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Q&A; WITH ANNETTE FUNICELLO : There’s That ‘Annette Sound’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

People who claim there’s no creativity in music packaging anymore might want to look at the new boxed set collecting some of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s recordings of pop icon Annette Funicello. One side of the booklet inside the box is cut in the shape of an hourglass figure, a.k.a. the one Funicello modestly showed off in a celebrated series of silly beach movies in her post-Mousketeer, pre-Skippy days.

Funicello, a still-youthful 50, claims that she never had “sex appeal.” A lot of the ex-boys of the period--like the kids in the movie “Stand by Me” who discuss her famous figure--would dispute that. In any case, she may have been the last truly innocent teen idol, or at least the last to consistently project the same wholesome appeal off-screen as well as on.

And that ingenuousness is well in place in the two CDs that make up Disney Records’ “Annette: A Musical Reunion With America’s Girl Next Door,” which collects such hard-to-find nifty little rock ‘n’ roll hit sides as “Tall Paul,” “Pineapple Princess,” “Italiannette” and “The Rock-a-Cha.”

Funicello’s go-go days have given way to the need for a walker because of multiple sclerosis, which she made public in July , 1992. She says she has bad days and good days. It was one of the latter, fortunately, when she sat down to reminisce--and talk about her recent “growing up"--in her memorabilia-filled living room the day before being presented with a star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame.

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Question: You recorded one song with the Beach Boys, “The Monkey’s Uncle,” which is on this collection. And you had at least one thing in common with them. . . .

Answer: The beach.

Q: Actually, I was thinking of the irony that neither you nor Brian Wilson, at least, really had a natural affinity for the beach.

A: No, I did not. You know why? I have naturally curly hair, and so the minute I go in the water, that’s the worst place for me. So for all the beach pictures, I wore a wig, and they used to spray it. There I was on the surfboard, every hair in place. And that just followed me throughout all the pictures. Even now, people will say, “How come your hair never moved?”

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Did you see our last picture, “Back to the Beach”? Well, you remember where Frankie (Avalon) is combing his hair on the surfboard? That’s a running gag.

Q: Your movie career is probably better remembered in the ‘90s than your music, because the films still show up but the records have been out of print. Did you ever imagine you’d see the day they’d release a CD boxed set of your old songs?

A: Never. This whole thing stems back to when I auditioned for Mr. Disney, when he said “I like your dancing very much, now can you sing a song?” And I said “Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t sing.” And that’s how I’ve always thought of myself over the years. But I was under exclusive contract, and you don’t ask questions. You just do what they’ve asked of you. . . . I was trained in dancing, but never in singing. So that’s kind of the running gag--Annette doesn’t sing, but she’s got a boxed set out and she’s also recorded 35 albums.

Q: Do you still not think of yourself as having developed into a singer? Didn’t you adjust to it?

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A: No. It’s something I never adjusted to. I wasn’t trained, and I probably should have taken singing lessons. But Mr. Disney said he liked the sound, that it was natural, and he felt probably that that was part of the appeal, because people thought they could sing every bit as well as I did. And I was like a kid next door. I was never better than anybody else.

Q: Your records could be seen as sort of paving the way for a lot of the girl-group records that flourished in the early and mid-'60s.

A: I don’t know if I paved the way or not, but I certainly had my own sound. There was that “Annette sound,” which was the double voice and lots of echo chambers. And then I noticed that female singers, especially, were utilizing my sound. So I know that something was right.

Q: In “Stand by Me,” there’s that prototypical scene where the preteen boys are talking about being in lust with you. Did it ever go to your head, being renowned then and now as the preeminent crush of the baby boom generation?

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A: No, not at all. To this day, ladies will come up to me and say “Here, will you sign this for my husband? He’s madly in love with you.” And I’ve said, “Aren’t you jealous?” They say “No, you were always my favorite too.” So I don’t pose a threat to anyone.

