A Fond Farewell To Annette

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by Leonard Maltin
June 25, 2013 1:02 PM
12 Comments
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I was honored to be asked to host a celebration of Annette Funicello’s life at the Walt Disney Studio yesterday, where Stage One—home of the Mickey Mouse Club—was rechristened in her honor by Disney CEO and Chairman Bob Iger. Then, inside the studio theater, a number of Annette’s friends, family and colleagues shared memories of the little girl whom Walt Disney discovered, hired, and singled out as his homegrown star. As usual, the public’s taste aligned with Walt’s, and of all the talented youngsters on the Mickey Mouse Club it was Annette who truly captured the audience’s heart.

One might think that her fellow Mouseketeers harbored some envy over the attention Annette generated, not only from the boss but from millions of young fans, but because “Annie” was so sweet and unimpressed with herself, they never did.

Bobby Burgess remembered a time when he was performing a ballet routine with her (they were the two tallest members of the troupe). He executed a lift and promptly dropped her on the floor; he was embarrassed but all she could do was giggle. Years later he was stopped for speeding in the Hollywood Hills and when the policeman recognized him he said he’d forego the ticket if Bobby would only tell him about Annette.

Annette merchandise and memorabilia was on display in the lobby of the Disney Studio theater
Tommy Cole sang the song Jimmie Dodd composed in her name as we watched footage of young Annette dancing to it on an episode of the Mickey Mouse Club. Fellow Mouseketeers Sherry Alberoni, Sharon Baird, Darlene Gillespie, Cubby O’Brien, and Doreen Tracey echoed the same happy memories of the little dark-haired girl who was always letter-perfect and diligently practiced her dance steps while some of the others were fooling around between takes. Both Spin (Tim Considine) and Marty (David Stollery) sang her praises as well, Stollery summing her up as “utterly genuine.” And Considine echoed Bobby Burgess in remembering that wherever he traveled during his Disney days all anyone ever asked about was Annette.

The Mouseketeers worked hard, not only filming a daily television show but working on weekends at Disneyland and making other personal appearances. No wonder they grew so close. (After the program, Kevin “Moochie” Corcoran told me how his folks and Annette’s became friendly, as did several other sets of parents and kids from the Disney clan.)

Family was key to Annette’s success and her humility. Her parents, Virginia and Joe, were warm and loving—and kept a close eye on their little girl. Frankie Avalon recalled yesterday that when he first met her he requested her phone number; Annette replied that he’d have to ask her mother. He got the same response when he asked her out on a date, and while they did go out for pizza, they never were anything more than friends. (In fact, Annette wound up marrying Avalon’s agent, Jack Gilardi.) When they made the first Beach Party film for American-International Pictures it was clear to director William Asher that they were a “natural” together from the first scene onward, and audiences agreed.

Songwriter Richard Sherman said he and his brother always referred to Annette as their “lucky star,” since she propelled their career forward and got them signed by the Disney company, where they made history with their scores for so many films and theme park attractions. But it was writing hit songs for Annette that put them on the map. (Richard accompanied himself at the piano on two of those early hits, “Tall Paul” and “Pineapple Princess.”)

Annette’s daughter Gina told the audience that she and her brothers Jack and Jason never felt they had a show-business mother: she was just Mom to them, even if she did film commercials for Skippy Peanut Butter while they were growing up. More often you could find her manning the refreshment stand at their Little League games.

Annette’s second husband Glen Holt and Disney CEO and Chairman Bob Iger pose outside the newly-named Annette Funicello Stage with a group of the original Mouseketeers from year one of the Mickey Mouse Club.
Her bravery in dealing with the onset of multiple sclerosis only won her more admirers, as her second husband Glen Holt and lifelong friend Shelley Fabares confirmed. Stan Brooks, who produced the CBS TV movie about her life, A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes, recounted how Annette agreed to have him dramatize her life—mainly so people could learn more about the disease and call an 800 number to further medical research. Like everyone else who spoke, he said he never had a conversation with her that wasn’t upbeat; Annette had no room in her life for self-pity.

Rita Rose told how she became a lifelong fan—and head of an Annette Funicello fan club—after meeting her at a Disneyland autograph session alongside Tim Considine and David Stollery. When Annette noticed that she hadn’t gotten Spin’s signature she made a point of passing the photo back to her young colleague and righting that wrong. Who wouldn’t fall in love with someone like that? Considine confessed that while he and his costar/pal devised simple scrawls to make such events move faster, Annette diligently wrote out her beautiful signature for every fan.

A replica of that signature now rests on the side of Stage One, where Annette and the Mouseketeers made millions of fans—or should I say, friends—and pop culture history. 

