Long before Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, or Lindsay Lohan, Annette Funicello showed a young woman could graduate from Disney roles into grown-up stardom. And Funicello proved you could do it with your reputation and charm fully intact.
Annette Funicello, the star of "The Mickey Mouse Club" TV series from 1955 to 1957 who later went on to appear in several successful films for Disney and then hit the surf with Frankie Avalon in the popular "Beach Party" movies, died Monday after a long struggle with multiple sclerosis. Funicello was 70.
Born in Utica, New York on October 22, 1942, Annette Joanne Funicello spent most of her childhood in California, where her parents moved when she was four. Naturally shy, young Annette took singing and dancing lessons to gain confidence, and after she was spotted at a dance recital at age 12, Funicello was invited to audition for a new television show Walt Disney was producing featuring a handful of talented youngsters. Funicello became part of the original cast for "The Mickey Mouse Club," and soon was one of the favorite personalities on the show, receiving up to 6,000 fan letters a month.
During her three-year run on "The Mickey Mouse Club," Funicello was maturing from a pretty girl into a lovely woman, and Disney kept her under contract, casting her in more grown-up roles on various Disney-produced shows, including her own short-lived series, "Annette." In 1959, Funicello made her big screen debut in the comedy "The Shaggy Dog," and she appeared in a Disney adaptation of "Babes In Toyland" in 1961.
However, Funicello's film career really began to click in 1963, when Disney lent her out to American International Pictures for a high-spirited teen musical called "Beach Party." It was the first of seven "Beach" movies co-starring Funicello and Frankie Avalon, in which she invariably played the pretty but nice girl who, despite various romantic misunderstandings, always ended up with Frankie at the end. While the "Beach Party" movies certainly played up Funicello 's beauty and figure, she always maintained a relative modesty; under the advice of Walt Disney, she never appeared in a bikini, always wearing a less revealing one-piece suit.
Outside of the "Beach" films, Funicello maintained a busy schedule through the 1960s, appearing in youth-oriented comedies for Disney such as "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones" and "The Monkey's Uncle," as well as plenty of TV work. She also released a handful of records, and her tune "Jamaica Ska" would later become a cult favorite.
In the 1970s, Funicello devoted less time to her career and spent more time with her family, raising three children with her first husband Jack Gilardi. In 1987, Annette and Frankie Avalon reunited for the movie "Back To The Beach," in which they played a middle aged couple whose kids were going through misadventures of their own; it included Annette doing a new version of "Jamaica Ska" with the punk-funk-ska band Fishbone.
While doing promotional appearances for "Back To The Beach," Annette began experiencing dizzy spells, and in 1992, she announced she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. After slipping into a coma recently, Funicello passed away in Bakersfield, California while surrounded by her husband, Glen Holt, and her three children.