Annette as a Mouseketeer-371

For baby boomers, the news of Annette Funicello’s death hits hard. Millions of us came home from school every day to watch The Mickey Mouse Club, and she was one of the most popular Mouseketeers. She could sing and dance, just like the other kids, but Walt Disney saw something special in her and took her under his wing. It was her girl-next-door simplicity that appealed to him—and as so often happened, his taste anticipated that of the general public. The fact that she developed earlier than some of the other girls gave her a particular appeal to growing boys—but girls liked her, too. Years later, Annette  confessed that she thought of changing her name, which people had trouble pronouncing, but “Mr. Disney” thought it had a musical lilt and told her to be proud of it. (This was no small matter in the 1950s, when ethnicity was almost unheard-of on national television—except for Ricky Ricardo.) No matter: to most fans she was simply “Annette,” which was also the name of a daily serial that ran on The Mickey Mouse Club.

When a song Annette casually crooned in an episode of her serial brought an unexpected amount of fan mail, the company’s record producer,  Jimmy Johnson, paid attention and started crafting singles, and then albums, for the teenager, who characteristically never thought she had much of a voice. But with careful handling, multi-tracking and other gimmicks—along with songs tailor-made for her by the Sherman Brothers—she became a chart-topper. During a Dick Clark-sponsored tour, Paul Anka fell in love with her and wrote two hits of his own that were inspired by her: “Puppy Love” and “Put Your Head on My Shoulder.”

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After the demise of The Mickey Mouse Club, Walt Disney kept Annette under contract, featuring her in such feature films as The Shaggy Dog, Babes in Toyland, and The Monkey’s Uncle, for which she sang the title tune alongside The Beach Boys. It took a lot of persuasion for American-International Pictures’ Sam Arkoff to talk Walt into letting Annette appear opposite Frankie Avalon in the Beach Party movies—in a somewhat demure two-piece bathing suit (Walt vetoed a bikini). This turned out to be a smart move. Those low-budget pictures further extended Annette’s popularity as the ultimate all-American girl with the dark good looks and Italian name. It also led to her final appearance onscreen, in the 1987 nostalgiathon called Back to the Beach, which presented her and Frankie Avalon as the parents of teenage kids.

As multiple sclerosis intruded on her life and made her a recluse, Annette’s close friends from the Mickey Mouse Club remained loyal, and protective of her. When I hosted and co-produced a DVD set for the Walt Disney Treasures series, longtime pals Shelley Fabares and Sharon Baird were only too happy to come on-camera to talk about her. So was songwriter Richard Sherman, who experienced one of his first major hits when Annette sang “Tall Paul.”

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Annette touched millions of lives because, like the other Mouseketeers, she seemed “just like one of us.” It’s been heartbreaking to know that she has suffered so long, but encouraging to learn that the devotion of her husband and good friends kept her spirits up, as best they could.

Now it’s time to say goodbye to a girl whose modesty and charm made her a household name. We’ll never forget her.