As Disney's 1950s "Miley Cyrus," iconic Annette "Annette" Funicello's charisma set her apart on the Walt Disney television children's variety series, The Mickey Mouse Club, and drove her to a successful singing and film career. Overnight, fifty years ago, the No. 1 Mouseketeer became America's sweetheart and, later,…more
Of all the songs Annette recorded, her 1960's release "Pineapple Princess" featured on the album titled Hawaiiannette, was her favorite.
With an introduction by Walt Disney, Annette was showcased in a 1962 segment of "Disneyland After Dark," an April 15, 1962 installment of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. After a dance with fellow former-Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess, Annette sang "Dance, Annette." The episode focused less on Disneyland itself and more on the celebrity musical entertainment featured at the different sections of the park to also include teen heart-throb Bobby Rydell, The Osmond Brothers (a.k.a. The Osmonds), and Louis Armstrong.
The grown-up Mouseketeer and host of The Mickey Mouse Club, Jimmie Dodd, wrote "Annette! Annette! Annette!" for Annette and performed the song on an episode of the program while Annette ballet-danced with fellow Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess. The lyrics to "Annette! Annette! Annette!" are as follows:
Who's the little lady who's as dainty as a dream? Who's the one you can't forget? I'll give you just three guesses: Annette! Annette! Annette! When she dances on her toes, She dances in your heart With her pretty pirouette. Each little move expresses: Annette! Annette! Annette! M' oui she's so magnifique` And her Father's pride and Mother's joy. There will come a day they'll give Annette away To the world's luckiest boy. Ask the birds and ask the bees and ask the stars above, Who's their favorite sweet brunette. You know each one confesses: Annette! Annette! Annette! (repeat last stanza)
At the start of her Mouseketeer career on The Mickey Mouse Club, Annette begged Walt Disney to send her to a psychologist to work on her self-confidence. He refused, saying, "I think your being a little bit shy is part of your appeal."
Annette's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was presented to her in 1994 for her contribution to the entertainment industry (specifically, motion pictures), and is located at 6834 Hollywood Boulevard. Actors Jeff Bridges, Charlie Sheen, Chevy Chase, James Coburn, Ben Johnson, and Raquel Welch also received stars that same year.
In 1964, Annette was nominated for a Golden Laurel Award (subsequently renamed the Producers Guild of America Award a.k.a. the PGA Award) in the Musical Performance: Female category for her work in Muscle Beach Party. While Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins) became the first place recipient, Ms. Funicello took home fifth. Other 1964 award winners in the same category were as follows: Debbie Reynolds (The Unsinkable Molly Brown), second place; Ann-Margaret (Viva Las Vegas), third place; and Connie Francis (Looking for Love), fourth place.
When Annette was married for the first time, the famed Peanuts comic strip depicted Snoopy lamenting, "I can't stand it! This is terrible! How depressing-- Annette Funicello has grown up!"
During the early 60s, beach movie costar and friend, Frankie Avalon, gave Annette a charm bracelet inscribed TO MY BABY DOLL, ANNETTE.
In November 1999, Annette underwent brain surgery to reduce the severity of the tremors she experienced due to the autoimmune condition (multiple sclerosis) she suffered from.
In 2002, Annette accepted the role of Ambassador for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's MS Challenge Walk event. She encouraged fans to form "Annie's Angels" Walk MS teams in her honor to help educate the public and heighten awareness about the problems and challenges of multiple sclerosis.
Annette's life story was both celebrated in her autobiography, A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes: My Story (Hyperion Press, 1995), with Patricia Romanowski and in the made for television movie, A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes: The Annette Funicello Story, which premiered on Lifetime Television in 1995. In the final scene of the film, the actress portraying Funicello, riding in a wheelchair, is turned away from the camera. In conclusion, turning back, it is Funicello herself, who delivers a message to a group of children.
In l989, Annette did a year-long concert tour to cheering crowds with Frankie Avalon, her long time friend and movie co-star.
