I learned on Monday, April 8, that Annette Funicello and Margaret Thatcher passed away. Thatcher was 87 years old when she passed and Funicello was 70. Both were suffering with chronic illnesses. Thatcher had dementia for many years which was a central theme of the movie Iron Lady starring Meryl Streep as Thatcher. Funicello was stricken with multiple sclerosis. Margaret Thatcher is certainly a luminary worth writing about but this is about Annette Funicello who was born on October 22, 1942 in Utica, NY. She died on April 8 in Los Angeles.
Annette Funicello was eleven years older than me. I was born in the 1950s. We were, supposedly, the first TV generation. The Mickey Mouse Club, which debuted on October 3, 1955 when I was just two and she was 13. I am not sure we even had a TV at that time. But, I do remember growing up watching the first manifestation of the Mickey Mouse Club which ran to 1959. I remember, at the age of six, not understanding why they stopped the show. I felt like I was a Mouseketeers and was devastated when the show stopped. To show you the power of the show, I thought the Musketeers of Dumas, when I first learned of them, were ripping off the Mouseketeers!
I enjoyed the Mickey Mouse club. My favorite was Jimmie Dodd (1910-1964). At 42, he was the oldest Mouseketeer. He was the emcee and ringleader of the show. I thought he was the show and it revolved around him. I came to understood, even at that young age, that Annette was the Disney darling of the show.
In the April 9, 2013, LA Times:
If you were a girl in the 1950s, Annette Funicello was ideal of feminine goodness, your fantasy best friend forever. If you were a boy, she was your dream date, demure, doe-eyed and just different enough to set hearts pounding.
The LA Times noted that she one of the original Mouseketeers and "most adored." Unlike, what seemed like the rest of the country who were her devoted fans, I was rather ambivalent to the perky actress. Why? I have a few theories.
First, I believe that Annette took away from the more fun stuff the Mouseketeers did. Things slowed down when she was the center of attention. I felt the same was about Darla of the Little Rascals. It was like, "hey, we are having fun here. why do you have to come along and ruin it. Actually, both Darla and Annette had roundish faces and looking back, I was always drawn to ladies with more oval faces. Really? It sounds odd, but I think it is true.
Maybe, being a contrarian even then, I was not a big Annette fan because everybody else was. The same applied to Elvis Presley and even The Beatles when they first hit the scene. So, my Annette ambivalence continued through her teenage heartthrob singing and movie careers. With the social unrest and change in the late sixties and seventies, Annette became even more of an afterthought for me.
Two things changed my view.
As an adult, I have become a quasi-movie buff, I came to enjoy the MGM surfer films she did with Frankie Avalon. What was not to like? They were fun, funny, and entertaining. Frankie and Annette were predictable but always cute. The most popular is, of course, Beach Blanket Bingo. They also appeared in:
How to Stuff a Wild Bikini
Muscle Beach Party
Secondly, in the late 1980s, we heard that she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. That was sad news and it did not seem fair. She was supposed to be forever young either as a Mouseketeer or as she appeared in the surfer movies. Her affliction made me take her more seriously. Obviously, her affliction was a mortality slap in the face for my entire generation. I took her more seriously not in becoming a huge fan, but more so I would read the occasional article about her when I came across them to see how she was doing.
I came to learn that she was pretty much what we saw. She came from a family with principles and values which along with her immense talent appealed to Walt Disney. Annette carried that through her life and it showed in everything she did. She was married twice and is survived by three children. With the MS, she had brain surgery in 1999 to stem the growth of the tumors. She was wheelchair bound in her last years and actually bedridden her final year. Despite this, she was still involved in her business interests, especially her Fund of Neurological Disorders.
Upon her passing, Frankie Avalon said, "She had the heart and soul and a feeling about her that everybody just connected to - male or female - without being pretentious in any way. She was just a nice, nice girl next door... America's sweetheart."
I might be late coming to the fan club, but I realize that we just lost an American Icon.