Annette Funicello Dies at 70

Annette Funicello dead

Former Mouseketeer, beach party movie star had long battled multiple sclerosis

Annette Funicello, who first gained fame as a 12-year-old Mousekeeter on Disney’s “The Mickey Mouse Club” in the 1950s and then starred opposite Frankie Avalon in a series of musical beach party films of the early 1960s, has died. She was 70.

Funicello was taken off life support on Monday morning at a hospital in Bakersfield, Calif. She’d battled multiple sclerosis since 1987, first going public with the diagnosis in 1992.

“Annette was and always will be a cherished member of the Disney family, synonymous with the word Mousketeer, and a true Disney Legend,” said Disney chairman-CEO Robert Iger. “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.”

Diane Disney Miller, daughter of Walt Disney, praised Funicello as a “consummate professional” who demonstrated “great loyalty” to Disney.

“Everyone who knew Annette loved and respected her,” Miller said. “She was one of the loveliest people I’ve ever known, and was always so kind to everyone.”

In addition to “Beach Party,” “Muscle Beach Party,” “Bikini Beach,” “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” (the last without Avalon), all directed by William Asher, Funicello starred in the related pic “Pajama Party.” She also starred with Avalon and Fabian in action comedy “Fireball 500” and with Fabian in the more dramatic but similarly stock car-filled “Thunder Alley.” All these films were made at American Intl. Pictures.

Despite the word “bikini” in the title of two of her AIP films, Funicello famously wore a demure two-piece suit in these movies that befit her character.

After her four-year run at AIP, Funicello starred with the Monkees in Bob Rafelson’s trippy 1968 film “Head,” parodying the innocent, sweet-natured character she had played in the beach-party pics.

In 1987 Funicello and Avalon revisited their old stomping ground in “Back to the Beach.” The pair starred in and were credited as co-exec producers on the film, which drew some enthusiastic reviews.

Roger Ebert described the film as “a wicked satire that pokes fun at Frankie, Annette and the whole genre, but does it with a lot of good humor and with the full co-operation of the victims. Avalon and Funicello do a better job of satirizing themselves than anyone else possibly could.”

She and Avalon appeared as themselves in the 1995 telepic “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes: The Annette Funicello Story,” based on the memoir she co-authored with Patricia Romanowski. (Other actresses portrayed Funicello at earlier ages in the film.)

Funicello made a guest appearance on an episode of “The All New Mickey Mouse Club” in 1990.

In the early 1990s, Funicello appeared on “Good Morning America,” “20/20,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Entertainment Tonight,” among other shows. She made her last screen appearance in a 1996 episode of “Biography” dedicated to her life.

Annette Joanne Funicello was born in Utica, N.Y., on Oct. 22, 1942 and moved with her parents to Los Angeles when she was 4 years old.

She made her debut on “The Mickey Mouse Club” in 1955 after being discovered by Walt Disney at a dance recital in Burbank where she performed as the Swan Queen in “Swan Lake.” She was the only member of the “Mickey Mouse Club” cast selected by Disney himself.

As part of her “Mickey Mouse Club” activities, Funicello played supporting roles in the “Spin and Marty” serials and then starred in the comedic serial “Walt Disney Presents: Annette,” in which she appeared with her lifelong friend Shelley Fabares.

She made her film debut for Disney in 1959’s “The Shaggy Dog,” playing a romantic interest for lead Tommy Kirk, and starred with Ray Bolger and Tommy Sands in the studio’s 1961 bigscreen version of operetta “Babes in Toyland.”

Billed solely as Annette, Funicello released a number of albums for Disney and hit the top 10 with the Sherman brothers-penned “Tall Paul” in 1959 and with “O Dio Mio” in 1960.

The young actress appeared repeatedly on ABC’s “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.” She also recurred on “Make Room for Daddy” in 1959 as Gina Minelli and later guested on “Wagon Train,” “Burke’s Law,” “Love, American Style,” “Fantasy Island” and “The Love Boat.”

Funicello occasionally paired again with Avalon in front of the camera. She was a special guest star on four episodes of the brief series “Easy Does It… Starring Frankie Avalon” in 1976; an NBC comedy pilot called “Frankie and Annette: The Second Time Around” did not sell in 1978. And they cameo’d together in the 1989 film “Troop Beverly Hills.”

Funicello appeared in the Disney-produced NBC telepic “Lots of Luck” in 1985 and did her last TV acting turn in a 1986 episode of “Growing Pains.” She was named a Disney Legend in 1992.

Suffering from the most severe form of multiple sclerosis, Funicello eventually lost the ability to walk and, later, to talk. Her caretaker was her second husband, Glen Holt, who endorsed a controversial treatment for MS. A Canadian TV documentary depicted her debilitated state in October .

Funicello was first married to casting agent Jack Gilardi. They divorced in 1983.

In addition to Holt, Funicello is survived by three children from her marriage to Gilardi: sons Jack Gilardi Jr., a producer, and Jason Gilardi and daughter Gina Portman.

