Girl Culture: An Encyclopedia

Funicello, Annette. Child actor and recording artist Annette Funicello was a popular Disney television and movie actress in the 1950's and 1960's. Perhaps most famous for her first role as a Mouseketeer on the original Mickey Mouse Club television show, she is an iconic figure in 1950's entertainment. While Annette was adored by girls for her cute clothes and demure nature and admired by boys for her curvy figure and exotic eyes, her acting and singing abilities were panned by critics.

The daughter of first-generation Italian immigrants, Funicello was born in Utica, New York, on October 22, 1942. Seeking change, her parents relocated to Studio City, California, in 1946. It was in Southern California where Walt Disney discovered 12-year-olde Funicello dancing lead in a ballet performance of Swan Lake. Disney cast her as a Mouseketeer in the innovative children's ensemble television program The Mickey Mouse Club. The twenty-fourth and final Mouseketeer to be case, she was the only one hand-picked by Disney. Until Disney's death in 1966, he remained personally involved in the shaping of Funicello's career.

It has been said that Disney viewed television as a way to promote his other projects-like animated films and his theme park, Disneyland-Land, and thus he did not intend to make stars out of the Mouseketeers; no child was to be featured more than the others or was to be considered the star of the program. However, the dark-hair, blue-eyed Funicello quickly became the most popular Mouseketeer among viewers. Within months of the beginning of the first season, she had received more fan mail than anyone else at the studio. In response, Disney cared out more airtime for Funicello and began marketing her as the star of the show.

By the second season she was featured in an unprecedented three series of ongoing soap opera segments aired during The Mickey Mouse Club. Funicello's serial work included the very popular 'Spin and Marty,' a series of vignettes set at a dude ranch camp for boys. Funicello played a camper from a nearby girls' camp who captured the heart of both title characters. Her character also turned heads in the 'Annette' serial, in which she played a pretty orphan girl who moves from the country to the suburbs and struggles to fit in which facing jealousy and social class differences.

During an episode of 'Annette,' Funicello sang what would become her first Top 40 hit, 'How Will I Know My Love?' After thousands of fans called in asking where they could buy a recording of the song, Disney decided that Funicello would begin a recording career. She ws soon a regular on the ppop music television show American Bandstand, and she toured the country singing with 1950's pop idols Frankie Avalon, Bobby Darin, and Connie Francis.

When production stopped on original episodes of The Mickey Mouse Club in 1957, Funicello was the only Mouseketeer whose option was renewed by Disney. While her movie career was limited to a small role in the Shaggy Dog and a supporting role in Babes in Toyland, over the next three years she graced countless teen magazines, produced a steady stream of Top 40 hits, and was featured in several lines of Disney merchandise, including games, makeup kits, mystery novels, paper dolls and comic books. Gossip columns and magazines thrived off pictures and stories of Annette's love life and her picture-perfect romance with fellow teen crooner Paul Anka.

By 1963 Funicello's bubblegum pop recording career had fizzled and, then 21, she had outgrown the role of the teenage girl-next-door that had marked her Disney film and televisioni work. Disney kept her under contract but found a new, more grown-uip vehicle for Funicello. He loaned her out to American International Pictures, known for producing lowbrow horror films, which cast her as Dolores (later Dee Dee) in the Beach Party movie franchise. Over the next two years, Funicello starred opposite Frankie Avalon in four films (Avalon had only a cameo role in a fifth film) about the prudent Dolores and her amorous boyfriend Frankie, set against the freewheeling beach scene. The films followed a common formula in which Frankie view for romantic time alone with Dolores while she repeatedly rejects his advances, all the while wondering why he hasn't proposed yet. Each film features musical numbers by Avalon and Funicello. When American International Pictures neglected to released a soundtrack to the Beach Party films, Disney's Buena Vista record label released an album of Funicello singing songs from the movies.

By the time the final Beach Party film, How To Stuff a Wild Bikini, was released, Funicello was married to Jack Gilaardi (her first husband) and had had her first child. She retired from show business and spent the next few years as a housewife and mother. Except for an endorsement deal with Skippy peanut butter, she enjoyed a low profile.

In 1978 Dick Clark produced a failed television pilot that reunited a now grown-up Frankie and Dolores (now called Annette) billed as frankie & Annette franchise. The reunion film Back to the Beach was short in 1987 and featured the duo-now married with children-deciding to return to their beach ways. The movie was a campy spoof of their earlier films and capitalized on a wave of nostalgia then sweeping popular culture. At this time Avalon and Funicello also staged a successful comeback concert tour.

During the late 1980s Funicello experienced the first symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as the debilitating nervous system disease multiple sclerosis. In 1992, after false reports that a struggle with alcohol was responsible for her apparent physical difficulties, she was forced to publicly announce her illness. She went on to campaign for multiple sclerosis awareness. Funicello's autobiography, A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes: My Story, was published in 1994 and the next year it was turned into a made-for-television movie. Her health has continued to deteriorate and since the late 1990's she has rarely appeared in public.

In her youth Funicello reflected the 1950's standards of morality, beauty and sanitized fun. The height of her popularity came during the rise of a distinctive adolescent culture marked by a generation infatuated with rock n' roll and rebelling against the fashions and attitudes of their parents. In contrast, Funicello dressed and acted like a miniature adult. Through her role in the 1960's Beach Party films, Funicello may have represented a longing, in the midst of a changing social landscape, to cling to these values.

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