"Where is everyone?" Annette Funicello stood against a balcony railing and surveyed a long, empty beach. She shook her head. "This is strange. Where are all the kids?"

With a nod toward Frankie Avalon, she said, "Boy, I can remember when it would have been body-to-body on a day like this."

Avalon was optimistic. "Give it a while--the beach will fill up. Kids are always going to come to the beach."

As much a part of the beach scene as surf 'n' sand, pop culture icons Funicello and Avalon come back to the screen on Friday in Paramount Pictures' "Back to the Beach."

It's reminiscent of the sandy series let loose in 1963 by American International Pictures' "Beach Party" (Orion Pictures, which now owns the rights to the AIP film library, was not involved in the film's production).

After "Beach Party's" surprise success, "Annette" and "Frankie"--as they've always been known to their fans--re-teamed for "Muscle Beach Party," "Bikini Beach," "Beach Blanket Bingo" and "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini." Stories typically went like this: A bunch of kids get together for fun on the beach but, there's trouble between the central characters. See, boy wants girl. But girl wants commitment.

Recalls Funicello: "My big line was always, 'Not without a ring you don't.' "

So they didn't. Instead, they sang (former teen crooner Avalon stayed on key; not so Funicello, who readily tabs her vocal abilities as "within the three-note range") and surfed (against process screens--the better to keep their perfect hair perfectly dry) and succeeded in inane attempts to make each other jealous.

The latest incarnation, which opens Friday, finds more of the same. With a slight variation. "This time," smiles Funicello, "I've got the ring."

Well, there's another difference: an updating of the boy-girl relationship.

As the story goes, former beach partyers Funicello and Avalon are old marrieds living in Ohio. He sells cars. She shops, and makes their punked-out son peanut butter sandwiches (and keeps the cupboard stocked with jars and jars of Skippy). Then comes a trip to California, and the discovery that their college-age daughter has a live-in boyfriend.

Romantic sparring between two generations of lovers follows. So does a multigenerational campy and climactic beach bash (in which Pee-wee Herman is joined by Funicello and Avalon for his rendition of "Surfin' Bird"). Not to mention a Funicello-Avalon walk down the beach, in which she deadpans to the camera, "Are we the corniest couple you've seen--or what?"

They're also good friends; Avalon is godfather to one of Funicello's kids. And on this particular day, the first of a three-week promotional tour, they're camped out at the Sheraton Miramar, just above Santa Monica beach. She's on a chair, her legs tucked beneath her. He's sprawled on the floor. It's their second interview of the day and already, said Avalon, he can guess what the most-asked question on this promo tour will be.

"It's going to be about nostalgia. We're going to be asked, 'Why is it happening?' That's what I've been asked--again and again--these past years."

These past years have found Avalon touring with fellow '50s teen idol comrades Fabian and Bobby Rydell.

The audience response ("We sold out a lot of venues," said Avalon) helped him to evaluate his feelings about the nostalgia boom.

Declared Avalon: "There's no stopping it. It's as if our society, our country, kind of forgot about a certain age group. Everybody was so involved in the 'let's make nothing but teen films' and 'let's just make records for teen listeners' philosophies that finally, when we went out there to perform, there was an audience that said, 'Hey--wait a second. We're not dead!' "

Added Funicello: "Maybe people want to reminisce about an easier, more peaceful time." To Avalon she mused, "Don't you find that kids today seem to want the kind of experiences we had when we were growing up--when everything was just a little simpler?"

Those days wouldn't have seen the unmarried stars of "Beach Party" sharing an apartment.

"You're right," said Avalon, who admits to having had some misgivings about the contemporized relationship in the new film. "What I finally liked about it--what took the heat off it for me--was the fact that he (the daughter's boyfriend) wants to marry her. That he has this sense of commitment."

"And," added Funicello, "it's all handled very delicately. That was important to me."

(Making no apologies for the wholesome image she projected on the screen, she added, "Back when we made those 'Beach Party' movies, and I said those lines about waiting for a ring, I was never being corny. I believed what I was saying wholeheartedly.")

Incredible as it may seem, the quintessential dream girl of her era--during her days at the Disney lot, she received more fan mail than Zorro and Mickey Mouse--is now 44. Avalon, whose career originated in Philadelphia, during the frantic rush to find teen idols, is 47. Both look smashing, as if they've somehow managed to elude time--at least 10 years' worth.

Through the years, Avalon's been much more visible than Funicello, who's returned to show business only sporadically.

