Annette Funicello Dies at 70

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UPDATE: The wholesome star of Disney's "Mickey Mouse Club" and several 1960s beach movies with Frankie Avalon was 70.

Annette Funicello, the wide-eyed child star of TV's The Mickey Mouse Club who became a pop-culture icon with her series of frolicking beach-movie roles opposite Frankie Avalon in the 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, Calif., The Walt Disney Co. announced. She had been absent from the public eye for many years.

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Although single names were not in vogue at the time, Funicello's 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 a seemingly innocent era.

Indicative of her sweetheart status, Charles Schulz ran a cartoon when she married agent Jack Gilardi in 1965: “Good grief: Annette Funicello is getting married,” Charlie Brown deadpanned.

Funicello's discovery almost was 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 in the first season the show aired on ABC. Only Elizabeth Taylor received more fan mail as a “child star.”

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In 1960, the 18-year-old Funicello was named “Teenager of the Year” by a teen magazine, having held the top spot in all of its popularity polls.

In addition to her Mouseketeer role, she appeared in two Mickey Mouse Club serials, Spin and Marty and Adventures in Dairyland. When The Mickey Mouse Club went off the air in 1960 and the Mouseketeers disbanded, Funicello's contract was the only one renewed, and she was given features roles in the “Walt Disney Presents” series Zorro and The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca. On loan-out, she guest-starred on several episodes of Make Room for Daddy, starring Danny Thomas, in 1959.

Her first toplining movie role was playing Avalon's marriage-minded sweetheart, Dolores, aka Dee Dee, in Beach Party (1963). 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 in such fun fare as Muscle Beach Party (1964), Bikini Beach (1964), Pajama Party (1964), all released in 1964, and then Beach Blanket Bingo, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine the following year. She played the delightful Dee Dee in most of these films, often opposite Avalon.

"Annette was and always will be a cherished member of the Disney family, synonymous with the word Mousketeer and a true Disney Legend," Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger said in a statement. "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.

"Annette was well known for being as beautiful inside as she was on the outside, and she faced her physical challenges with dignity, bravery and grace. All of us at Disney join with family, friends and fans around the world in celebrating her extraordinary life."

Added Diane Disney Miller, daughter of Walt Disney: "Everyone who knew Annette loved and respected her. She was one of the loveliest people I've ever known and was always so kind to everyone. She was also the consummate professional and had such great loyalty to my father."

Funicello was born Oct. 22, 1942, in Utica, N.Y., and her family moved to the San Fernando Valley when she was 4. At 5, she studied at the Margie Rix School of Dance in North Hollywood and at 9 she won her first beauty contest as Miss Willow Lake. She received showbiz lessons at the Disney Studio School.

At the time of her graduation from University High in Los Angeles, she was appearing in a stage show at New York's Radio City Music Hall in connection with Disney's movie Pollyanna (1960), so her diploma was presented backstage as the cast threw her a party. Her parents gave her a white Thunderbird.

Funicello also was featured in several Disney movies, including 1959's The Shaggy Dog (with such other Mickey Mouse Club alumni as Tommy Kirk, Roberta Shore, Tim Considine and Kevin Corcoran), Babes in Toyland (1961), The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964) and The Monkey's Uncle (1965).

She also became a recording star for Disney's music label. Her albums included Annette, A, Annette Sings Anka, Hawaiianette, Italiannette and Dance Annette. She also recorded a number of singles -- "Tell Paul,” “How Will I Know My Love,” “Dio Mio” and “Talk to Me Baby.”

Oscar-winning composer Richard Sherman, who, with his late brother Robert wrote many of Funicello's biggest song hits, said, "Annette's sweet, unassuming spirit, her love of people and her capacity to exude kindness and good feelings to everyone she met was part of her beautiful charisma. Because the songs we wrote for her brought us to the attention of Walt, Bob and I always referred to Annette as our 'lucky star.’ " 

With The Beach Boys, Funicello recorded the single “The Monkey's Uncle.” Paul Anka wrote the hit “Puppy Love,” about a brief romance they had, for Funicello to record, and his version went to No. 2 on the Billboard charts in 1960.

In 1993, Disney Records released a two-CD set titled Annette: A Musical Reunion With America's Girl Next Door, which included such songs as “Italiannette,” “Pineapple Princess” and “The Rock-a-Cha.”

Her most recent performances were in the '80s when she appeared on such TV series as Fantasy Island, The Love Boat and Growing Pains as well as such nostalgia-inspired fare as Paramount's Back to the Beach (1987), where she and Avalon reunited as parents of a pair of troublesome teenagers.

In 1989 and 1990, the two staged a nostalgic concert tour, performing the beach-party music and pop hit singles they made famous during the '60s.

Her life story was made into the 1995 TV biopic A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes, covering her years in The Mickey Mouse Club. (Eva LaRue played Funicello in the film.) 

In 1987, Funicello was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and in 1992 went public with her illness. Later that year, she established the Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases, dedicated to funding research into the cause, treatment and cure of MS and other neurological diseases. 

In the '90s, she launched the Annette Funicello Teddy Bear Co., marketing a line of collectible bears on QVC, and developed her own perfume line, Cello, by Annette. In 1992, on her 50th birthday, she was named a Disney Legend. 

As she became more debilitated, Funicello retreated from public appearances in the late 1990s and has been cared for since that time by her second husband, rancher Glen Holt, whom she married in 1986.

She was married to Gilardi from 1965 until their divorce in 1981. She has three children from her first marriage, Gina, Jack Jr. and Jason, and three grandchildren.

“We are so sorry to lose Mother. She is no longer suffering anymore and is now dancing in heaven," her children said in a statement.

In lieu of flowers, donations in her memory can be made to the Annette Funicello Research Fund.