Annette Funicello: A Princess Among Us

Cathy Health Guide
  • This article is part of an idea Vicki had (thank you, Vicki!) about profiling famous people with MS during MS Awareness Month:

     

    M-I-C (See you real soon!) K-E-Y (Why?  Because we like you!) M-O-U-S-E

     

    That was the theme song from The Mickey Mouse Club, a children’s television variety show produced by Walt Disney Productions that ran from 1955 – 1959. By the time I began watching it, it was being aired as re-runs on The Wonderful World of Disney.  The show featured a variety of youngsters in different sketches, from comedies to song and dance performances to discussions on various situations faced by youngsters of the day.  The cast always solved their situations by using good ol’ common sense.  Every time I watched the program I always wore my “Mouseketeer” hat, a tiny black cap with mouse ears attached that fit snugly on the crown of your head.  Each hat had the name of one of the Mouseketeers sewn across the front of it. My favorite Mouseketeer was Annette, so of course my hat said Annette. Annette was beautiful, bubbly and multi-talented. 

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    Annette Funicello was born in Utica, New York, but at age 4 her family moved to Burbank, California.  When she was 12 years old Walt Disney discovered her during a dance recital when she played the lead in Swan Lake, and hired her for The Mickey Mouse Club.  She was the only Mouseketeer personally hand-picked by Walt Disney.  She immediately became the most popular Mouseketeer.   After the show was cancelled, she continued to perform in other Disney TV serials such as Spin and Marty during the early 1960s. 

     

    The next time I remember seeing Annette was during the “Beach Party” movies (Beach Blanket Bingo, Bikini Beach, etc.) she starred in with singer/actor Frankie Avalon.  These movies featured Annette in increasingly revealing (in the beginning Mr. Disney insisted her navel not be revealed) bikinis to show off her now womanly body.  The storylines were typically lighthearted and always showcased the talents of Annette and Frankie.  They quickly became teen idols.  The success of their songs from these movies resulted in touring acts around the country.  They were a sensation.

     

    I don’t remember much else of Annette for a while, except as a television spokesperson for Skippy peanut butter. 

     

    Then in 1989, along with Frankie Avalon, Annette began to promote their new movie Back to the Beach.  I remember reading somewhere that she appeared unsteady during her appearances, and the media shamefully suggested that, perhaps, this was the result of alcoholism.  In 1992 Annette decided to quash the rumors of alcoholism by announcing she was suffering from Multiple Sclerosis, impairing her ability to walk.  I, like everyone else who knew Annette as America’s Sweetheart, was stunned by her announcement.  After that, each time I saw a glimpse of her on a news program or saw her photo in a newspaper, I witnessed a different looking Annette, yet recognizing the all-too-familiar look of what MS can do to someone.  Her MS was steadily worsening. She went from walking with a cane to using a wheelchair in what seemed to me to be a short period of time.  Through it all, she kept her radiant smile along with her grace and dignity.

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    In 1994 she wrote her autobiography, A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes: My Story (later made into a movie).  The title was taken from a song in Disney’s version of Cinderella. She spoke about her life during and after the Disney years and talked about her MS diagnosis.  She spoke of the amount of love that poured in from family, friends and fans and surrounded her with constant hope and support, reminding her that she was never alone. Some of her fellow Mouseketeers are her closest friends (Sharon Baird and Doreen Tracey) along with her dear friend, Frankie Avalon.  One of her best friends is actress Shelley Fabares (most noted for her performances on TV shows such as The Donna Reed Show and Coach, and three Elvis Presley films, as well as the wife of Mike Farrell who played BJ Hunnecutt on M*A*S*H).  These special friends are part of Annette’s inner circle of support, along with her husband and children.

     

    During MS Awareness month, it is important to know there are real-life princesses in our midst who carry the burden of MS with them with grace and dignity and strength of character. They are not princesses because they were born into royalty, nor are they princesses because they made a lot of money for a Hollywood studio.  They are princesses because while they are burdened with photographs and articles being written about them while battling a chronic illness, they also show the world that the face of MS carries strength, beauty, intelligence, and perseverance. For that, I will be forever grateful.

     

    Sources:

    Annette Funicello. (2012). Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia Foundation, Inc. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annette_Funicello.

     

Published On: March 26, 2012