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.”
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.”
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.