Annette Funicello: Wholesome teen star who made her name on The Mickey Mouse Club

 

Maybe there are better things to be remembered for than the lyric, "Tall Paul is my love, Tall Paul is my dream, Tall Paul is the captain of the high-school football team", but its positive promotion of American teenage values was precisely what Annette Funicello's career was all about. She was the leading Mouseketeer in The Mickey Mouse Club; made wholesome pop records; starred in children's films; and then appeared in several beach party movies – though not at first in a bikini, as Walt Disney told her that that would be unseemly.

Annette Funicello was born into an Italian family living in upstate New York in 1942. She was singing almost as soon as she could speak, and in 1945 even knew "Accentuate the Positive", which became her lifelong motif.

The family moved to California in 1946 and lived in a trailer park while her father established himself working for a garage. The family then had homes in Studio City and Encino. Funicello loved ballet dancing and Walt Disney saw her in a children's production of Swan Lake. He thought that she would be perfect as a Mouseketeer in his new TV series, The Mickey Mouse Club, which began in October 1955.

The show was an immediate hit and the youngsters loved Funicello, despite the fact that most of the time she was wearing Mickey Mouse ears. She was singled out for special treatment: fans could buy Annette merchandise and she had her own TV serial. She was earning $200 a week from Disney while keeping up with her school studies.

In 1958 Funicello was summoned to Disney's office. She expected to be dismissed as she was growing too tall, but Disney had other plans and offered her a film contract. She starred in The Shaggy Dog (1959) with Fred MacMurray, the studio's first live-action comedy, and then as Mary Contrary in the musical Babes in Toyland (1961) with the teenage idol Tommy Sands. She also appeared in the TV series Zorro and Make Room for Daddy.

Disney was developing his own record label, Disneyland, later Buena Vista, and he asked the Sherman brothers, Richard and Robert, who later wrote Mary Poppins, to write for Funicello. She achieved a gold record with their novelty "Tall Paul" (1959), arranged and produced by big band veteran Tutti Camarata. He double-tracked her voice to make it sound stronger.

Another success from 1959, "First Name Initial", emphasised the fact that she was known by her first name. When she told Disney that she wanted a second name and that Annette Turner sounded good, Disney told her to stay with Funicello as it was distinctive.

Her parents would not allow her to date until she was 16, at which age she was regularly featured in the teen magazines, alongside Frankie Avalon and Fabian. At the time, her real love was Paul Anka, who wrote her first album, Annette Sings Anka (1960). It included "Train of Love", which became a UK hit for Alma Cogan. While visiting Funicello and her parents, Anka had the idea for "Puppy Love", which he wrote about their relationship, or at least her view of it. When Funicello told him of her love, he said, "Which of your scripts does that come from?"

Annette made the albums Hawaiiannette, which included another hit, "Pineapple Princess", and Italiannette, which included "O Dio Mio". Out of keeping with her wholesome image, this single was banned by the BBC for its religious references.

In 1963, Beach Party with Frankie Avalon was a huge success and led to several more beach-party pictures, including Muscle Beach Party (1964) and, getting more daring, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965). Also in 1965 she sang with the Beach Boys in The Monkey's Uncle. Her other films included Fireball 500 (1966) with Avalon and Fabian, Thunder Alley with Fabian (1967) and the psychedelic extravaganza Head (1968), which featured the Monkees.

In 1965, when she married her agent Jack Gilardi, Linus said in a Peanuts cartoon, "How depressing. Annette Funicello has grown up." She concentrated on raising a family and only occasionally accepted work.

After a divorce in 1981, she married a horse breeder, Glen Holt, in 1986. The following year she and Frankie Avalon starred in Back to the Beach, in which they had a son who had become a punk. She felt ill while making the film and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She did not go public as she was physically unsteady – and felt it might be taken as drunkenness.

Funicello later established a charity to help research into the disease – and although she became increasingly incapacitated, she remained positive throughout and wrote her autobiography, A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes, in 1994.

Annette Joanne Funicello, actress and singer: born Utica, New York 22 October 1942; married 1965 Jack Gilardi (divorced 1981, two sons, one daughter), 1986 Glen Holt; died Bakersfield, California 8 April 2013.

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