"I consider myself semi-retired. I could have been--I probably should have been--forgotten. That can happen very quickly in this town," said Funicello.

Maybe, she modestly reasoned, her last name has had something to do with her survival.

"In the beginning," she explained, with a laugh, "I wanted to be Annette Turner. I really did. But Walt Disney said, 'You have a beautiful Italian name, and once people learn how to pronounce it they won't forget it.' "

It was Disney, of course, who gave Funicello mouse ears. Later, when a grown-up Funicello was approached about "Beach Party," she was still under contract to Disney. He had script approval--which is why Funicello never showed off her flashy figure ("chest-a-minute," joked Avalon) in a bikini. (She sticks to a modest suit in "Back to the Beach," as well. The reason: "I'm just a one-piece suit person." )

Today, Funicello's brother works in research at the Disney studio. "When I go to have lunch with him, he's the only one on the lot I know. And I used to know everyone," she said wistfully.

As for all the changes--some of them R-rated--that have happened at the Disney company, she said, "How do you think Mr. Disney would feel about them if he were still alive?"

For awhile, admitted Funicello, she actually thought Disney might one day return and confront some of those changes.

"I'd been told by someone at the studio that he was in deep freeze (through cryogenics) and would be coming back. I guess people at the studio knew how devastated I was (when he died). So, I waited for him. I really did. You bet I did."

Her wait ended when Disney's widow remarried. "That's when I knew that he wasn't going to return."

"Back to the Beach" is Funicello's first movie since "Head," the '68 film starring the Monkees and co-written by Jack Nicholson. But if Avalon has his way, he'll pull Funicello back into the limelight again. At least part time.

"I keep trying to talk her into doing a kind of musical revue with me. Something. We could put something special together," he enthused. (To this, Funicello groaned, "Summer fairs--he always wants me to do summer fairs!")

But Funicello is not so eager. "I hate to leave my husband. Did you know I'm a newlywed?" she asked, explaining that she married Bakersfield rancher-horse breeder Glen Holt a year ago May. (Her first marriage was to talent agent Jack Gilardi, father of her children.)

Avalon, the father of eight (he's been married for 25 years to the former Kay Deibel), has ridden out his share of career bumps--some of them caused by what he once branded, "that damn teen idol thing."

"You're right--there were times when I thought I never wanted to sing 'Venus' again," he said.

Some of his bitterness was due to allegations from music critics throughout the years that he was merely a "creation" of the idol-making era. (Like Fabian, Avalon's career was launched by Bob Marcucci, whose career inspired the movie "The Idolmaker.")

But, as Avalon pointed out, "You can only sell records because something in the grooves of that record makes it sell. That's the only reason. Well, back when we (he and Fabian) were on Chancellor Records that was a small label. And we became hits. And a lot of other record companies--big companies--they tried to sink a lot of money into their guys, guys who they wanted to launch as teen idols. And they didn't make it! And they had tremendous promotion. So there was more to our success that our having been 'created.' "

In recent years, when he hasn't been on the road touring, Avalon's been attempting to sell film projects--especially the beach reunion. (Avalon and Funicello are co-executive producers.)

"Everyone kept turning it down," said Avalon. "Then there was the time when we were asked to do a movie-of-the-week, with plans for a possible series to follow.

"But we wanted this to be done right. So, we decided to hold out for the movie."

As for how the filming of this beach movie differed from its antecedents, consider: The old ones were filmed in 15 days. (Recalled Avalon: "I'd go up to the producer and say, 'But the character wouldn't say this,' and he'd say, 'What character? Just say the line and get outta there, so we can do the next shot!' ") "Back to the Beach" filmed for 10 weeks--with almost two of those weeks devoted to night shooting.

One night, remembered Funicello, the weather got so cold that she and Avalon had to suck ice cubes to bring down the temperature of their breath, which would otherwise be captured by the cameras. "During rehearsals," she recalled, "I had on a full-length down bathrobe--and over that I had a full-length down coat and two blankets. When it came time to do the scene, in my bathing suit, I practically fought the wardrobe girl. I kept saying, 'But I can't take these things off. I can't."

"We're such method actors," quipped Avalon.

He was serious as he added: "I honestly don't know how this movie will do. Maybe we'll fall on our butts. But I've always had this gut instinct that there's still a tremendous audience for us. And I don't just mean adults. I think kids like Frankie and Annette, too. I think they like what we stand for--we've always been about romance.

"Who knows? With this movie, we've attempted to mix the old with the new. Maybe," he smiled hopefully, "we'll go from being nostalgia to current."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World