Former Mouseketeer and beach-movie mainstay Annette Funicello died Monday at the age of 70 after 25 years of battling multiple sclerosis. Anyone born after 1970 might not appreciate Funicello’s pop cultural significance, but let’s just say that she did that whole Disney-to-adult-star transition long before Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justins Timberlake and Bieber, Selena Gomez, and Miley Cyrus.
Here, a few things you may not have known about the late legend:
Walt Disney himself discovered her at a dance-school recital in 1955. He’d instructed his minions about what he was looking for: “Go to a school and watch the kids at recess. Watch what happens to you. You’ll notice that you’re watching one kid. Not any of the other kids, but sooner or later your gaze will always go back to this one kid. That kid has star quality. That’s the kid we want to get in The Mickey Mouse Club.” He spotted exactly that when he saw 12-year-old Funicello appear in a selection from Swan Lake.
She began her recording career while still on The Mickey Mouse Club, despite her admitted lack of vocal prowess. During one of the show’s “serial” segments — basically mini-teen dramas — Annette played a country girl who comes to live with relatives in the city. One episode featured her singing a song called “How Will I Know My Love,” despite what she described as her “three-note range.” Thousands of fans wrote in asking how they could buy it on record, so Disney asked her to record it. Producer Tutti Camarata invented her “sound” when he found that her voice barely registered on the recording, so he added “an overlay of a second Annette voice,” creating a distinctive echo effect. She’d go on to hit the pop charts several times more throughout her career and release several albums, including Annette Sings Anka, Hawaiiannette, and Dance Annette.
Her first romance was an on-set one — with fellow Mouseketeer Lonnie Burr. The preteen lothario of The Mickey Mouse Club wasn’t the only boy on set who pined for Annette, but he was the only one who had the guts to put the moves on her. The two held hands on carpool trips to and from Disneyland appearances and shared a first kiss.
She had a weakness for cute boys. She crushed on Paul Anka (whom she’d later date), Elvis Presley, Tab Hunter, and Guy Williams (who played Disney’s Zorro) during her time on The Mickey Mouse Club. She even snuck over to the Zorro set to catch a glimpse of Williams despite strict orders to the contrary from Walt himself. Williams signed a photo of himself for her, and she slept with it every night until the frame cracked.
She became The Mickey Mouse Club’s breakout star because she got so much fan mail — 6,000 letters per week at her peak. TV networks put a lot of stock in letters as a gauge of popularity, and soon insisted that Annette get as much screen time as possible. “My son is six years old and has shown no noticeable desire for girls,” one mother wrote to her, “but he insists on seeing you daily.” Another fan said what many others were thinking: “Annette, in my book, you are beautiful. I dream of you every night.”
Hollywood.comcorrespondent Jennifer Keishin Armstrong wrote about The Mickey Mouse Club’s history and significance in her book Why? Because We Still Like You. She is also the author of Sexy Feminism and Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, a history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, due out in May. Visit her online at JenniferKArmstrong.com.
Follow Jennifer on Twitter @jmkarmstrong