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Annette Funicello Dies at 70

Annette Funicello, a Disney Mouseketeer on TV's The Mickey Mouse Club who went on to fame by co-starring in several beach movies with Frankie Avalon in he 1960s, has died. She was 70

Funicello, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1987 and became a spokeswoman for treatment of the disease, died Monday at Mercy Southwest Hospital in Bakersfield, the Walt Disney Co. announced.

Although single-names were not in vogue at the time, her popularity was so wide and her personality so familiar that she was “Annette.” No last name needed.

The quintessence of innocence, mixed with dark good looks and beguiling charm, she was a male ideal and a female role model. Wholesome in the best sense, Funicello was drive-ins, sock hops, beach parties and malted milks -- the personification of an innocent era.

Indicative of her sweetheart status, Charles Schulz ran a cartoon when she married agent Jack Gilardi: Charlie Brown deadpanned: “Good grief: Annette Funicello is getting married.”

A teen icon of the '50s, Funicello's discovery was almost accidental. In 1955, when Walt Disney was looking for a girl to round out the cast of his Mickey Mouse Club TV show, he happened to attend an amateur review in Burbank where he saw Funicello perform in a “Ballet vs. Jive” number. Although the last to be hired, Funicello rapidly became the No. 1 Mouseketeer in terms of fan mail -- 6,000 letters a month the first season. Only Elizabeth Taylor received more fan mail as a “child star.”

In 1960, Funicello was named “Teenager of the Year” by a teen magazine, having held the top spot on all its popularity polls during the year.

In addition to her Mouseketeer role, she appeared in two Mickey Mouse serials, Spin and Marty and Adventures in Dairyland. When The Mickey Mouse Club went off the air and the Mouseketeers disbanded, Funicello's contract was renewed and she was given features roles in the “Walt Disney Presents” series, Zorro and Elfego Baca. On loan-out, she guest-starred on several episodes of The Danny Thomas Show.

Her first movie role was playing Avalon's marriage-minded sweetheart, Dolores, aka Dee Dee, in Beach Party. Before filming, Disney asked her not to wear a bikini but rather a conventional one-piece swimsuit so that her squeaky-clean image would remain intact. She consented. 

Funicello subsequently starred again as Dee Dee in such beach-fare as Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach and Beach Blanket Bingo.

More to come …