Because when I was a Mousketeer, young girls would pretend they were Annette and put on their own shows singing and dancing. . . . I never tried to steal anyone’s boyfriend from them. I was a friend with every girl, and they used to write and ask for tips on makeup and hair. . . . The songs the Sherman brothers wrote for me were something that girls could relate to, too. They would write to me and say, “If you can do it, I can do it. I have the same problem: I found a girl’s picture in my boyfriend’s wallet” or “I found a hairbrush in his car.” So we had a real kind of a mutual admiration going.

Q: That non-threatening appeal has been pretty rare as women with sex appeal go.

A: Yeah. I don’t think I ever really had sex appeal. I just had a friendly face. And the girls, I guess, figured that they could sing and dance as well as I could, and they probably could. And to the guys, I was like a pal, and they had a crush on me. I don’t know, I’m trying to figure it out, why I was singled out from all the other Mousketeers. And my folks and I have never been able to come up with a solution. We don’t know. . . .

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Q: When you were first deciding to go public about your MS, was it of your own volition, or were you worried about the press coming out with it before you did?

A: I had wanted to go public for a long time because I was tired of lying. And then I saw very strange-looking men in suits and ties walking on this cul-de-sac. And they would go to my neighbors’ homes and say, “Do you know anything about Annette? Is she not feeling well?” And my neighbors didn’t know; I didn’t say anything. So it was like, uh-oh, I’ve got to beat these guys to the punch. And then one day my phone rang and I picked it up, and it was someone from a tabloid who’d gotten my number. That was really the catalyst on getting going with this whole thing. . . .

You know, I was always, always on the defensive. People would come to my home to interview me, and I was so embarrassed to let them see me with a cane that usually I’d be sitting down and I’d have them brought in. It was awful. People were saying, “Oh, we saw Annette leaving a restaurant; was she drunk.” I have no more balance; my equilibrium is gone.

Q: It must have been quite a relief to stop keeping the secret.

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A: Oh, like so much was lifted from my shoulders. I was always in fear that somebody was gonna say, “ I know what you’ve got. It’s not tendinitis.” And people were getting to that point where they would give me the names of doctors and different treatments that helped their tendinitis. And when I’d see them again and they’d say, “Did you call that doctor?” and I would say, “No, I haven’t had the time,” it was like “Annette, why don’t you want to help yourself?”

I was having nightmares. If I had to go some place public, I wouldn’t sleep the night before, thinking that it’s a whole new set of people, what am I gonna tell them? It’s awful to live a lie. And now I feel fine. I can be me again. I don’t walk too well, but I’m not embarrassed, as I was before.

Even I look at people differently now, people in wheelchairs or with a cane. I used to feel sorry, but I don’t anymore. They’re tough people. . . . I know how people have treated me. I always thought, I don’t want pity . And I don’t give it to others, either, that are disabled. They’re fine. They’re still human beings. So it was a real growing-up process.

Q: You’ve really been back in the public eye--first with the MS news, and now, more happily, with the boxed set and the star on Hollywood Boulevard. Is that exciting at all for you?

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A: All of a sudden, yes, there is a big resurgence of it. The only thing that makes me sad is that Walt Disney can’t be here. I would have loved to have had him there at the Walk of Fame ceremony. And always. He was such a comfort to me. I know this is gonna sound so corny, but even when I was first diagnosed and didn’t really know what in the world multiple sclerosis was, I remember thinking, “I wish Mr. Disney was here, because he’d have a solution for this.” Isn’t that funny? That was one of my first thoughts. And I know he would’ve been very comforting: “Now, now, don’t worry, because we’ll find a solution to this.”

And I know they will one day soon. That’s what keeps me going. The more I read about it, the more optimistic I become. I know we’re getting this close to finding a cure. That’s why you don’t give up hope. You just take each day at a time. I try not to look at an overall picture of what might happen. I’m getting through today, and I feel good. And yesterday I couldn’t walk. Today I’m walking better. But it’s so unpredictable. And tomorrow I may not be able to walk, but my husband will be on one side and Mickey on the other, and I’ll make it. And I won’t have to explain why it’s a bad day.


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