)
22. ‘Fireball 500’ (1966 Film)
23. ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ (1966 Variety Show Appearance)
24. ‘Thunder Alley’ (1967 Film)
25. ‘Head’ (1968 Film)
26. ‘Love American Style’ (1969 TV Guest Star)
27. ‘Dick Clark’s Good Ole Days’ (1977 TV Special)
28. ‘The Disney Family Album’ (1985 TV Special)
29. ‘Lots of Luck’ (1985 TV Movie)
30. ‘Back to the Beach’ (1987 Film)
31. ‘A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes’ (1995 TV Bio Movie)
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