Charismatic actress Annette Funicello was an incredible phenomenon in the 1950s, ruling television screens when she was still a kid and inspiring many kids like her around the world. She was perhaps most popular for her association with Disney and being a part of the original Mickey Mouse Club (via The Guardian). She was an entertainer through and through and spent a major part of her life playing several roles for the silver screen and performing for the masses.
Also a singer and a robust performer, Funicello was often portrayed as the good girl in cinema (via The New York Times) and became a crucial part of imagery and visuals from the 1960s. She was also known for her heartbreaking battle with multiple sclerosis, something that she opened up about in public and felt strongly about.
Funicello had an eventful life, yet there are things that her fans may not know about her. For example, she had a close association with Walt Disney and considered him her father figure. She was extremely shy, especially as a child, and couldn’t help it. Also, she was such a huge star and so popular among other kids that she literally managed to get merchandise like dolls and comic books named after her. Here are more details about her life, from her early career to her time as a beach star and the ups and downs she endured through the course of her life.
Annette Funicello started performing early
Annette Funicello got an early start, as illustrated by The Guardian. She was only 12 years old when she was offered a chance to be a part of Disney’s children’s TV show, The Mickey Mouse Club. In fact, she was chosen by Walt Disney himself out of 200 kids at the audition. Born in Utica, New York, Funicello moved with her family to California before she became a part of the iconic show in 1955. Before being selected for the show, she took ballet dance classes, which she joined to deal with her shyness. Funicello became a huge part of the show, dancing and singing as she donned the traditional Mickey Mouse ears for her sketches.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Funicello was easy to like and appealed to all kinds of viewers for her charm and persona. Her former co-star, Frankie Avalon, who she worked with later in her career, described her well when he said, "She had a heart and a soul and a feeling about her that everybody just connected to — male or female — without being pretentious in any way," he said. "She was just a nice, nice girl next door … America’s sweetheart."
Annette Funicello was a Disney star
It’s undeniable that Annette Funicello’s image was largely connected to her role on The Mickey Mouse Club. But guess what? Her family wasn’t particularly keen on the opportunity in the beginning. In her book, A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes: My Story, Funicello revealed that her family wasn’t familiar with auditions or the hype behind the "Mousekeeters," as the kids on the show would be called. In fact, her mom was confused and wondered why the makers wanted a 12-year-old on the show, equating the title with The Three Musketeers.
Funicello minced no words when she stated that the goofy-looking Mickey Mouse ears and Disney became a huge part of her history. "I have said countless times, ‘I owe everything to those ears,’ and I mean it," she explained. She added that she really didn’t know that those ears would be the reason for her to connect with countless kids in different parts of the world. "To have enjoyed such an honor I am eternally grateful," the actress wrote.
Annette Funicello rapidly rose to popularity
Annette Funicello quickly became a crowd favorite during her time as a Mouskeeter. According to The Guardian, her on-screen popularity helped her bag her own series in 1958, titled Annette. It had a total of 19 episodes, and Funicello played the role of a charming orphan girl who moves to the city from the country, adjusting to her new life with her relatives and learning the ways of her new world.
Reflecting on her show, Funicello wrote in A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes: My Story, "Life wasn’t easy for Annette MacLeod, and I think that was one of the reasons viewers responded so enthusiastically to the series." She added that it may seem unbelievable, but the show displayed immense depth and meaning. She also stated that by the time Annette rolled around, she’d managed to strike a chord in the hearts of her fans and was getting a lot of fan mail: approximately 3,000 to 6,000 letters a month. "No one was more surprised than I and, I learned later, some of the studio people, who in the beginning were quite certain that another of the girl Mouskeeters would be the show’s star," Funicello candidly confessed. It was abundantly clear that she was a huge fan favorite who had a loyal fan following.
Annette Funicello was also a singer
Annette Funicello was talented in more ways than one. For example, she was also lauded for her singing skills. As illustrated by The Guardian, she sang a song for one of Annette‘s episodes called "How Will I Know My Love?" and delivered many popular singles, such as "Tall Paul," "Train of Love, "O Dio Mio," and "It’s Really Love."
What many people don’t know about Funicello is the fact that she didn’t actually consider herself a singer (via NPR). She revealed that her musical conductor at the time, Tutti Camaratta, was aware that she wasn’t entirely at ease, so he figured out a way to help her with a neat little trick that would let her feel more comfortable during the recording process. Funicello explained what it was. "I would sing the first time and then I’d sing to myself and then they would add a lot of echo chambers to it. We came up with the Annette Sound and it made my voice much stronger and I felt much more confident with the echo chambers," she said.
Annette Funicello’s film debut
Annette Funicello made her film debut in The Shaggy Dog (1959) for Disney and managed to deliver a commercial hit even there. At the time, there was a lot going: Reruns of The Mickey Mouse Club were common, and Funicello’s pop single "Tall Paul" had also been released by Disneyland Records.
Funicello wrote about her thoughts on The Shaggy Dog in A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes: My Story, detailing how Disney made the bold move of making the movie in black and white so that the film’s supernatural aspects wouldn’t scare his audience. "Despite its far-fetched premise and a lukewarm critical response, The Shaggy Dog became a very popular and commercially successful film, pacing the way for later Fred MacMurray vehicles…" Funicello wrote.
