Death of Disney’s original child star


Annette Funicello, actor, activist


By Douglas Martin


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 and later championed people with multiple sclerosis, a disease she had for more than 25 years, died on early this week in California. She was 70.

Ms. Funicello embodied youth, good cheer and beach parties for children of the ’50s and ’60s. Her death, from complications of the disease, was announced on the Disney Web site.

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 television show that began in 1955, when fewer than two-thirds of households had television sets. Walt Disney personally 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.

As a Mouseketeer, she received a steady stream of wristwatches, school rings and even engagement rings from young men, all of which she returned. She wrote in her 1994 autobiography, A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes, that irate mothers often wrote back to say ‘how hard Johnny or Tommy had worked to save the money for the gift and how dare I return it?’

She said that if she had charm (she undeniably had modesty), it was partly a result of her shyness. Mr Disney begged her to call him Uncle Walt, but she could manage only ‘Mr. Disney’. (She could handle Uncle Makeup and Aunt Hairdresser.)

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

With minor exceptions, like her commercials for Skippy peanut butter, Ms Funicello did become a 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.

There was no irony, only warm good feeling, in her oft-repeated remark about the world’s pre-eminent rodent: ‘Mickey is more than a mouse to me. I am honored to call him a friend.’

Annette Joanne Funicello was born on October 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.’ At age 2, she learned the words to every song on the hit parade, her favorite being ‘Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive’.

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….

Full obituary in The New York Times:

Obituary in The Guardian:

Obituary on NBC Nightly News:

Wikipedia on Annette Funicello: