Pop culture icon Annette Funicello, who began her TV and movie career as a 13-year-old member of the original Mickey Mouse Club in the 1950s and grew into a movie star and singer and a teenage boy’s fantasy, died today at Mercy Southwest Hospital in Bakersfield. She was 70. The Walt Disney Company said she passed peacefully from complications due to multiple sclerosis, a disease she battled for over 25 years. Disney CEO Bob Iger commented: “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.”
According to Disney’s official obituary, Funicello was born October 22, 1942, in Utica, NY and was 4 years old when her family moved to Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. She was discovered by Walt Disney at age 13 while dancing the lead in Swan Lake at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank and he invited her to audition for his new children’s TV series called The Mickey Mouse Club. She was hired on the spot. The show debuted on October 3, 1955 and Annette soon became the most popular member of the group. The series ran for three original seasons and in reruns through the 1990s. Funicello was the only Mouseketeer to remain under contract to Disney and appeared on the TV shows Zorro (1957), The Nine Lives Of Elfego Baca (1958), and starred in the Disney feature films The Shaggy Dog (1959), Babes In Toyland (1961), The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones (1964), and The Monkey’s Uncle (1965).
In the early 1960s, Annette starred in a series of beach party movies with fellow teen idol Frankie Avalon, including Beach Party (1963), Muscle Beach Party (1964), Bikini Beach (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), and How To Stuff A Wild Bikini (1965). During this time, she recorded a series of hit top-40 pop singles, including “Tall Paul,” “First Name Initial,” “How Will I Know My Love,” and “Pineapple Princess.” Her string of successful record albums included such favorites as “Hawaiiannette” (1960), “Italiannette” (1960), and “Dance Annette” (1961). In 1987, Funicello again teamed up with Frankie Avalon to co-produce and star in Paramount’s Back To The Beach as parents of a pair of troublesome teenagers. In 1989 and 1990, Avalon and Funicello staged a nostalgic concert tour, performing the beach party music and pop hit singles they made famous in the 1960s.
In 1987, Funicello was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative neurological disease, and in 1992 went public with her illness. Later that year, she established The Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases. It is dedicated to funding research into the cause, treatment and cure of multiple sclerosis and other neurological diseases and continues to be an active charity. In the 1990s, Annette launched The Annette Funicello Teddy Bear Company, marketing a line of collectible bears on QVC, and developed her own perfume line, Cello, by Annette. In 1992, on her 50th birthday, she was named a Disney Legend. However, as she became more debilitated by MS, Annette retreated from public appearances in the late 1990s.
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