Annette Funicello dies at 70; Mouseketeer and 'beach' movie star

If you were a girl in the 1950s, Annette Funicello was the ideal of feminine goodness, your fantasy best friend forever. If you were a boy, she was your dream date, demure, doe-eyed and just different enough to set hearts pounding.

The most adored of Walt Disney's original 24 Mouseketeers, Funicello later exchanged her mouse ears for a swimsuit in a series of 1960s beach movies, but she remained a reassuring figure, fun-loving yet chaste in an era of rapidly shifting social values.

Annette Funicello obituary: A caption in the April 9 Section A that accompanied the obituary of Annette Funicello identified the subjects in a beach-scene photograph as Funicello and Frankie Avalon, who starred together in a number of 1960s beach movies. After publication, the wire service that distributed the photo said it could not confirm that the people pictured were, in fact, Funicello and Avalon. —

"She had a heart and a soul and a feeling about her that everybody just connected to — male or female — without being pretentious in any way," Frankie Avalon, her co-star in movies such as "Beach Party" and "Beach Blanket Bingo," said Monday. "She was just a nice, nice girl next door ... America's sweetheart."

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Funicello, the dark-haired darling of "The Mickey Mouse Club" in the 1950s, died Monday from complications of multiple sclerosis at Mercy Southwest Hospital in Bakersfield. She was 70.

Diagnosed in 1987, Funicello later became a spokeswoman for treatment of the chronic, often debilitating disease that afflicts the central nervous system.

Long before Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus, there was Annette, the last of the original Mouseketeers to be chosen and one of the few hand-picked by Disney himself.

She was a 12-year-old dance-school student when Disney saw her perform the lead role in "Swan Lake" at a recital at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank in 1955. He cast her on "The Mickey Mouse Club," the children's variety show that debuted on ABC in October 1955 and quickly became a daily late-afternoon ritual for millions of young Americans.

Like the other female Mouseketeers, Funicello wore a blue pleated skirt, a white, short-sleeved turtleneck sweater with her name spelled out in block letters across her chest and a cap with mouse ears. But there was something special about the Mouseketeer with the curly black hair who became the ensemble cast's biggest star.

"It may have been partly that she was older, looked more mature, so the young audience that the club appealed to found that very engaging," said Robert J. Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "Little kids always want to be big boys and girls. And she was so pretty."

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Funicello made her acting debut on "The Mickey Mouse Club" serial "Adventure in Dairyland." Later she appeared with Tim Considine and David Stollery in the popular "Spin and Marty" serials about a Western dude ranch for boys. In 1958, she was showcased in her own "Annette" serial.

After "The Mickey Mouse Club" ended production in 1958 and went into reruns, the 15-year-old Funicello was the only Mouseketeer to remain under exclusive contract to the Disney studio.

She made her feature-film debut in "The Shaggy Dog," a 1959 comedy starring Fred MacMurray. It was the first of four Disney feature films she appeared in over the next six years, including "Babes in Toyland" and "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones."

Funicello launched her recording career in 1958 with a waltz-tempo ballad, "How Will I Know My Love?" In early 1959, her single "Tall Paul" became a top-10 hit. It was followed by other singles such as "O Dio Mio" and "Pineapple Princess." She also recorded more than a dozen albums.

Funicello, who was the first to concede she was not much of a singer, credited producer Salvador "Tutti" Camarata and the songwriting Sherman brothers, Richard and Robert, for coming up with the idea of double-tracking her voice and adding echo.

"I never liked singing," she told the Chicago Tribune years later. "I was always so frightened. But the echo chambers and double tracking gave me confidence and made my voice stronger. And it was time for a new sound. Soon, people started copying 'the Annette sound.' "