From 1955 to 1958, she made us smile as she enthusiastically yelled her name in a line-up with 23 fellow "Mouseketeers." Over the next few years she made us laugh as a shining star in Disney family movies such as Babes in Toyland and Shaggy Dog. In 1963 she intrigued us with her playful performances alongside Frankie Avalon in a string of successful "beach party" movies.

Today the lively brunette, whom everyone knows simply by her first name, Annette, is still entertaining the world--at least, those of us in the collectibles world.

As creator and founder of the Annette Funicello Collectible Bear Company, licensed by The L.L. Knickerbocker Company, Inc., the Hollywood-starlet-turned-entrepreneur still delights in the joy she is able to give to others through her work a successful line of collectible teddy bears which she launched in the early 1990s. But Annette's affinity for bears began years before--the day a stuffed teddy became her best friend.

Born in Utica, New York, Annette was whisked across the country when her father took a job in California. During the six-day journey, little Annette came down with a severe case of chicken pox. While her family went into a restaurant, Annette, with someone to keep her company, had to remain in the car. Hoping to soothe her discomfort, Annette's parents, Joe and Virginia, bought her a little brown bear which the youngster promptly named "Brownie."

"I loved him so much that I kept him for a very long time--so long that he ended up falling apart," remembers Annette. Years later, the memory of Brownie, along with recollections of the joy brought to her by the hundreds of teddy bears sent to her by adoring fans from around the world, set Annette on a new path to stardom.

A fan of the popular home shopping venue QVC--and intrigued by the wonderful dolls, they frequently displayed-Annette was struck by artistic inspiration: Why not design a line of collectible teddy bears?

In addition to pairing up with QVC, The Walt Disney Company, and L.L. Knickerbocker, Annette enlisted the help of some of the world's best teddy bear artists, including Lisa Applebeary, Barbara King, Carol Black, Joanne Mitchell, and Christy Firmage. But unlike many celebrities who simply endorse products, Annette plays an active role in the design of her bears. She works closely with the artists, offering her thoughts on every aspect from concept to creation.

"She definitely has her ideas," says Barbara King, who has designed more than 20 bears for Annette, including Guardian Angel, the first issue in the Angel Bear line. "She offers a lot of input. For example, she might say that she wants us to create a little girl bear who's jumping rope. I'll make a jump-rope bear. At that point, she might take a look at the bear and decide that she wants it to have ribbons in its hair or wear a specific color of dress. She really likes girl bears because you can do so many themes."

Barbara takes pride in knowing that her bears are marketed under Annette's name. "I have been so fortunate with this whole thing," says Barbara. "We did a QVC taping out at Annette's house. It was the most wonderful thing! She's just as lovely as people think she is. She is just a darling person and she loves doing this."

Artist Christy Firmage agrees. "It's a thrill to work with Annette," says Christy. "Each one of these bears means something special to her. I've seen her With them, and she actually has this connection with them--her eyes just light up when she looks at them. And I'm always so delighted with the names she chooses for my bears. She has a special touch when it comes to that."

The admiration is mutual. "I am lucky to work with designers who are also very committed artists," says Annette. "They are award winners, and each one has their own style and creative look. It's great to be able to have such a wide range in my collection. We go over and over each bear until everything is just right--the color, the face, the costume, and accessories--everything."

Annette says one of the most important elements in her bears is that they convey a sense of humor. "One of my favorite bears is called Bad Hair Day because we all have those days," she laughs.

Romance and sentiment are also parts of the line's charm. Bride and groom Virginia and Joe which Annette sweetly named for her parents -hold the trappings of love, while the necklaces that dangle from the furry necks of Amber and Austin proclaim their friendship.

Another aspect that is important to Annette is the accessibility of her bears, and she has been extremely successful in balancing the exclusivity of limited edition bears and the affordability of quality mohair and plush. "I like having small editions of some bears .... it makes them more valuable for serious collectors," explains Annette. "But my Angel Bears are large editions so that everyone can have a guardian angel bear to watch over them!"

Annette is particularly proud of the success of her Angel Bears. In 1992 she announced that she had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. The announcement brought forth an outpouring of good wishes from fans, which included guardian angel pins. Now each limited-edition teddy in the Angel Bear series comes with an angel pin to signify that a portion of the proceeds from its sale benefits the Annette Funicello Fund for Neurological Disorders.

"But I love all of my bears," insists their creator. "Each one has become a part of me. I can't say I have a real favorite, though the ones named for friends and family have special places in my heart."

Just as Annette--America's Sweetheart--will always have a special place in our hearts!



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