Monday, May 15, 2017

I Still Miss Annette

Who’s the little lady who’s as dainty as a dream?
Who’s the one you can’t forget?
I’ll give you just three guesses
Annette, Annette, Annette

-- “Annette” (Jimmie Dodd)

It’s hard to explain my enduring affection for Annette Funicello. 

Typically the TV stars that have lingered longest and fondest in my memory are those I grew up watching, but that didn’t happen with Annette. The Mickey Mouse Club was canceled years before I was born, and her beach movies were released before I started kindergarten.

The first time I became aware of seeing her on television, she was the Skippy Peanut Butter lady. But even in those innocuous 30-second commercials something about her resonated with something in me. She seemed genuine, in a way that Madge the manicurist and Josephine the plumber did not. It wasn’t a crush – more of a recognition that this lady was probably a really nice person. 

That’s why I didn’t do a “Top TV Moments” piece here as I have for other actors I’ve admired. Sure, I could have talked about her appearances on Disney’s Zorro series and several guest spots as Italian exchange student Gina Minelli on Make Room for Daddy. She also reunited with Frankie Avalon on Love, American Style, played a young widow on The Love Boat and a ventriloquist on Fantasy Island.

But none of these roles were as memorable as when she was just being herself.

Thanks to the Disney Channel’s “Vault Disney” rebroadcasts of The Mickey Mouse Club I was able to watch, more than 30 years later, the series that launched her to ‘America’s sweetheart’ status. At the age of 15, Annette received 6,000 fan letters a month, more than any other Mouseketeer. Along with Lucy and Milton Berle, she was one of the first pop culture icons created by television. 

I admired all the Mouseketeers the more I watched them, and I understood why Annette became so popular. Cheryl Holdridge and Nancy Abbate were as pretty, Darlene Gillespie was a better singer and Sharon Baird was a better dancer. But Annette had a quality that drew your attention. 

Perhaps the best word for it is authenticity. There’s a famous quote about how the key to show business success is sincerity…”and once you can fake that you’ve got it made.” In the pre-internet, pre-TMZ world, it could take years for a public persona to evaporate, sometimes leaving a less-flattering picture of the real person behind.

This was never a concern with Annette Funicello. She didn’t try or claim to be more than what she was. Rather than bemoan the baggage that came with being an ex-child star, she expressed only gratitude for the opportunity, and spoke of Walt Disney with reverence for the rest of her life.

She also didn’t consider her association with a wholesome, mainstream brand to be a burden. Instead, she accepted a responsibility that came with that fame, most famously by acquiescing to Mr. Disney’s request that she wear a one-piece bathing suit in her beach movies with Frankie Avalon. 

Here’s the quote from 1987: "Mr. Disney said to me one day, Annette, I have a favor to ask of you. I know all the girls are wearing bikinis, but you have an image to uphold. I would appreciate it if you would wear a one-piece suit.”

She went on to say that she never regretted that decision.

Everything about this seems utterly foreign to our present culture – not just the modesty but the motivation behind it. Contrast that perspective with later generations of teen stars, who couldn’t run away fast enough from their Disney Channel fame to prove…something, I guess.

Maybe they were right. In today's entertainment industry it’s more important to be provocative than humble. Awards and record sales are the only measures for success. Kindness doesn't count for much.

Viewed objectively, Annette Funicello’s professional achievements are modest. But she never lost the heartfelt affection of the audience that grew up with her, and she never let them down. Read some of the comments on her YouTube videos. They’re incredibly touching. It would be hard to imagine someone leaving a similar sentiment 30 years from now on a Miley Cyrus video.

I wasn’t a part of that audience but somewhere along the way I began to share their devotion. She personifies the era before celebrity became a pulpit of entitlement. I never knew who Annette voted for in any election. I wish I could say that about more TV stars now.

There was an integrity in how she lived her life. And there was grace in how she accepted a medical diagnosis that no one deserves, much less someone who brought so much joy to others. Yes, I still miss her, but I know she’s feeling much better where she is now.

If you’d like to find out more about the Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases, you can do so here


  1. Raymond Arroyo acknowledged Annette's passing on the EWTN program "The World Over with Raymond Arroyo."

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