Annette Funicello, Mouseketeer and film star, dies
FILE - In this 1963 file photo, singer Frankie Avalon and actress Annette Funicello are seen on Malibu Beach during filming of "Beach Party," in California in 1963. Walt Disney Co. says, Monday, April 8, 2013, that former "Mouseketeer" Funicello, also known for her beach movies with Avalon, has died at age 70. (AP Photo/File)
NEW YORK (AP) — Annette Funicello, who became a child star as a perky, cute-as-a-button Mouseketeer on "The Mickey Mouse Club" in the 1950s, then teamed up with Frankie Avalon in a string of '60s fun-in-the-sun movies with titles like "Beach Blanket Bingo" and "Bikini Beach," died Monday. She was 70.
She died at Mercy Southwest Hospital in Bakersfield, Calif., of complications from multiple sclerosis, the Walt Disney Co. said.
Funicello stunned fans and friends in 1992 with the announcement about her ailment. Yet she was cheerful and upbeat, grappling with the disease with a courage that contrasted with her lightweight teen image of old.
Though she was mostly out of the public eye for many years, she was seemingly never forgotten.
"She will forever hold a place in our hearts as one of Walt Disney's brightest stars, delighting an entire generation of baby boomers with her jubilant personality and endless talent," said Bob Iger, Disney chairman and CEO.
Avalon said Monday that Funicello never realized how beloved she was.
"She would say, 'Really?'" he told The Associated Press. "She was so bashful about it. She was an amazing girl." He added: "She really had a tough existence. It's like losing a family member. I'm devastated, but I'm not surprised."
The pretty, dark-haired Funicello was just 13 when she gained fame on TV's "The Mickey Mouse Club," a late-afternoon variety show for kids that combined stories, songs and dance routines and ran from 1955 to 1959.
FILE - This 1955 file photo provided by Walt Disney Co., shows Annette Funicello, a "Mouseketeer" on Walt Disney's TV series the "Mickey Mouse Club." Walt Disney Co. says, Monday, April 8, 2013, that Funicello, also known for her beach movies with Frankie Avalon, has died at age 70. (AP Photo/Walt Disney Co., File)
Cast after Disney saw her at a dance recital, she appeared in mouse ears, a pleated skirt and a turtleneck sweater emblazoned with her first name, winning over baby-boom viewers with her wholesome, girl-next-door appeal.
She soon became the most popular Mouseketeer, receiving 8,000 fan letters a month, 10 times more than any of the 23 other young performers.
Her devotion to Walt Disney remained throughout her life.
"He was the dearest, kindest person and truly was like a second father to me," she said. "He was a kid at heart."
When "The Mickey Mouse Club" ended, Annette (as she was often billed) was the only club member to remain under contract to the studio. She appeared in such Disney movies as "Johnny Tremain," ''The Shaggy Dog," ''The Horsemasters," ''Babes in Toyland," ''The Misadventures of Merlin Jones" and "The Monkey's Uncle."