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12 Comments

  • John | July 19, 2013 8:00 AMReply

    Thank you Leonard for the beautiful tribute to Annette Funicello. I would like to echo the words of so many others who had the good fortune to meet "Annette". When my 13 year old daughter and I attended the taping of a segment of the Sally Jesse Rafael show dedicated to Annette's life, we had the good fortune to meet Annette after the taping. The first thing that Impressed me was that Annette was even more beautiful than she appeared on the screen. Annette was sitting in her wheel chair when I introduced myself and asked her if she would take a picture with me. Annette smiled and said certainly. A group of men from the press were snaping pictures and vying for the opportunity to ask Annette questions for the newspapers, magazines and television news shows that employed them. Annette disregarded the press and immediatly turned to my daughter, said hello and asked my daughter her name. When she replied, Annette smiled again and said "What a beautiful name! If I had another daughter, I would have given her the same name."...At that moment, Annette put my shy little girl at ease, demonstrated that this famous star was not self absorbed like so many others including celebrities of far less fame, and confirmed what I suspected during all the years that she held a special place in my heart. Annette showed me in that moment that she was a thoughtful and caring person who truly deserved the admiration of her millions of fans throughout the world. As the New York Times Obituary concluded after noting Annette's Iconic life, quoting the Jimmy Dodd song many of us came to know.."Who is the one you can't forget? I'll give you just three guesses... Annette, Annette, Annette."

  • Rita Rose | June 30, 2013 6:36 PMReply

    Great recap Leonard! Thanks for mentioning my tribute from the fans. One small thing, that wasn't me who was at Disneyland getting the autographs, that story was about someone else and was told to me recently. Wish it HAD been me! I didn't meet Annette until her wedding in 1965. She was always so good to us fans. You did a great job as emcee! "Here's your Ears!"

  • Hank Zangara | June 28, 2013 2:43 AMReply

    That's a wonderful event, in honor of a wonderful person. But I think it would have meant the world to Miss Funicello to have the stage re-named while she was stilll with us, rather than posthumously. Still, as life-long fans, we will always remember her.

    PS: If you don't know anyone who has sufffered this debilitating disease, you can always give to MS in Annette's name.

  • Beth | June 26, 2013 8:30 AMReply

    Thank you for writing this, Leonard. In today's culture where some child stars end up with so many problems as they age, it is refreshing that Annette was just as nice off camera, as she was on camera. It is wonderful to hear so many people she worked with, saying such positive things.
    She deserves her place in the Disney history books, I had her records, saw her movies, loved her on the MM Club and she was a role model for me growing up.

  • Kay | June 26, 2013 8:17 AMReply

    Leonard, this is so special, thanks so much! My children watched re-runs of the original Mickey Mouse Club and of course, especially loved Annette. They could sing the "Annette" song and they were thrilled when they discovered the MMC episodes of Escapade in Florence, where Annette sang "Dream Boy"...she was one-of-a-kind and it's so wonderful to hear that her off-screen self was as warm and genuine as her on-screen persona. Many thanks for this lovely tribute, Leonard!

  • Chuck | June 26, 2013 7:35 AMReply

    Wish the people in the pic were identified in the caption.

  • Norm | June 25, 2013 7:53 PMReply

    Beautiful words for a Lovely Lady...

  • Walt Mitchell | June 25, 2013 6:36 PMReply

    Leonard, I thank you for this lovely--and loving--piece! I am a lifelong resident of Oriskany, which is just seven miles from Utica, New York, where Annette was born in 1942. Here's yet another anecdote about this wonderful lady: Some years ago, Annette came back to Utica to attend a niece's wedding. (I recall that her daughter Gina accompanied her.) The reception that followed the wedding was held in Oriskany's then-showplace restaurant, Trinkhaus Manor. It was kept quiet that Annette and Gina were there--nobody outside of those directly involved with the event knew about it until afterward. When the fact was later made public, I spoke to a woman whom I knew at that time, who was a waitress there. I asked her what she could tell me about the event. She joyfully replied that she had had the honor of serving Annette herself! At the server's request, Annette quietly slipped her an autograph, but told her not to tell anybody. This, after all, was the bride's day, and Annette would not take away from that by having a raft of people asking for her autograph! That was yet another example of Annette putting other people ahead of herself. As long as she lived, she never forgot her good upbringing and always behaved accordingly.

  • Carla | June 25, 2013 5:42 PMReply

    Thanks so much for sharing this! I hope someday to get invited to some of these events. Annette was a truly lovely lady!

  • Richard | June 25, 2013 5:39 PMReply

    Saw Back to the Beach when I was 11 , it made me laugh so hard. I didn't get all of the jokes but my Grandpa showed me MMC, Misadventures of Merlin Jones and The Monkey's Uncle
    and I was hooked after that.

  • J.C. Vaughn | June 25, 2013 4:18 PMReply

    What a sweet remembrance, Leonard. Thanks for sharing it.

  • kathy G | June 25, 2013 3:46 PMReply

    Thank you very much for this nice write-up. So heartwarming to hear all the wonderful remembrances. But still....a piece of my youth died with Annette.

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