Mouseketeer and film star Annette Funicello dies

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Annette Funicello, who won America's heart as a 12-year-old in Mickey Mouse ears, captivated adolescent baby boomers in slightly spicy beach movies with Frankie Avalon and later championed people with multiple sclerosis, a disease she had for more than 25 years, died Monday in Bakersfield, Calif. She was 70.

Her death, from complications of the degenerative neurological disease, was announced on the Disney website.

As an adult, Ms. Funicello described herself as "the queen of teen," and millions around her age agreed. Young audiences appreciated her sweet, forthright appeal, and parents saw her as the perfect daughter.

She was the last of the 24 original Mouseketeers chosen for "The Mickey Mouse Club," the immensely popular children's variety television show that began in 1955, when fewer than two-thirds of households had television sets. Walt Disney discovered her at a ballet performance.

Before long, she was getting more than 6,000 fan letters a week, and was known by just her first name in a manner that later defined celebrities like Cher, Madonna and Prince.

Sometimes called "America's girl next door," she nonetheless managed to be at the center of the action during rock 'n' roll's exuberant emergence. She was the youngest member of Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars tour, which included LaVern Baker, the Drifters, Bobby Rydell, the Coasters and Paul Anka. Mr. Anka, her boyfriend, wrote "Puppy Love" for her in her parents' living room.

At the height of her stardom, she said her ambition was to quit show business and have nine children.

With minor exceptions, like her famous commercials for Skippy peanut butter, Ms. Funicello did become a full-time homemaker after marrying at 22. One reason, she said, was her reluctance to take parts at odds with her squeaky-clean image. She had three children.

Her cheerfulness was legendary. Her response to learning she had multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease of the central nervous system, was to start a charity to find a cure.

Annette Joanne Funicello was born on Oct. 22, 1942, in Utica, N.Y., and as the first grandchild on either side of the family was indulged to the point of being, in her own words, a "spoiled brat."

In 1946, her parents decided to move to Southern California in the hope of doing better economically. They lived in a trailer park until her father, a mechanic, found work. They settled in Studio City and later moved to Encino.

Annette took dancing lessons, learned to play drums and did some modeling. Disney, who wanted amateurs and not professional child actors, discovered her when she danced in "Swan Lake" at a local recital.

"The Mickey Mouse Club" was instantly popular, generating orders for 24,000 mouse-eared beanies a day. Annette quickly became the most popular Mouseketeer, and Disney marketed everything from Annette lunchboxes and dolls to mystery novels about her fictionalized adventures.

But she did not receive special treatment. When she lost a pair of felt mouse ears, she was charged $55. It was deducted from her $185 weekly paycheck.

As "The Mickey Mouse Club" was ending its run in 1958, Disney offered her a studio contract -- the only one given to a Mouseketeer.

Her first movie role was in "The Shaggy Dog," Disney's first live-action comedy. Then came three TV episodes of "Zorro." She also pursued a recording career, and had two Top 10 singles: "Tall Paul" in 1959 and "O Dio Mio" in 1960.

She and her family continued living as they had, with her father working five days a week at a gasoline station and everyone pitching in to do housework. She was not allowed to date until she was 16.

Ms. Funicello had crushes on her fellow singers Fabian Forte and Mr. Avalon but fell hard for Mr. Anka. But their careers were increasingly busy, and time together was scant. When Ms. Funicello finally told Ms. Anka that she really cared for him, he replied, "What script did you get that from?"

Her records continued, including the albums "Hawaiiannette," "Italiannette" and "Dance Annette." Movie parts included "Babes in Toyland," in which she sang "I Can't Do the Sum."

When Disney told her he had been approached by American International Pictures about her making a beach movie, he thought it sounded like "good clean fun," but asked her not to expose her navel. She readily agreed.

She and Mr. Avalon ultimately starred in six beach movies, beginning with "Beach Party" in 1963.

On Jan. 9, 1965, Ms. Funicello married her agent, Jack Gilardi.

She made a few films in the middle and late 1960s, including "Fireball" and "Thunder Alley," but her attention was focused on her children, Gina, Jack Jr. and Jason Michael. During the 1970s and early 1980s, she appeared occasionally on TV but was known principally for commercials, including her memorable issuance of the Skippy peanut butter challenge: Which has more protein? (Bologna and fish were not the correct answers.)

In 1981, Ms. Funicello divorced Mr. Gilardi. In 1986, she married Glen Holt, a horse breeder. Mr. Holt, who cared for Ms. Funicello in her later years, survives her, along with her three children, four stepchildren, 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Ms. Funicello learned she had multiple sclerosis in 1987 but kept her condition secret for five years. She announced the illness after becoming concerned that the unsteadiness that resulted from the disease would be misinterpreted as drunkenness.

She set up the Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases and underwent brain surgery in 1999 in an attempt to control tremors caused by her disease.

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First Published April 8, 2013 6:00 PM


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