Annette Funicello
Annette Funicello

I grew up with Annette Funicello. She was my favorite older girl on "The Mickey Mouse Club," a friendly face with a sweet voice. She started on the show in 1955 at age 13, the only cast member selected by Walt Disney himself after he saw her dance the lead in Swan Lake at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank. She also appeared frequently on long-running weekly show "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color." Disney released several of her albums; she had two top ten hit songs: "Tall Paul" and "O Dio Mio." 

Annette Funicello
Annette Funicello

Born Annette Joanne Funicello in Utica, N.Y., on Oct. 22, 1942, Funicello gained fame with a series of '60s beach blanket movies opposite teen idol Frankie Avalon in which she managed to be both virginal and sexy in a two-piece suit (not a bikini). The actress died Monday at 70 at Mercy Southwest Hospital in Bakersfield, according to the Walt Disney Co.

Funicello had battled a severe form of multiple sclerosis since 1987, when she established The Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases. Funicello went public with her MS in 1992 and became a prominent spokeswoman for the disease's treatment --until she eventually lost the ability to both walk and talk. TV newsmagazine Extra reported that she was taken off life support Monday morning. "We are so sorry to lose mother," stated her three children. "She is no longer suffering anymore and is now dancing in heaven. We love and will miss her terribly."

After leaving the Mickey Mouse Club, Funicello was the only Mouseketeer to remain under contract to Disney and appeared on the TV shows "Zorro" (1957), "The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca" (1958), and made her feature debut in Disney feature film "The Shaggy Dog" (1959), followed by "Babes in Toyland" (1961), "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones" (1964), and "The Monkey's Uncle" (1965).

William Asher directed the AIP B-movies “Beach Party,” “Muscle Beach Party,” “Bikini Beach,” “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini"; Funicello also starred in “Pajama Party," “Fireball 500” and stock car actioner “Thunder Alley.” During this time, she recorded a series of hit top-40 pop singles, including "Tall Paul," "First Name Initial," "How Will I Know My Love," and "Pineapple Princess."  Her string of successful record albums included such favorites as "Hawaiiannette" (1960), "Italiannette" (1960), and "Dance Annette" (1961).

In 1987, Funicello again teamed up with Avalon to co-produce and star in Paramount's "Back to the Beach" as parents of a pair of troublesome teenagers. In 1989 and 1990, Avalon and Funicello staged a nostalgic concert tour, performing the beach party music and pop hit singles they made famous in the 1960s.

Bob Iger, Chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company, stated:

"Annette was and always will be a cherished member of the Disney family, synonymous with the word Mousketeer, and a true Disney Legend.  She will forever hold a place in our hearts as one of Walt Disney’s brightest stars, delighting an entire generation of baby boomers with her jubilant personality and endless talent.  Annette was well known for being as beautiful inside as she was on the outside, and she faced her physical challenges with dignity, bravery and grace.  All of us at Disney join with family, friends, and fans around the world in celebrating her extraordinary life."

Diane Disney Miller, daughter of Walt Disney, added:

"Everyone who knew Annette loved and respected her.  She was one of the loveliest people I've ever known, and was always so kind to everyone.  She was also the consummate professional, and had such great loyalty to my father.  Annette will always be very special to me and Ron.”