Annette's youngest son, Jason Gilardi, is the former drummer for the alternative rock band Caroline's Spine (1994-2007), whose extensive touring schedule in the mid 1990s landed them a record deal with Hollywood Records, a record label owned by the Walt Disney Company. The band released several studio albums and shared billings with such bands as Aerosmith, Kiss, and Queensryche.
Annette was the first grandchild on either side of the family. In accordance with Italian tradition, the first baby is to be named after the father's same-sex parent. Annette's name should have been Congettina, but her parents chose to use a derivative taken from her grandfather's name, Anthony. Using the An sound, Joe and Virginia Funicello decided on the name Annette. Mrs. Funicello later joked that she knew the name Congenttina would never fit across a Mickey Mouse sweater without wrapping around the sides, so it had to be shorter.
After playing an extended cameo role as Davey Jones' romantic interest (Teresa a.k.a. Minnie) in The Monkees' unsuccessful film vehicle, Head (1968), Annette cut back on her professional appearances, preferring to spend time with her family.
Annette, a 20-episode serial created by Walt Disney for and starring Miss Funicello, during the third and final season of The Mickey Mouse Club (1958), gave a young Shelley Fabares one of her first roles, and she and Annette became lifelong friends.
Marie Osmond Dolls created "Baby Annette - 50th Anniversary," a Mickey Mouse Club commemorative 50th anniversary doll, limited to 300 pieces worldwide, dressed in likeness of Annette's original Mouseketeer costume (satin pleated skirt, white sweater top embroidered with the name "Baby Annette - 50th Anniversary" instead of "Annette," and Mickey Mouse ears). Later, Ms. Osmond made available the "Baby Annette Tiny Tot - 2006" and the "Baby Annette Holiday Tiny Tot - 2007," created and named after her dear friend and collectible colleague.
Annette was invited to join some of the original cast members of The Mickey Mouse Club (Mouseketeers Karen Pendleton, Mary Espinosa, Carl "Cubby" O'Brien, Don Grady, Bobby Burgess, Sharon Baird, Cheryl Holdridge, Sherry Alberoni, Tommy Cole, and Doreen Tracey) on October 2, 2005, at Disneyland's Plaza Gardens to help celebrate Disneyland's 50th Anniversary. Annette was unable to attend due to health issues, but her husband, Glen Holt, attended on her behalf.
In 1994, Walt Disney Records released a double CD retrospective, Annette: A Musical Reunion With America's Girl Next Door. That same year, her autobiography, A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes: My Story, written with Patricia Romanowski, was published by Disney's Hyperion Press.
In 1993, Annette, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, established the Annette Funicello Fund for Neurological Disorders at the California Community Foundation.
After keeping it a secret from her fans for five years, in July 1992, Annette publicly disclosed her ongoing battle with multiple sclerosis (a crippling disease of the central nervous system) as rumors were going about that she was an alcoholic due to her impaired carriage. Illness aside, Annette started two different businesses focusing on collectable bears and perfume. Her line of stuffed bears (The Annette Funicello Collectible Bear Company) has been particularly successful, and some of the retired designs now fetch high prices.
During her teen years, Annette's most prized possession was a white Ford Thunderbird automobile given to her as a high school graduation gift from her parents.
As a teenager, Annette listed hot fudge sundaes, football games and "the way Fabian sings 'Turn Me Loose'" among her favorite things, and declared she is "simply thrilled by the color violet, John Saxon (whom she's never met), and long distance phone calls."
At the age of sixteen, Annette became the first female teen idol rock and roll star. Billed simply as "Annette" on most of her records, Miss Funicello hit the Top 20 five times in 1959 and 1960, and continued to record constantly in the early 60s as she moved into film stardom in a variety of California beach-culture vehicles. With her thin voice double-tracked and reverberated to achieve the necessary volume, the material was largely saccharine pop clap-trap flavored with elements of rock and roll. Kitschy overtones of Italian and Hawaiian popular music also figured strongly, and she even took stabs at surf and ska (music genre that originated in Jamaica in the late 1950s, and which was a precursor to rocksteady and reggae). Although Walt Disney wanted Annette to pattern her voice after 50s pop singer Theresa Brewer, of whom Disney was a big fan of, Miss Funicello credits record producer Tutti Camarata with the creation of "The Annette Sound." Camarata's meticulous matching of her double-tracks afforded recordings with a fuller sound than Annette's voice would have otherwise produced. In the mid-60s, Miss Funicello retired from recording industry to raise her family.
