Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Beloved Disney protegé, teen star charmed America

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NEW YORK -- Annette Funicello, who became a child star as a cute-as-a-button Mouseketeer on The Mickey Mouse Club in the 1950s, then teamed up with Frankie Avalon on a string of '60s fun-in-the-sun movies with names like Beach Party Bingo and Bikini Beach, died Monday. She was 70.

She died in hospital of complications from multiple sclerosis, the Walt Disney Co. said.

"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," said Bob Iger, Disney chairman and CEO.

Funicello was just 13 when she gained fame on Walt Disney's TV kiddie "club," an amalgam of stories, songs and dance routines that ran from 1955 to 1959. She appeared in mouse ears and a sweater emblazoned with her name.

Cast after Disney saw her at a dance recital, she soon began receiving 8,000 fan letters a month, 10 times more than any of the 23 other young performers.

Her devotion to Walt Disney remained throughout her life.

"He was the dearest, kindest person, and truly was like a second father to me," she said. "He was a kid at heart."

When The Mickey Mouse Club ended, she was the only club member to remain under contract to the studio. She appeared in such Disney movies as The Shaggy Dog and Babes in Toyland.

She also became a recording star, singing on hit singles such as Tall Paul and Pineapple Princess.

Outgrowing the kid roles by the early '60s, Annette teamed with Avalon in a series of movies for American-International, the first film company to exploit the burgeoning teen market.

The filmmakers weren't aiming for art, and they didn't achieve it. As Halliwell's Film Guide says of Beach Party: "Quite tolerable in itself, it started an excruciating trend."

Funicello and Avalon took part in a red-carpet premiere for Beach Party at the Garrick Theatre in Winnipeg on Nov. 1, 1963. The premiere was a charity benefit in honour of ex-Winnipegger Lou Rusoff, the film's writer and producer, who died in June of that year.

The shift in teen tastes begun by the Beatles in 1964, and Funicello's first marriage the following year pretty much killed off the genre.

But she was somehow never forgotten though mostly out of the public eye for years. She and Avalon staged a reunion in 1987 with Back to the Beach. It was during the filming that she noticed she had trouble walking -- the first insidious sign of MS.

Her symptoms were relatively mild at first, but gradually she lost control of her legs, and she feared people might think she was drunk. So she went public with her ordeal in 1992.

She wrote of her triumphs and struggles in her 1994 autobiography, A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes. She spoke openly about the degenerative effects of MS.

"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. You learn to live with it."

Funicello was born Oct. 22, 1942, in Utica, N.Y., and her family moved to Los Angeles when she was four. She won a beauty contest at nine. Then came the discovery by Disney in 1955.

In 1965, Funicello married her agent, Jack Gilardi, and they had three children, Gina, Jack and Jason. The couple divorced 18 years later; in 1986 she married Glen Holt, a harness racehorse trainer. After her film career ended, she devoted herself to her family.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 9, 2013 c3

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