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.
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.
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.