Annette and Paul Anka were featured on the cover of the premiere issue of Dell's Hollywood Teen-agers magazine in 1959. The publication also included an exclusive article titled "Annette Funicello and Paul Anka: Are We Too Young for Love?"
Annette was voted American Bandstand's Most Promising New Female Vocalist in 1958.
The song "Puppy Love" was written by Paul Anka for Annette while they were dating in 1959. In return, Annette wrote and recorded "Tall Paul." Annette's romance with Anka was a high spot of that year for Miss Funicello, as well as for her teen following. Paul found Annette "glamorous... the kind of girl you want to marry." In 1960, he followed up with his Annette-inspired, self-composed "Talk to Me Baby.".
Annette was offen accused of being talentless and a constant recipient of Walt Disney's favoritism as a cast member of the 1950s children's variety series, The Mickey Mouse Club.
Walt Disney attended all of Annette's auditions, something that no other Mouseketeer has recounted as happening with them. Much has been made of her being the "twenty-fourth and last Mouseketeer cast", blithely ignoring that there were twenty-eight kids hired for the first season.
At age nine, Annette entered and won a beauty contest at Willow Lake Camp (Plumas County, California). The prizes included a free modeling course at the Lynn Terrell School. Annette soon became a paid professional model, working for stores all over the San Fernando Valley.
When Al Gilbert, Annette's dance instructor, mentioned to her mother that the part Walt Disney wanted Miss Funicello to audition for on The Mickey Mouse Club would be called a Mouseketeer, Annette's mother misunderstood. Thinking Gilbert had said "Musketeer," Mrs. Funicello couldn't imagine what Disney wanted with a twelve-year-old girl, and was initially quite adamant about the proposal.
A few years before Annette achieved overnight stardom on Walt Disney's children's series, The Mickey Mouse Club, a fortune-teller predicted to her parents that one day one of their children would be a famous entertainer, but they didn't believe a word of it.
As a result of her extreme shyness, Annette was very anxious when it came time for her to attend school. To counter her nervousness, she would constantly tap her fingers and toes during class. When Annette's kindergarten teacher suggested to her parents that Annette should take up a percussion instrument, she chose drums. Within a short time, Miss Funicello could execute drum rolls as well as older children who had been studying for years, and was also playing the xylophone and timpani.
As an adult, Annette with her dark brunette hair, porcelain complexion and oversized eyes, has on occasion been described as the perfect product of an artistic union of Botticelli and Walter Keene.
As a wife and mother, Annette became the spokesperson for both Skippy peanut butter and Mennen baby products.
After an eight month courtship, twenty-two year old Annette married her agent, Jack Gilardi on January 9, 1965. The two had first met on the set of Walt Disney's Babes in Toyland in which fourteen year old Annette starred opposite Tommy Sands. She and Jack have three children together: Gina born in 1966; Jack born in 1970; and Jason born in 1974. In 1981, the Gilardis divorced. Annette married her second husband and race horse breeder, Glen Holt, in 1986.
During her years as a Mouseketeer on Walt Disney's The Mickey Mouse Club, Annette's on-screen and off-screen personalities were the same. Disney was always protective of her image, that of the absolute embodiment of the 1950s girl-next-door ideal, and several years later, it was he who persuaded Annette not to wear a bikini in the beach movies she starred in, but to opt for a modest one-piece instead. As her roles in the beach films continued, Annette changed to two-piece swimwear, but followed Disney's advice and chose bikinis that did not expose her belly button.
As a teen cast member of Walt Disney's The Mickey Mouse Club, Annette had a crush on Guy Williams, the star of the program's serial, Zorro. On her sixteenth birthday, Disney presented her with a script and said, "Happy Sweet Sixteen, you're appearing in 'Zorro'!" Annette was so happy, she cried.
