The Final Days of Funicello

Annette Funicello (1942-2013) would have been 80 years old today if not for her sad, early death a decade ago. Teenage stardom and early retirement due to illness means that she’ll forever be associated with youth culture; we’ll never know what a Granny Annette, or to coin a term, a “Grannette” would have been like in the movies.

Raised in Southern California, Funicello first came to fame as the star of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club starting in 1956. Easily the most popular and significant Mouseketeer, she not only participated in the show’s usual segments but was cast in the serials presented on the show, such as “Spin and Marty” and her own starring segment called “Annette”. She guest starred in four episodes of the Disney produced show Zorro, and had a role in the movie The Shaggy Dog with Fred MacMurray, both in 1959. A role in the film Babes in Toyland (1961) ended her Disney period. She was now 19.

Meanwhile, Funicello had become a pop star, singing on several hit singles written by the likes of the Sherman Brothers (also associated with Disney) and Paul Anka. This led to the second phase of her career, the series of popular AIP produced beach party musicals with Frankie Avalon and others, which we wrote about here. This period lasted from 1963 to 1967, if we include the last couple of pictures, which were about car racing rather than surfing. A role in the Monkees movie Head (1968) ended this period of her career. Having married in 1965, she concentrated on family for about a decade or so.

In the mid 70s Funicello benefitted from the ’50s nostalgia craze I wrote about here. This is when I first became aware of her. In the wake of Happy Days and Sha Na Na etc, old episodes of The Mickey Mouse Club began to air in syndicated reruns. Gilda Radner played her in a sketch on Saturday Night Live. She and Avalon reunited on his TV show Easy Does It (1976) and in the movies Frankie and Annette: The Second Time Around (1978) and Back to the Beach (1987). She made the rounds of variety and talk shows as she had in the early days. She and Avalon were even on Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

In 1987 Funicello was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and this period of public resurgence began to taper off as she increasingly lost motor control. Her descent took a quarter century, and gradually she lost the inability to walk, to speak, and finally to breathe. She was very much involved in raising awareness of the illness during these years, however. There is video of her during her last years available online, but I must warn you: it is disturbing and sad to watch. Personally I found it more distressing than inspirational so I won’t be responsible for linking you to it. I’m not usually this squeamish, but…the woman defined vitality, you know? To see her otherwise is an ominous harbinger of what awaits even the most hale among us. Fortunately, we all have a handy time machine in our living rooms. We don’t call it “escapism” for nothing.

For more on show business history, including TV variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.