Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Annette Full of Jello: Hail and Farewell

It’s been a month since we learned of the death of Annette Funicello. At that moment, I suspect every Baby Boomer (like me) started feeling just a wee bit older. It’s hard convincing younger generations what a huge role the Mickey Mouse Club once played in our lives. Starting in 1955, we sat in front of our TVs five days a week, watching youngsters who were something like ourselves, but much more special. They sang, they danced, they wore caps with mouse ears and their names emblazoned across the front of their turtlenecks. On Mondays they had Fun With Music; on Tuesdays they welcomed guest stars; on Wednesdays they celebrated Anything Can Happen Day. Thursdays were devoted to the circus, and on Fridays there was a Talent Round-Up, through which civilians like us could theoretically be invited to dip our toes into the wonderful world of Disney, provided we had some ability worth celebrating.

Everyone I knew watched the show. You could even subscribe to a Mickey Mouse Club magazine, full of photos of your favorites. And we all had favorites. I remember my sister and me divvying up the regulars. She got Karen and Cubby and Doreen. I took Darlene and Bobby and (lucky me) Annette. We didn’t know back then what would become of all these junior celebrities. I hardly suspected that perky, pigtailed Darlene Gillespie would eventually go to prison, convicted of financial fraud. Or that Bobby, still squeaky-clean, would spend much of his adult life dancing on the Lawrence Welk Show. Or that Annette would emerge in her teen years as American’s sweetheart, the bouffant-haired and modestly-attired star of six American International Pictures beach-party flicks.   

 When I say the Mouseketeers were “something like ourselves,” I’m speaking on behalf of the WASPs among us. It wasn’t until the short-lived revival of the Mickey Mouse Club in the late 1970s that ethnic diversity started creeping into the Mouse’s formerly lily-white domain. What’s fascinating is that among all the peppy Caucasians on the original show, the standout from the beginning was the most visibly ethnic among them. With her big dark eyes and dark curly hair, Annette Funicello was the one Mouseketeer who didn’t look as though she’d come to Hollywood straight from the Farm Belt. Walt Disney personally picked her to join the merry band, and she rewarded him by winning everyone’s heart. Result: she was featured on the show to an extent that her castmates must have found slightly maddening. Check out the ballet number below in which the other kids take a backseat while overgrown Mouseketeer Jimmy Dodd, wearing a weird “French” mustache, sings of her charms, and Bobby pops up as her unacknowledged dance partner. I especially like the lyric about how “there will come a day when they give Annette away to the world’s luckiest boy.”
There were certainly boys in Annette’s future. When Annette reached Mousekepuberty, the males of my acquaintance certainly noticed. Suggestive parodies of her name began making the rounds. Although she somehow retained her dignity while romancing Frankie Avalon in the beach-party movies, she definitely did not lack for a coy sort of sex appeal.  

Still, she always remained as wholesome as peanut butter. In fact, beginning in 1979, when she was both wife and mother, she did a series of commercials for Skippy Peanut Butter, promoting the brand while making sandwiches in a mock-up kitchen. Then in 1992 came the news she’d been stricken by Multiple Sclerosis. From all accounts, she endured this cruel degenerative disease with the grace we’ve always expected of her. Why? Because we liked her.  


  1. she was an amazing lady... a lot of straight up class.

  2. I definitely, agree, Retro-Z!

  3. It's sort of a nauseating number -- but she is cute!

  4. Actually, Bobby is a much more graceful dancer, I discovered. But I remembered this number well, long before I saw it on YouTube.

  5. They syndicated reruns of The Mickey Mouse Club in the mid-to-late 70's - and I was thrilled to get to see it every afternoon after school. So, just about 20 years after the original run - the show hooked me! It was such a cool show - lots of singing and dancing and cartoon nonsense - and the Hardy Boys on this show were in black and white and didn't have helmets of feathered hair! And then there was Annette. If she wasn't my first crush, she had to be close to the front of the line. It was obvious that she was singled out and featured - and that was just fine by me. A couple of years after that one of the local channels did a "Beach Movie" week on the Late Show during the summer - and I discovered that my young crush had not only grown up - she'd grown up beautiful. (She'd also packed a lot of years into the two or so since my first viewing of her on the MMC.) Those AIP beach movies became some of my faves - and they still are. I also thought Ms. Funicello was wonderful in them - a girl next door type with a fairly sharp tongue and a lovely singing voice. I also enjoyed 1987's reunion movie - Back to the Beach - with Frankie and Annette back one last time for some more fun on the shore. It was a sad day when Ms. Funicello retired due to her illness. I hope there were some moments of fun and joy in those later years. RIP Annette Funicello.