In a summer where internal studio battles are exploding, talent agencies are attacking each other, gun violence is rampant in real life and on screen, football teams are spawning accused murderers, teen idols are out of control, and people don’t talk — they just text — it’s nice to reflect on this Sunday before Independence Day that there once was what, at least in retrospect, seemed to be a kinder, more innocent Hollywood. At least that was the feeling I got this week at two events celebrating two uniquely inspiring past stars, both very much off the radar of the industry that eats its young today. They are worth noting.
Many people today who worship the likes of the Kardashians may not know who Dolores Hart is. Or was. But in the late 1950s and early ’60s she was a genuine film star who gave Elvis Presley his first screen kiss in Loving You (1957) and again in King Creole (1958); searched for men in Where The Boys Are (1960); and co-starred opposite the likes of Montgomery Clift, Karl Malden, Anthony Quinn, Myrna Loy and many others until she suddenly gave it all up after attending the New York premiere of her last film (1963’s Come Fly With Me). She told the studio’s limo driver to drop her off at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, CT, and became a nun. That was exactly 50 years ago, and Mother Dolores, as she is now known, is still there and still doing great things with her life — even if it isn’t as the movie star she once was.
Mother Delores, now 74, has been in Los Angeles all week, and a few days ago I attended a reception thrown in her honor upon the publication of her autobiography, The Ear Of The Heart. It is the latest project to put the spotlight back on a remarkable life and story. In 2012, the HBO documentary God Is The Bigger Elvis, which also detailed her unusual journey “from Hollywood to Holy Vows”, earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Short and brought Mother Dolores back to the Oscar red carpet for the first time since 1961. By the way, she is still a voting member of the actors branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Sometimes she even wears a jacket with the AMPAS logo over her Habit — it was sent to her by one-time Academy president (and Come Fly With Me co-star) Karl Malden, who was also instrumental in re-instating her Academy membership in the early ’90s. The book is so compelling it could make a movie itself. Last week’s event, at which Mother Dolores and co-author Richard DeNeut read excerpts, drew some of her old Hollywood friends and co-stars like Tab Hunter and Earl Holliman, who both went on studio-set dates with her in the ’50s. Holliman told me they were getting very close to making out when she whispered in his ear, “Earl, I am in love with Jesus Christ”. He said there was not much he could do to match that kind of competition. Even then she seemed to know the path her life might take.
Meanwhile on Monday, Disney’s Bob Iger led a life celebration and dedication of Studio 1 to Disney legend Annette Funicello, who died at age 70 on April 8th after battling multiple sclerosis for over a quarter of a century. As he unveiled the new Annette Funicello Sound Stage, Iger confessed that “like many teenage boys, I was smitten with her”. Later, in introducing a short film about her, he elaborated on why this star from a more innocent era still has such a place in her fan’s hearts. “I did admit my first crush was Annette Funicello. She never knew that”, Iger told the packed Disney Studio Theatre. “Annette has been a special member of the Disney family ever since Walt Disney first saw her dancing Swan Lake right here at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank, California. Even onstage surrounded by a number of other dancers he obviously knew she was very special and personally chose her to be one of the original Mousketeers. She would soon become America’s sweetheart, and my sweetheart, a great star and a Disney legend”.
Indeed, with her role on the original Mickey Mouse Club show in the 50s through the Beach Party movies of the ’60s, Annette was probably responsible for being the first crush of millions of young men everywhere. Though she has been largely out of the spotlight in the past couple of decades due to the horrible disease that slowly overtook her, she clearly was never forgotten as the two-hour “celebration” demonstrated. Seven members of the original Mickey Mouse Club cast joined host Leonard Maltin onstage to share memories of the undeniable superstar of that show. Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess got laughs telling a story about how years later he was stopped for speeding, but when the cop realized who he was he said he would let him off if he told him what Annette was really like. He did and was spared a ticket.
Frankie Avalon and Dwayne Hickman told stories of the Beach Party years that actually stretched all the way to Paramount’s Back To The Beach in 1987, in which Frankie and Annette were re-united. That’s the film she was making when she first noticed symtons of MS. Avalon said it remains, along with the first Beach Party in ’63, their favorite. Then-Paramount studio head Frank Mancuso was among those in the audience celebrating a star everyone seemed to love. Oscar-winning composer Richard Sherman even took the stage to play a medley of her greatest pop hits like Tall Paul and Pineapple Princess which were written for a number of concept albums like Italianette and Hawaiianette. He said she even joked that when she finally married (ICM agent Jack Gilardi) and started having kids, the studio would probably want her to do Bassannette. (Incidentally, as she wrote in her autobiography A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes, it was Mickey Mouse, not her husband, who was the first one into the hospital room to see her after the birth of her child, Gina. That seems only right.)
The most poignant moment of the beautifully produced tribute was saved for the end, when all seven Mouseketeers again took to the stage a final time to sing their very famous goodbye song in Annette’s memory.
“M -I-C/See you real soon
K-E-Y /Why? Because we LIKE you
Indeed, we did.
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