At the start of her career as a Mouseketeer on Walt Disney's The Mickey Mouse Club, Annette announced that she wanted to change her last name to Turner, because so many people were mispronouncing Funicello (Disney insisted that she pronounce Funicello in the Italian way: "Funi-chello." Annette's family went by "Funi-sello," thinking it sounded more American.) Walt Disney convinced her otherwise saying, "You have a beautiful Italian name, and once people learn to pronounce it, they will never forget it. I promise you."
Annette and fellow cast member, Darlene Gillespie, shared a fierce rivalry with each other when they were Mouseketeers on The Mickey Mouse Club. Their competitiveness resulted in a good deal of friction between their two families, both on the Disney set, as well as off.
During her grade school years, Annette was academically slightly above-average.
Annette was the only Mouseketeer kept under contract by Walt Disney Studios when The Mickey Mouse Club came to an end.
Annette's favorite costume to wear when she was a Mouseketeer on The Mickey Mouse Club was the cowboy outfit she wore for the Talent Roundup every Friday. It is still preserved in the Walt Disney Archives.
At age five, Annette began dance lessons. Her specialty was toe tapping. Her legs and feet became so strong from ballet that she could dance en pointe with taps on the toes of her ballet shoes.
Annette's mother, who had never owned a doll when she was young, nicknamed her Dolly, which is what her father always called her.
During her nine year-contract under Disney, Annette earned a quarter of a million dollars, twenty percent of which was invested by the studio in United States Savings Bonds and kept in a trust until her twenty-first birthday. This stipulation regarded the salaries of all the children who were cast as Mouseketeers on The Mickey Mouse Club.
In the tradition of "girl detectives" Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, a fictional Annette starred in a series of books in which she helped solve mysteries. They were originally published by Disney Press and Whitman Publishing Company in the early 60s, but recently (2008), the retro books are once again available. The complete selection includes the following titles: Walt Disney's Annette: Sierra Summer by Doris Schroeder and Adam Szwejkowski, Walt Disney's Annette and the Desert Inn Mystery, Walt Disney's Annette and the Mystery at Moonstone Bay, and Walt Disney's Annette and the Mystery at Smugglers' Cove, all penned by Doris Schroeder, and Walt Disney's Annette and the Mystery at Medicine Wheel written by Barlow Myers.
Lacking the talent for elaborate dance routines that the children on the first or Red team were chosen for to be Mousketeers on The Mickey Mouse Club, Annette was placed on the second or Blue team. After only one week of the show's airing, her fan mail response was so great that Annette was promoted to the Red team. Ironically, Annette, the least-talented first string Mouseketeer, quickly became the star of the show.
Joe and Virginia Funicello, Annette's parents, moved her and her two younger brothers, Joey and Mike, out of Utica, New York in 1947, settling in Studio City, California where Joe opened a filling station and garage.
Out of all the youngsters cast as Mouseketeers in The Mickey Mouse Club children's TV series, Annette was the only one to maintain a close relationship with Walt Disney, who guided her throughout her entire show business career.
After The Mickey Mouse Club, in which Annette starred as a Mouseketeer, became the number one children's show in America, her tremendous renown payed off in successful sales of Disney-licensed "Annette" merchandise including books, paper doll cut-outs, coloring books, and jewelry. From Miss Funicello's work in her own Mickey Mouse Club serial, Annette, another long-term product was introduced which led to the enhancement of her overall career: "Annette" records. Even Annette's little brother profited from her Mouseketeer success by selling his sister's phone number.
As a Mouseketeer on The Mickey Mouse Club (1955-1959), Annette received an average of four thousand fan letters a month, nearly one third of the total for the entire cast.
Annette was Walt Disney's major contribution to The Mickey Mouse Club. At the age of twelve, she performed the lead role in Swan Lake at the Burbank Starlight Bowl (Burbank, California). Little did Annette know Disney was sitting in the audience, scouting children for his new television show. The next day, her dance school received a call from the Disney Studio asking to see the little girl who played the Swan Queen and Annette was on her way to becoming the 24th Mouseketeer. Miss Funicello was the only Mouseketeer handpicked by Walt Disney to audition for The Mickey Mouse Club. Producers Bill Walsh and Hal Adelquist and host Jimmie Dodd had already looked at nearly three thousand children and selected twenty-three. Annette was hired mainly due to the boss' suggestion, as her talent potential was not considered that overwhelming.
