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For baby
boomers, the news of Annette Funicello’s death hits hard. Millions of us came
home from school every day to watch The
Mickey Mouse Club
, and she was one of the most popular Mouseketeers. She
could sing and dance, just like the other kids, but Walt Disney saw something
special in her and took her under his wing. It was her girl-next-door
simplicity that appealed to him—and as so often happened, his taste anticipated
that of the general public. The fact that she developed earlier than some of
the other girls gave her a particular appeal to growing boys—but girls liked her, too. Years later, Annette  confessed
that she thought of changing her name, which people had trouble pronouncing,
but “Mr. Disney” thought it had a musical lilt and told her to be proud of it. (This
was no small matter in the 1950s, when ethnicity was almost unheard-of on
national television—except for Ricky Ricardo.) No matter: to most fans she was
simply “Annette,” which was also the name of a daily serial that ran on The Mickey Mouse Club.

When a song
Annette casually crooned in an episode of her serial brought an unexpected
amount of fan mail, the company’s record producer,  Jimmy Johnson, paid attention and started
crafting singles, and then albums, for the teenager, who characteristically
never thought she had much of a voice. But with careful handling,
multi-tracking and other gimmicks—along with songs tailor-made for her by the
Sherman Brothers—she became a chart-topper. During a Dick Clark-sponsored tour,
Paul Anka fell in love with her and wrote two hits of his own that were
inspired by her: “Puppy Love” and “Put Your Head on My Shoulder.”

After the
demise of The Mickey Mouse Club, Walt
Disney kept Annette under contract, featuring her in such feature films as The Shaggy Dog, Babes in Toyland, and The Monkey’s Uncle, for which she sang
the title tune alongside The Beach Boys. It took a lot of persuasion for
American-International Pictures’ Sam Arkoff to talk Walt into letting Annette appear opposite
Frankie Avalon in the Beach Party movies—in a somewhat demure two-piece bathing
suit (Walt vetoed a bikini). This turned out to be a smart move. Those low-budget pictures further
extended Annette’s popularity as the ultimate all-American girl with the dark
good looks and Italian name. It also led to her final appearance onscreen, in
the 1987 nostalgiathon called Back to the
, which presented her and Frankie Avalon as the parents of teenage kids.

As multiple sclerosis intruded on her life and made her a recluse, Annette’s close friends
from the Mickey Mouse Club remained loyal, and protective of her. When I hosted
and co-produced a DVD set for the Walt
Disney Treasures
series, longtime pals Shelley Fabares and Sharon Baird
were only too happy to come on-camera to talk about her. So was songwriter
Richard Sherman, who experienced one of his first major hits when Annette sang
“Tall Paul.”

touched millions of lives because, like the other Mouseketeers, she seemed
“just like one of us.” It’s been heartbreaking to know that she has suffered so
long, but encouraging to learn that the devotion of her husband and good
friends kept her spirits up, as best they could.

Now it’s time
to say goodbye to a girl whose modesty and charm made her a household name.
We’ll never forget her.


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