Born in October
Who doesn’t remember Annette Funicello? She was the little 12 year old girl who was discovered by Walt Disney when she performed as the Swan Queen in the ballet Swan Lake and became one of the original “Mouseketeers”.
Annette Joanne Funicello was born on 22nd October, 1942. Utica, New York was her home until she moved with her family to the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. She was four. Naturally shy, she began dancing and took music lessons to try to overcome it. By 1955, as she approached her thirteenth birthday, she had been personally selected by Disney to become one of the “Mouseketeers” and by the end of the first season of The Mickey Mouse Club, she was receiving in excess of 6000 letters a month from her fans.
She remained under contract with Walt Disney for a while after The Mickey Mouse Club. As a 15 year old who had a crush on the TV character Zorro, whose picture she hugged to her chest each night as she drifted off to sleep, Disney, as a birthday surprise, asked her to guest appear on Zorro. Thrilled to bits, she celebrated her 16th birthday on the set and got to wield Zorro’s sword. Later, Zorro carved a ‘Z’ in the frosting of her birthday cake.
She starred in Disney’s films; The Shaggy Dog, Babes in Toyland, The misadventures of Merline Jones, and The Monkey’s Uncle in which she sang with the Beach Boys. Although she never considered herself to be a singer, she recorded a number of hits released by Disney’s “Buena Vista” label. Paul Anka became particularly interested in her and developed a crush on the young actress, singer but due to Disney’s over protectiveness of his young charge, he did not encourage Anka who was heartbroken. Inspired by his romantic crush, he wrote Puppy Love” which became a hit on its own merit.
Funicello became the lead actress in the American International Pictures with the Beach Party series starring Frankie Avalon. Beach Party (1963), Muscle Beach Party (1964), Bikini Beach (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965). Both became teen idols and were hugely popular. Annette later discovered one of her brothers was selling her phone number however, she remained under the roof of her parents until the day she wed Jack Gilardi in 1965. She was 23. They had 3 children together but the marriage wasn’t to survive; she and Gilardi divorced in 1981.
In 1986 Funicello married Glen Holt, a California harness racing horse breeder/trainer. In 1987, Annette re-teamed with Frankie Avalon and together they produced and starred as parents of a pair of troublesome teenagers in Paramount’s Back to the Beach. Nostalgic days they were when during 1989 and 1990, Avalon and Funicello staged a series of promotional concert tours wherein they performed all the old beach party music and hit singles they had made famous in the 1960s. They were promoting their film Back to the Beach but when Funicello began to complain of the balance difficulties and dizziness she had initially kept to herself, she was encouraged to seek medical advice. It was 1987 when Annette Funicello was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a condition of the central nervous system that interferes with nerve impulses within the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. She kept that ‘secret’ under wraps for five years and admitted she hadn’t wanted pity nor did she want to worry anybody.
It was 1992 when Funicello finally announced that she had been battling multiple sclerosis. In 1994 during an interview with Tom Snyder, she comforted a 17-year-old girl who had been diagnosed with the same disease. To assist in fundraising to fight neurological disorders, the actress founded the Annette Funicello Teddy Bear Company, which to this day still markets a line of collectible bears. She also developed her own perfume line, Cello so a share of its profits would also go to the Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Disorders, an organization founded by the actress in 1993.
Well known as being as kind on the inside as she was beautiful on the outside, Annette Funicello faced her challenges with grace, dignity and bravery. In her closing line in her very last film about her life, she turned to face her audience in the final scene and said, “Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful.”
She died on April 8, 2013, at age 70. She left behind her second husband Glen Holt and her three children from her first marriage.
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