Annette Funicello—who went from being a Mouseketeer to a singing teen idol of the post-young Elvis/pre-Beatles era to the star of beach party movies without ever sacrificing her squeaky-clean image—has died at 70. Funicello revealed in 1992 that she’d been suffering from multiple sclerosis for years, a condition that eventually robbed her of the ability to walk and speak. According to Extra, Funicello had been in a coma “for years” before her family finally decided to take her off life support today.
In 1955, the then-13-year-old Funicello was the final addition to the cast of the original Mickey Mouse Club, having been spotted by Disney himself when she was performing at a dance recital in Burbank. Disney’s instinct for what his public wanted was still sound, and Funicello quickly became the breakout star among the Mouseketeers, regarded as likable and relatable by young girls, and as charmingly approachable by their male counterparts. Disney made the most of her popularity, first by placing her at the center of such Mouse Club serials as Adventure In Dairyland, then by turning her over to arranger Tutti Camerata to be groomed into a singing star.
Her biggest hit was her first, “Tall Paul,” a 1959 cover of a song that had already been recorded a year before (to far less attention) by her fellow Mouseketeer Judy Harriet. In an early example of corporate synergy, Funicello first performed the song on an episode of the Disney TV serial Annette. (“Tall Paul” was written by Robert and Richard Sherman, and its success led to their becoming Disney’s house songwriters, scoring his movies throughout the ‘60s and composing “It’s A Small World After All.”)
After the Mouse Club, Funicello appeared in a number of Disney TV productions (Zorro, The Horsemasters, Escapade In Florence) and movies (The Shaggy Dog, Babes In Toyland, The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones). She also played a saucy Italian exchange student on five episodes of Danny Thomas’ situation comedy, Make Room For Daddy. But her movie career really began with Beach Party (1963), the first of a string of movies—like Muscle Beach Party (1964), Bikini Beach (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), How To Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965)—in which she and her and her co-star, Frankie Avalon, hung out at the titular location, played a little volleyball, surfed, danced the latest dances, mixed it up with such luminaries as Morey Amsterdam, Harvey Lembeck, Don Rickles, Paul Lynde, Timothy Carey, Brian Donleavy, and even Buster Keaton, and grooved to the sounds of such guest performers as Dick Dale, Stevie Wonder, Lesley Gore, the Kingsmen, and—in the genre-busting Ski Party (1965)—even a protectively layered James Brown.
The same year that Funicello welcomed James Brown to the ski lodge, she more or less retired from show business to concentrate on raising a family. She did support Avalon by contributing a cameo to his 1965 starring vehicle Dr. Goldfoot And The Bikini Machine, and showed solidarity with other TV-generated pop stars by appearing in Head, the 1968 Monkees movie directed by Bob Rafelson and written by Jack Nicholson. But after the 1967 Thunder Alley, a racing picture co-starring Fabian, her only substantial return to the big screen was in 1987’s Back To The Beach, a spoofy reunion film with Avalon that also featured Annette performing a duet with Fishbone and a special guest appearance from Pee-wee Herman. She did a series of concert appearances with Avalon to promote the film, and also dropped in on Pee-wee’s 1988 Christmas TV special.
In the 1980s, Funicello capitalized on her off-screen reputation as a good mom by starring in a series of TV commercials for Skippy’s peanut butter. She also recorded one final album, the Annette Funicello Country Album, notable for being the only music she ever recorded that reflected her actual personal tastes. In 1993, a year after disclosing her medical condition, she established the Annette Funicello Fund For Neurological Diseases at the California Community Foundation.