“She is no longer suffering anymore and is now dancing in heaven,” her children said in a joint statement.

Donations may be made to the Annette Funicello Research Fund, which she established in 1992 to fund research into the disease: AnnetteConnection.com.

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  1. Sheri Early says:

    A true beacon of light and an inspiration to everyone that has had or who is still fighting M.S. to include me.
    She fought with dignity and grace with a disease that created much pain and agony.
    My deepest sympathies go out to Annette’s family.

  2. For me personally, she was a true inspiration. When I’d have a bad day at school I’d go home to my Annette records and scrapbooks. I was constantly writing to local disc jockeys persuading them to play her music. I never missed anything related to Annette. I am now 65 and still devote a full page on facebook titled Annette and Teen Idols. She was everything to me. I did not cry when she died. I only would cry when I’d see disturbing images of her confined to a bed by the ravages of MS. I gave a sigh of relief when she died. She was finally free and it was a time to rejoice. I don’t see death as some people do, even though I would like to live a longer life as being healthy. I started working at the Veteran’s Administration in Long Beach 35 years ago and for at least 34 of those years I’ve had her images on my bulletin board. People used to ask “Why Annette?” but they don’t anymore.

  3. Dora Cantu says:

    Annette represented a clean cut all American girl that most girls of her time{ including me } wanted to be identified with and dreamed of being, even to this day. She was a beautiful role model as a teenager and woman of dignity and honor.God sent this special soul for a while to show us His goodness.She will be missed.

  4. Cathy says:

    I am deeply saddened by the loss of Ms. Funicello! I grew up watching her on The Mickey Mouse Club and all the Beach Movies! I know she fought MS for years and I had so hoped a CURE could have been found in time to help her! My condolences go out to her family!! May you RIP Annette!! You will never be forgotten!!

  5. Andrew says:

    She was a true star. I will miss her terribly. For some reason I have been watching the series Annette all weekend. She was on my mind.

  6. She was a beautiful, sweet, caring, loving actress who very much wanted her illness to be a help and find a cure for some one else. This debilitating disease took her live in more ways than one as well it took years from a loving caring husband. You will be missed Annette. God Bless her husband, strengthen and uplift him during his time of grief.

  7. We was a genuine person it always showed in everything she did. Nothing ever phoney about her. She was always beautiful inside and out. She has suffered so much I am truly grateful to have her with us but now I am happy she is with the Good Lord. God bless her soul and God bless her family,

  8. Charles says:

    As a child, I rarely missed a Mouse Club show – and Annette was the main draw. She was a vibrant symbol of innocence. Those days are long gone and I feel my life a bit diminished today.

  9. My deepest sympathy to Annette’s family. May she R.I.P.

  10. Dave says:

    I was a fan of her since the days of The Micky Mouse Club. She was a class act to the end.

  11. El paine says:

    When I was in the first grade at the then Henry Barnard brown school the whole Mickey Mouse club with jimmy Dodd came to our school I was made an honorary Mouseketeer personally by Annette. She was only 4 years older than I . She was very much loved & will be missed by millions!!!

  12. Julian E. (Jerry) Rosine says:

    She was a true professional and fought a courageous battle and won her way into all of our hearts

  13. King says:

    Mrs. Annette,

    My mother smiles ear to ear when she tells me of the joy, lessons she learned watching “the mickey mouse club.” Thank you for inspiring the woman, my Mom, who means the world to me.

  14. PJ says:

    She was a TREASURE. I never thought much of her until she lampooned her own image in “Back to the Beach.” From that moment I was in love. What a decent, good-natured lady. What a VITAMIN in humanity’s bloodstream!

  15. Kenmandu says:

    Sorry to say that for many Baby Boomers, losing Annette is like losing a part of your own childhood… Every young guy of a certain age had a crush on her….

  16. Dolores Lindholm says:

    Rest in peace

  17. Bill Thompson says:

    Every young boy in America, in the late 50’s and early 60’s, fell in love with Annette. I know I did. This is so sad to hear.

  18. Rick D says:

    A good woman who suffered way too much – Thank God she’s at peace.

  19. Dianna says:

    Loved her beach movies, sorry for her suffering when she should have been enjoying her golden years… R.I.P. Annette <3

  20. aggie04 says:

    You are giving the impression that MS is fatal, it is not. Some complications from MS can lead to infection or other things that can be fatal, but MS its self is not.

    • Cathy says:

      There are different types of MS and unfortunately some can be fatal! Annette had the kind that was fatal! I have lost one Aunt to MS and have another one fighting it!! I also have a sister with it and all though she is on a treatment plan this also causes other medical issues! Unfortunately Ms. Funicello had the worst kind of MS!!

  21. I grew up watching “The Beach Party” and “The Mickey Mouse Club”. I remember loving these shows and how much fun they had on the show. Annette and Frankie were perfect in these shows! RIP!!

  22. Joy Campbell McKenzie says:

    Such a beautiful soul…she will be missed.

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