Last Monday afternoon the news trickled across the internet. Annette Funicello, child star of television and movies, top 40 singer, All America’s sweetheart and most importantly of all, Mousketeer, passed away at the age of 70 in Bakersfield California. I was relaxing after doing my 50’s 60’s and Soul show on WUSC-FM and the post show high that I always enjoyed on Monday afternoons came crashing down. Not Annette, with her sweet innocent smile that lit up the TV screens of my childhood, not the Baby Boomer’s first Superstar; but alas she was gone!
For many of us Baby Boomers, especially those of the male persuasion, Annette was our first movie star infatuation. Beginning with the very first show on October 3, 1955, every afternoon, we were glued to the TV at 5:30 PM, Monday through Friday watching our local ABC affiliate enjoying Annette along with her pals; Bobby, Sharon, Lonnie, Tommy, Johnny (Crawford, who we already knew from “The Rifleman”), Dennis, Darlene, Cubby, Karen, Mike, Doreen and Don, cavort with Head Mousketeer Jimmie Dodd. Those were fun times full of energy, song and happiness. But Annette, with her shy smile, that when turned on somehow made the scary world of the cold war 50s a brighter, safer place, stood out from the rest. Annette was special!
I was 10 and she was 12, she was an “older woman,” but that didn’t matter. Along with millions of other pre-teen boys, I was smitten. The Mickey Mouse Club was required television for us. This worked well in my house because Mom needed us out from underfoot as she prepared the last touches of our evening meal, always served promptly at 6. So it was a happy time with my brother and I on the living room floor watching Annette. I must admit having a pre-teen “thing” for Darlene Gillespie but it was nothing like the affection I had for Annette.
Eventually, both Annette and I outgrew the Mickey Mouse Club and went our separate ways. I was discovering the wonder that was the girls in my class and she was going on to her acting career. Television shows like Zorro, Elfego Baca, and The Horsemasters were rolling out and I would always check in on my old flame. Annette also starred in Disney movies such as The Shaggy Dog, Babes in Toyland, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, and The Monkey's Uncle. I didn’t miss any of those. Around this time, Annette while uncomfortable with singing released several records most notably "Tall Paul," "O Dio Mio," and "Pineapple Princess." Annette also recorded "It's Really Love" a remake of a Paul Anka song. Paul dated Annette in the early 60s, but Disney was so overprotective of Annette that he wound up with a broken heart, resulting in his song "Puppy Love", which was inspired by his hopeless romantic crush on her. The words “And they called it puppy love, Oh I guess they'll never know, how a young heart really feels, and why I love her so” rang as true in our lives as they did in Paul’s.
About the time I was hitting the beaches of Florida with my classmates for Saturday parties, Annette was headed to the California beaches with Frankie Avalon. The "Beach Party" movies stretched across my high school and college years included Beach Party, Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, Pajama Party, Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. It was then that the whole world first saw Annette’s navel. Despite Walt Disney’s strong desire that Annette keep it covered in those movies, there it was in all its radiant glory. We never saw Barbara Eden’s navel in “I Dream of Jeannie” but we did see Annette’s. Could it be there was just a little “bad girl” in Annette? Well, maybe, but just a little. She was still our sweet ingénue.
Over the years we would get news about Annette’s life. We knew that her best friend was actress and singer Shelley Fabares. She and Shelley had been friends since they were in a catechism class together. Shelley was a bridesmaid at Annette’s wedding to Jack Gilardi in ’65. We were saddened to hear of Annette’s divorce in ’81, but glad that she found happiness again when she married Glenn Holt in ’86. We didn’t believe the rumors of alcoholism when they surfaced and were saddened to hear the problem was multiple sclerosis.
Annette lived a good life. Not a perfect life, but a good one. Now we can look back on hers and see ours, also not a perfect life but a good one. Thanks Annette, for being you! Oh MY!