Annette: (about the popularity of the Mouseketeers) But I truly believe that a large part of our appeal derived from the fact that children could watch us every afternoon on television and say to themselves, "I could sing as well as Annette, or I bet I could dance just like her." We were all very good at what we did, but we were not significantly better than many other children.
Annette: (years after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis) Even sitting in my wheelchair, life does not have to be perfect to be wonderful.
Annette: I really shouldn't put down my singing career because I am appreciative of everything that came my way.
Annette: When the stories about my MS [multiple sclerosis] came out, everyone gave me their love and their prayers. I'm human, and sometimes I can't help but ask, 'Why Me?' But I believe everything happens for a reason, and I know now that my mission is to help others raise funds for MS. The more I read about MS, the more encouraged I am. When I wake up in the morning, I like to imagine this is the day I'm going to hear about an MS cure on the news.
Annette: (un-apologetically about the wholesome image her characters played in the beach movies she starred in) My big line was always, 'Not without a ring you don't' [and] I believed what I was saying wholeheartedly.
Annette: My life was exactly what fans saw and read about.
Annette: I think the teens of today know so much more than we did, they have to grow up so fast. You can't remain childlike anymore. You can't look at the world with wonder in your eyes.
Annette: When the stories about my MS [multiple sclerosis] came out, everyone gave me their love and their prayers. I'm human, and sometimes I can't help but ask, 'Why Me?' But I believe everything happens for a reason, and I know now that my mission is to help others raise funds for MS. The more I read about MS, the more encouraged I am. When I wake up in the morning, I like to imagine, this is the day I'm going to hear about an MS cure on the news.
Annette: (about Walt Disney, during her Mouseketeer days on 'The Mickey Mouse Club') I remember the man who asked us to call him "Uncle Walt," which I could never do. He was too much of a second father to me.
Annette: (recalling Walt Disney's response to her instantaneous success on 'The Mickey Mouse Club' and to her fan mail ballooning to 6,000 letters a month) I was about thirteen and the fan mail started coming in and he said to me, 'Do you have lots of Italian relatives?' No, why? I replied. 'The amount of mail for you is incredible!'
Annette: I won't get serious [about boys] for ages and ages-- not until I'm 19 or 20!
Annette: (about growing up in the 50s) To have been a child then was to feel part of a fantastic age of promise and wonder, and to take for granted a future of optimism and security. It may be hard to imagine now, but we actually looked forward to the day when the atom would become the source of infinite clean energy. After all, we'd need it to power our futuristic monorail transit systems and those routine trips to outer space we'd be taking on our way to or from the era's most enduring monument: the local shopping mall.
Annette: (referring to her self-titled serial on 'The Mickey Mouse Club') The serial started my singing career quite by accident. I was doing the series playing a little country farm girl, and sang a song called "How Will I Know My Love," on a hayride. It was suppose to be humorous. After the show aired, I remember Walt Disney came to me one day and said, "We've got to put this out on a single. We're getting fan letters like crazy, kids want to buy it." And I said, "I don't sing." He said, "Well, I'm signing you to a recording contract, young lady. You're singing." I said, "Yes, sir," and that's what started my singing career. It was so unexpected.
Annette: (about Walt Disney, her boss while a cast member of the mid-50s and early 60s children's television series, 'The Mickey Mouse Club') I worshiped Mr. Disney. I loved everything he stood for. I could see his love for children. I found him very shy. If there was a member of the crew who said "damn" or "hell," he was gone the next day. He was so protective of us kids.
Annette: The Mickey Mouse Club was the happiest time of my life. I know people think this is goody-goody. They say, "Annette, you're sugar-coating it. It couldn't have been that good." But, it really was the happiest days of my life.