Annette FunicelloA Life Worth Remembering
At the age of 4, Annette’s parents relocated to California in the hopes that the move would help them improve their economic situation and provide themselves and their daughter with a better life. At first, they stayed at a trailer park in Studio City while her father looked for a job but later they settled in Encino.
Although her music and dance lessons helped to bring out hidden talents, her shyness remained a part of her nature throughout her career. In the end, her shyness would become an asset as it made her much more appealing to her audiences.
At the age of 12, Annette danced in an amateur production of Disney’s “Swan Lake” conducted by the Margie Rix School of Dance at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank, California. As fate would have it, Walt Disney was a part of the audience. He immediately took a liking to Annette and extended an invitation for her to try out for a new children’s variety show he was working on called The Mickey Mouse Club.
She was the 24th and final Mouseketeer to be chosen, handpicked by Disney himself, and appeared with her fellow Mouseketeers in the show’s premiere in October of 1955.
It wasn’t long before this precocious 13 year old became the star of the show, dazzling audiences with her beauty and charm. In just a few months, the fan mail began to pour in, with Annette receiving over 6,000 letters every single month. (The only celebrity to receive more mail from fans was Elizabeth Taylor.) As an attractive young teen, Annette also received gifts of watches and rings from boys across the country along with invitations for dates and parties.
The gifts were promptly returned by Disney staff members and date invitations courteously declined. The impression Annette made, however, was a clear indication of the fame to come.
A Star is Born
Rather than say goodbye and go their separate ways, Disney offered Annette a long-standing studio contract, making her the only Mouseketeer to receive such an offer. The reason for the contract was obvious: Walt Disney clearly recognized the talents that this fresh, young performer had to offer and wanted to play a major role in establishing her career.
She also starred in various Disney films to include The Shaggy Dog, Babes in Toyland, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones and The Monkey’s Uncle. The filming of these many TV shows and movies kept Annette busy for the next six years, from 1959 to 1965. Later, when asked which show or movie was her favorite, she didn’t hesitate in choosing Babes in Toyland.
Disney was captivated by the concept of beach movies that were entertaining, wholesome and fun. His one condition, however, was that Annette not wear beachwear that displayed her naval as he felt it was inappropriate for her image.
Upon his approval, “Beach Party” became the first of a series of wildly popular beach films that paired Annette with pop icon Frankie Avalon. At the time, Frankie had already established a musical career with such hits as “Ginger Bread,” “I’ll Wait for You” and “Venus.” He had also acted in various movies, giving him some experience in the industry.
The beach films, however, were a tremendous boost to his career. By combining surfing with girls in bikinis, pop music and romantic comedy, these films struck gold with teen audiences all over the country. The movies themselves cost very little to produce but collected a fortune in ticket sales which benefited the producers and actors alike.
The beach films gave her greater exposure and experience as an actress. Throughout the 1960’s, Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon were featured as beach picture icons, wooing the hearts of young fans across the country.
Twenty years later, in 1987, Annette and Frankie teamed up once again to portray parents of difficult teens in a movie from Paramount Pictures called “Back to the Beach.” Two years later, 1989, the pair organized a concert tour that took them across the country performing their famous beach hits from the 60’s.
Annette Funicello Death
Six months prior to her death, Annette’s husband had invited a Canadian film company to come to their home to document life with an MS patient. His intent was to give the public a realistic view of the devastating effects of the disease. It was Glen’s hope that, knowing the truth, people would be more encouraged to give towards MS research and development of a cure.
Annette and Glen’s openness toward the disease made a tremendous impact in reaching people with their message of support.
In a TV movie depicting her life, Annette commented how happy she was to hear that going public with her disease helped and strengthened others who were suffering as she was. “They’re not embarrassed to use their canes or to be in a wheelchair,” she said, “because if I can do it, they feel they can too.”
Her honesty and positive attitude gave hope to hundreds, if not thousands, of others in similar situations.
A Lasting Impression
Annette made a lasting impression on most everyone she met. The ‘girl next door’ image that she portrayed in the movies was every bit as real in her everyday life. Although the Mouseketeers went their separate ways after the show was cancelled, they remained friends and kept in touch as much as they could.
When asked about Annette and what she was “really like,” her fellow Mouseketeers had only good things to say.
“Annette’s squeaky-clean image wasn’t fake,” ex-Mouseketeer Tommy Cole told Closer Weekly. “She was a genuinely nice person” who cared about her fans, family and friends. When she was diagnosed with MS, Annette was concerned how her fans would react. She didn’t want her condition to come between her and those she loved.
MS may have taken Annette’s physical health, but it never dampened her spirit. She continued to exhibit a positive, sunny disposition, despite her difficulties and pain. Like anyone else, she had her good days and bad.
Her fighting spirit and caring heart, however, remained until the end. After she died, the Hollywood Museum honored her with an exhibition entitled “Annette: America’s Girl Next Door,” highlighting her remarkable career.
A Life Worth Living
In 1994, Annette’s autobiography — as dictated to celebrity biography author Patricia Romanowski — was released to the public. Annette entitled the book “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes: My Story” after a favored song from the Disney movie “Cinderella.” A year later, a television movie was produced based on her autobiography.
Towards the end of the movie, Annette (portrayed by actress Eva LaRue), sitting in a wheelchair, turns her back to the camera. When she swings back around, Annette Funicello appears in person to deliver one last message to her fans: “Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful.”
Over the space of 20 years, from her “discovery” as a young teen to the time of her first marriage, Annette Funicello established a professional career she could be proud of. She was an accomplished singer, actress and dancer whose collective works entertained audiences from all sectors of society.
She was loved and respected by fans, family and colleagues alike. Her hard work had earned her a net worth of approximately $15 million. But net worth alone wasn’t an indication of the legacy Annette Funicello left behind.
Annette’s achievements weren’t limited to her show business fame and fortune. She had a genuine desire to help others and make a positive contribution to society. Through talk shows and live speaking engagements, she lent her voice to promote charitable causes and raise awareness of MS and other diseases. With the help of her husband Glen, she raised thousands of dollars in financial support for worthy causes.
Throughout her personal life and show business career, Annette stayed close to those she loved. Walt Disney was one of those individuals. Annette looked upon Disney as a father figure saying “He was the dearest, kindest person and truly was like a second father to me.” Disney, in turn, accepted the role graciously, watching over her and making fatherly recommendations throughout her career.
(Note: As the sequels progressed, this dress code became less stringent). Despite being close, Annette respectfully referred to the entertainer as “Mr. Disney” throughout their relationship.
Upon her demise, Disney CEO Bob Iger summed up their relationship by saying, “Annette was and always will be a cherished member of the Disney family, synonymous with the word Mouseketeer, and a true Disney Legend.
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. All of us at Disney join with family, friends, and fans around the world in celebrating her extraordinary life.”
It was Annette’s innocence and charm that attracted the attention of the American public in the 50’s and 60’s era. From the very start, it was apparent that Annette Funicello was different than other teen stars. Walt Disney may have been the first to catch a glimpse of her talents in the dance recital of “Swan Lake,” but he certainly wasn’t the only one. Over the years, her fairy tale story would lead her to become one of America’s most cherished teen idols.
Annette personified what was good and right in American culture in her time. Despite her rise to fame and glory, she remained her down to earth, non-pretentious self throughout her career. Fame and fortune never changed who she was at heart which spoke volumes about her character.