Annette Funicello, who became a child star as a cute-as-a-button Mouseketeer on “The Mickey Mouse Club” in the 1950s, then teamed up with Frankie Avalon on a string of ’60s fun-in-the-sun movies with names such as “Beach Party Bingo” and “Bikini Beach,” died Monday. She was 70.
She died at Mercy Southwest Hospital in Bakersfield, Calif., of complications from multiple sclerosis, the Walt Disney Co. said.
Funicello stunned fans and friends in 1992 with the announcement about her ailment. Yet she was cheerful and upbeat, grappling with the disease with a courage that contrasted with her lightweight teen image of old.
“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,” said Bob Iger, Disney chairman and CEO.
The pretty, dark-haired Funicello was just 13 when she gained fame on Walt Disney’s television kiddie “club,” an amalgam of stories, songs and dance routines that ran from 1955 to 1959. She appeared in mouse ears, a pleated skirt and a sweater emblazoned with her name.
Cast after Disney saw her at a dance recital, she soon began receiving 8,000 fan letters a month, 10 times more than any of the 23 other young performers.
Her devotion to Walt Disney remained throughout her life.
“He was the dearest, kindest person, and truly was like a second father to me,” she remarked. “He was a kid at heart.”
When “The Mickey Mouse Club” ended, Annette (as she was often billed) was the only club member to remain under contract to the studio. She appeared in such Disney movies as “Johnny Tremain,” “The Shaggy Dog,” “The Horsemasters,” “Babes in Toyland,” “The Misadventures of Merlin Jones” and “The Monkey’s Uncle.”
She also became a recording star, singing on 15 albums and hit singles such as “Tall Paul” and “Pineapple Princess.”
Outgrowing the kid roles by the early ’60s, Annette teamed with Avalon in a series of movies to exploit the burgeoning teen market, including “Muscle Beach Party,” “Bikini Beach,” “Beach Blanket Bingo,” “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” and “Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.”
She and Avalon staged a reunion in 1987 with “Back to the Beach.” It was during the filming that she noticed she had trouble walking — the first insidious sign of MS.
When it was finally diagnosed, she later recalled, “I knew nothing about [MS], and you are always afraid of the unknown. I plowed into books.”
Her symptoms were relatively mild at first, but gradually she lost control of her legs, and she feared people might think she was drunk. So she went public with her ordeal in 1992.
Funicello was born Oct. 22, 1942, in Utica, N.Y., and her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 4. She began taking dance lessons the following year and won a beauty contest at 9. Then came the discovery by Disney in 1955.
In 1965, Funicello married her agent, Jack Gilardi, and they had three children, Gina, Jack and Jason. The couple divorced 18 years later, and in 1986 she married Glen Holt, a harness racehorse trainer. After her film career ended, she devoted herself to her family.