Annette Funicello, America’s sweetheart, dies at 70
Published Monday, April 8, 2013 1:26PM EDT
Last Updated Monday, April 8, 2013 10:00PM EDT
Annette Funicello, a child-star-turned-teen-idol who became an icon to scores of TV-watching Baby Boomers only to battle a debilitating illness later in life, has died at age 70.
The long-time Disney and Beach Party star passed away Monday at Mercy Southwest Hospital in Bakersfield, CA, from complications due to Multiple Sclerosis.
Funicello’s rise to fame began at age 13 as a fresh-faced entertainer on Disney’s “The Mickey Mouse Club.”
Discovered by Walt Disney himself at a dance recital, Funicello set herself apart from her co-stars on the up-and-coming show with her dark hair, energetic attitude and warm smile.
She became the most popular Mouseketeer, receiving 8,000 fan letters a month as pre-teens and teens tuned in to see her sing and dance. The show had a four-year run, ending in 1959.
In the 1960s, Funicello parlayed her wholesome image into a series of beach movies, including “Beach Blanket Bingo,” “Muscle Beach Party” and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.”
Frankie Avalon, who starred alongside Funicello in the light-hearted but somewhat hokey musical teen flicks, said when they were working together Funicello never realized to what degree she was beloved by scores of teens, both male and female.
“She would say, ‘Really?’ She was so bashful about it. She was an amazing girl.”
He told The Associated Press Funicello’s death felt like losing a family member.
After the Mickey Mouse Club ended, Funicello continued to work with the company that catapulted her to stardom. She appeared in several Disney movies including, “Johnny Tremain,” “The Horsemasters,” and “Babes in Toyland.”
Funicello’s star continued to burn bright when she turned to a recording career – she sang on 15 albums.
Paul Anka, who dated Funicello and worked on her singing career, said Funicello’s wholesome image wasn’t manufactured by movie studios or TV networks.
“Not a malicious thing (was) ever said about her,” he said in an interview with CNN Monday.
Anka, whose 1960 hit “Puppy Love” was about his relationship with Funicello, described his former flame as sweet and intelligent. He said she “had great integrity for her career.”
Funicello became a star when TV and pop music was just beginning to appeal to the teen mass market, Anka said.
“All of a sudden you had this cute-looking, lovely person with a great soul that emerged, and stepped out from everyone,” Anka said. “Her loveable personality, and her sincerity, people just gravitated to it.”
At the time that they were dating, Disney was not pleased that Anka and Funicello were getting serious, “and probably rightfully so,” Anka said.
In 1965, Funicello went on to marry Anka’s agent, Jack Gilardi. They had three children: Gina, Jack and Jason. They divorced 18 years later, and Funicello married Glen Holt, a harness racehorse trainer.
As Funicello became a young adult, she remained in control of her image, turning down grittier adult roles.
"People are more interested in changing my image than I am," she said in an interview.
Scripts were sent to her, and "I read the first 10 pages and I'm a prostitute or a doper, and I fold them up and send them back."
But Funicello continued to work in television and film, reuniting with Avalon in the 1987 movie “Back to the Beach."
Actor Lori Loughlin, who played the onscreen couple’s daughter, told the AP Funicello was truly the embodiment of the friendly, all-American girl that we all loved to watch in the Beach movies.”
In 1992, Funicello announced that she had multiple sclerosis, and spoke about the disease in her 1994 autobiography “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.”
She also appeared in a 1995 television docudrama based on her book.
Funicello faced MS with courage, saying she learned to live with the disease.
“My equilibrium is no more; it’s just progressively getting worse,” she said. “But I thank God I just didn’t wake up one morning and not be able to walk.”
But the devastating effects of MS slowly took their toll, and eventually rendered Funicello immobile and unable to speak.
In the last few months of her life, her husband Holt was promoting a foundation Funicello had established for MS research and other brain diseases, hoping to fulfill her wish to find a cause and cure for the crippling disease.
Funicello was born Oct. 22, 1942 in Utica, N.Y. After her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 4, the young girl began taking dance lessons. She won a beauty contest at age 9, before finding fame with Disney.
In a statement, her children expressed sorrow over her loss, but said she has been released from her pain.
“She is no longer suffering anymore and is now dancing in heaven.”
With files from CTV’s medical specialist Avis Favaro and The Associated Press