Why? Because We Liked Her

This past week the Boomer Generation lost another icon of our youth: Annette Funicello (October 22, 1942 – April 8, 2013). Born in 1942, Annette wasn’t a boomer herself, but her presence on TV in the 1950s and ’60s was synonymous with wholesome entertainment for baby boomers.

Most boomers became familiar with Annette on The Mickey Mouse Club show. No last name was needed once we saw her name on the back of her Mouseketeer shirt. Walt Disney personally selected Annette to be a Mouseketeer for the show after seeing her perform in a dance recital in 1955. Annette was just twelve years old when her TV career began. She participated in sketches and song and dance routines along with the other Mouseketeers, and acted in serials created for the show. After the first season, Annette was clearly the most popular Mouseketeer with baby boomers — she was getting 6,000 fan letters a month.

While acting a scene in Annette (1958), a serial named for her, she sang “How Will I Know My Love.” The song prompted so much mail that Disney signed her to a recording contract and released the song as a single. Annette was uncomfortable singing, but Disney persuaded her to continue to record. She had a number of hits in the late 1950s and early ’60s, including “O Dio Mio,” “Tall Paul” and “Pineapple Princess” on Disney’s Buena Vista record label. When Paul Anka’s “Train of Love” was presented to Annette as a possible new single, Anka, himself a teen, was smitten with the Mouseketeer. It is said an overprotective Disney kept the two apart, which resulted in Anka penning his hit, “Puppy Love.”

After leaving Mouse Club, Annette was still under contract with Disney. He got her roles in several Disney shows of the day, including Zorro (1957) with Guy Williams and a recurring role as exchange student Gina on Danny Thomas’ Make Room for Daddy (1957). She went on to star in several Disney films, including The Shaggy Dog (1959), Babes in Toyland (1961) and The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964).

In the early sixties she starred in a series of musical comedy “beach movies” with Frankie Avalon that became a genre in and of themselves. With titles of Beach Party (1963), Bikini Beach (1964), Muscle Beach Party (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), among others, teen moviegoers — baby boomers — could expect loads of sun, sand, singing and teen love drama. Disney wasn’t happy when he heard she was going to star in Beach Party. Reminding her of the wholesome image he had cultivated for her, he requested she not show her navel in a movie where all the other girls would be wearing bikinis. Annette had said Disney was like a second father to her, and credited him with her success, so she complied with his request. Throughout the “beach” series Annette kept her swimwear the most modest of any girl in the cast.

In 1965 Annette married Jack Gilardi, whom she had met through Disney’s association with Paul Anka. Gilardi was Anka’s agent. The couple had three children together before divorcing in 1983. She married Glen Holt three years later, the man who would remain her spouse for the rest of her life. Annette became known to a younger generation as the spokesperson for Skippy peanut butter in the eighties.

Annette was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1987, but didn’t publicly announce it until 1992. She established the Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Disorders in 1993. Her husband, Glen, became her caregiver when she became unable to walk in 2004 and subsequently lost the ability to speak in 2009.

Mister Boomer remembers watching The Mickey Mouse Club with Annette, but didn’t really give her much thought until he saw her in the beach movies. Annette’s modest swimwear wasn’t very appealing to a pre-teen boomer like Mister B, but the rest of the bikini-clad girls could really sway a young boy’s imagination. Mister B and the neighborhood boys were hooked and saw several of the beach movies. Mister B’s favorites of the genre were Muscle Beach Party and Beach Blanket Bingo, but not because of Annette’s singing and acting. He thought it was hilarious that big stars like Don Rickles and Buster Keaton would appear in such movies, trying to appeal to a younger audience. Mister B eventually saw all of the movies on TV, viewing them as the mindless, wholesome fun which they were intended to be.

Nonetheless, Mister B cannot deny the role Annette Funicello played in the hearts and minds of the Boomer Generation. Now may be the time to say good-bye, but we’ll never forget.

Do you have fond memories of Annette Funicello, boomers?