Baby Boomer icon Annette Funicello, the brunette favorite of the 1950s’ children’s TV show The Mickey Mouse Club who cemented her status as a pop-culture icon in the 1960s by teaming with Frankie Avalon in a popular series of beach-party movies, died Monday at Mercy Southwest Hospital in Bakersfield, California, where she and her husband, Glen Holt, had moved after a fire in 2011 gutted their Encino home. She was 70. Funicello was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1987 and became a spokeswoman for treatment of the chronic, debilitating disease of the central nervous system.
Funicello was a 12-year-old dance-school student when Walt Disney saw her performing the lead role in Swan Lake at the school’s year-end recital at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank in the spring of 1955. She joined a group of other young performers hired to become Mousketeers on the variety show for kids that debuted in October that year and rapidly became a daily late-afternoon ritual for millions of young Americans – especially boys, who were famously fixated on Annette’s early blooming.
When the show ended in 1958, she remained on contract and appeared in such other Disney shows as Spin and Marty and her own series, Annette. She would make her feature debut in 1959’s The Shaggy Dog, with Fred MacMurray, followed by Babes in Toyland, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, and The Monkey’s Uncle. Then, in 1963, her co-starring in Beach Party with Frankie Avalon begat Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, and Beach Blanket Bingo.
Bob Iger, Disney’s chairman and chief executive, said in a statement, “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.”