The most popular of the original Mickey Mouse Club ensemble of child Mouseketeers on ABC in the 1950s, Annette Funicello, died today of complications from multiple sclerosis. She and her husband had been living on their ranch in Shafter, near Bakersfield, since her home in Encino burned down in 2011. She died at Mercy Southwest Hospital in Bakersfield. Funicello was 70.
Funicello was discovered by Walt Disney while a 12-year-old performing the lead role in "Swan Lake" at her dance school's recital at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank. A few months later, in October 1955, the Mickey Mouse Club went on the air and became an after-school ritual for American baby boomers. Original shows were only produced for three years, but "Annette" became the teenaged It Girl of the era. Funicello was the first of Disney's Mousketeers to cross over into a career beyond the afternoon show, as a teen-oriented singer whose name came to be on 19 albums, and as an actress beginning with "The Shaggy Dog." She became most popular with film audiences as "Dee Dee" in the the mid-1960s series of musical Beach movies with fellow teen idol Frankie Avalon: "Beach Party," "Muscle Beach Party," "Bikini Beach," "Pajama Party," "Beach Blanket Bingo," and "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini." You could make a case that Funicello and Avalon, born before the baby boom, were among the last icons of 1950s popular culture before the 1960s set in and made them seem uncool. Funicello went on to make numerous TV and film appearances. Her 1994 autobiography, "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes: My Story," was the basis for a TV movie the following year.
Disney chairman Bob Iger said today in a statement from the company:
Annette was and always will be a cherished member of the Disney family, synonymous with the word Mousketeer, and a true Disney Legend. She will forever hold a place in our hearts as one of Walt Disney's brightest stars, delighting an entire generation of baby boomers with her jubilant personality and endless talent. Annette was well known for being as beautiful inside as she was on the outside, and she faced her physical challenges with dignity, bravery and grace. All of us at Disney join with family, friends, and fans around the world in celebrating her extraordinary life.
She established the Annette Funicello Fund for Neurological Diseases at the California Community Foundation in 1993, shortly after she announced her MS diagnosis. Last year, Canada's CTV was given extraordinary access to Funicello's home for a report on the ravages of MS. She had long lost the ability to walk, talk or take care of herself. Glen Holt, Funicello's husband, was her main caretaker. Recommended: Watch the CTV story
Above video, Funicello introduces a Mousekartoon segment on the Mickey Mouse Club. Below: Funicello sings "Blame it on the Boss Nova." Photos via Bakersfield Californian.