I was a star-struck 9-year-old when I saw Annette Funicello in person.
Funicello, Frankie Avalon, Morey Amsterdam and Jody McCrea were promoting American International Pictures’ sun-and-surf musical comedy “Muscle Beach Party” and had stopped by a parking structure at the Hillsdale shopping center in San Mateo, Calif., as part of their whirlwind publicity tour.
Hundreds of teenagers, kids and their parents screamed as Funicello appeared wearing a full-length mink coat that the press said was given to her by her mentor, Walt Disney. She sweetly and shyly smiled at the crowd and thanked them for coming. Funicello was joined by the rest of the cast, who encouraged everyone to see the movie. Someone threw out their pictures to the throng.
Within minutes, they were whisked away; fans ran after the limo as it pulled out of the parking lot.
Some 23 years later, I told Funicello and Avalon this story in a hotel room in Santa Monica where they were doing interviews for their 1987 reunion movie “Back to the Beach.” They laughed about the story and their experiences making those musical comedies.
That same year, Funicello began her long, painful struggle with multiple sclerosis.
Her death Monday has hit baby boomers like myself hard because we grew up watching Funicello as the wholesome, sweet Mouseketeer on Walt Disney’s “The Mickey Mouse Club,” which aired weekdays on ABC.
She was the Britney and Miley of her day.
With her short, curly dark hair and olive complexion, Funicello didn’t look like any of the blond, blue-eyed child stars of the era. Boys loved Funicello because of her curves. Girls wanted to be like her.
Besides singing and dancing on the series, she appeared in several of the show’s serials, including the second and third installments of “Spin and Marty,” before getting her own show, “Annette.” Her singing career took off when she performed “How Do I Know My Love” on one of the episodes.
Richard and Robert Sherman of “Mary Poppins” fame wrote several songs for her, including “Tall Paul” and “Pineapple Princess.”
Funicello appeared in Disney’s ABC series “Zorro,” on “The Wonderful World of Color” presentations “The Horsemasters” and “Escapade in Florence,” and in such Disney feature comedies as ”The Shaggy Dog,” “The Misadventures of Merlin Jones” and “The Monkey’s Uncle.”
While still under contract to Disney, she went to AIP in 1963 to do “Beach Party” with Avalon, which was followed by “Muscle Beach Party,” “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.” She even appeared in the 1968 Monkees movie “Head.”
She announced in 1992 that she had multiple sclerosis and two years later published her autobiography, “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes: My Story.” CBS turned it into a TV movie in 1995, with Funicello playing herself at the present time and Eva LaRue portraying her from the age of 17 to 52.
I interviewed her again for that project. Funicello was already having a difficult time talking due to the disease and could only respond to questions via fax. I reread that piece this morning. Despite her illness, she remained the eternal optimist.
“My life has always been filled with happiness,” she told me.
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