The actress added that she found it a lot of fun to be associated with her first feature film, even though her part in it wasn’t groundbreaking or major.
Annette Funicello and Paul Anka were in love
Singer and songwriter Paul Anka was quite taken with Annette Funicello, and he didn’t exactly keep it a secret. Turns out, she felt the same way about him. According to The New York Times, she once wrote, "As Paul wrote in his hit song about us, just because we were 17 didn’t mean that, for us, our love wasn’t real," referring to the song "Puppy Love." However, the two couldn’t actually find time for each other, as they were occupied with work. When Funicello did reveal how she felt, Anka simply asked her, "What script did you get that from?"
And yet, it is undeniable that the two had a history and absolutely courted each other. When NPR asked Funicello years later about it, she explained that the pair once had a conversation about their relationship, and Anka told her that it was a pity that everyone referred to their romance as "puppy love" and didn’t understand how it really felt. He was then inspired to make the song that ended up becoming a popular hit.
Anka remembered the actress after she passed away, saying, "Annette was a star from the time she was 12 years old, and I met her shortly after. In addition to her talent, she was self-possessed, determined, had incredible integrity, and was loved by everyone."
Annette Funicello was the star of many beach films
Walt Disney, according to The New York Times, was approached by people from American International Pictures to get Annette Funicello to be a part of a beach film. He believed it would essentially be "good clean fun" but did advise the young actress to avoid showing too much skin, specifically not to expose her navel. She agreed and respected Disney’s suggestion. Her first beach movie was Beach Party in 1963, in which she worked with Frankie Avalon. The two would make more beach films together.
Funicello revealed in A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes: My Story that she caught flak for complying with Disney’s advice about not showing her navel on-screen. She wrote that while most colleagues understood where she was coming from, a director or producer would inevitably ask her to put on something more revealing. She was also taunted with questions like "So, you still have to follow the boss’ orders?" She remained adamant and shot back that the choice was hers.
Ultimately, Funicello did enjoy working on the beach-party films and mentioned that she actually got to make many friends through these projects.
Annette Funicello fell in love with her agent
Annette Funicello ended up falling for her agent, Jack Gilardi, and married him in 1965 (via The Syracuse Post-Standard). The pair met while working on a set and ended up falling for each other. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the movie in question was Babes in Toyland. Gilardi was Funicello’s manager and agent for many years until they decided to get divorced in 1981. Funicello reflected on falling in love with Gilardi and wrote in A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes: My Story, "We had known each other as manager and client, and as friends. One evening, I don’t know what happened. He looked at me, I looked at him, and suddenly we knew we were in love."
After her marriage ended, the actress found love again when she met a racehorse trainer named Glen Holt. The couple were together until she passed away.
Annette Funicello had multiple sclerosis
In the late 1980s, Annette Funicello was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an illness that would have a major impact on her life and which she would endure for over 25 years. The New York Times revealed that Funicello was optimistic and wouldn’t get bogged down by her diagnosis, starting a charity instead to help others zero in on a cure.
Funicello didn’t reveal her illness until 1992, when she realized it was important to issue a public announcement. Around that time, she was being forced to endure unkind speculations about the fact that she found it difficult to walk. People wondered whether she was an alcoholic (via The Guardian). Funicello’s condition was rather severe, and she eventually started using a wheelchair to get around. Her husband, Glen Holt, later revealed that he’d assured her that he’d always help her with anything she needed. "When she got diagnosed … I told her, ‘I will take care of you and I’ll do everything I can,’" he said.
Annette Funicello was no victim, though. She studied her illness, learning as much as she could. She wrote that no doctor in the world could predict whether a patient with multiple sclerosis would worsen in a few years. Moreover, Funicello was open with her kids about her illness, making sure she read up on it so that she was equipped to alleviate her children’s doubts and answer their questions.
Annette Funicello survived a fire
In March 2011, Annette Funicello and her family went through a scary experience when their California house caught fire. As explained by KNBC, the actress showed symptoms of smoke inhalation. She was rushed to a hospital where she was treated, according to the Los Angeles Daily News. Funicello was 68 at the time of the incident, and it was believed that she, Holt, and a nurse escaped from the burning house after it caught fire. Corliss Foster, a friend and neighbor, believed that Holt must have helped his wife get out before things escalated. "Glen must have gotten her out of the house and put her in the backyard," he said.
Thankfully, no one suffered serious injuries, and everyone was believed to be stable. The blaze was rather intense when firefighting authorities reached the scene and began work on dousing the fire. According to Today, the fire began in the morning, and it took firefighters around a half-hour to extinguish the blaze completely.
Annette Funicello’s health failed in her later years
Unfortunately for Annette Funicello, life got harder for her in her twilight years. Her illness worsened, and her symptoms became more intense. She needed full-time help to get by, and it was difficult for her to manage her daily activities alone (via CTV News). She was fed through a tube and had to be taken care of 24/7. Funicello and her husband were optimists. Glen Holt always believed that he’d see his wife get better one day and also fought to get her access to experimental treatment options to reduce the severity of her symptoms.
According to Today, what worked against her, according to experts, was the fact that her diagnosis came at a time when not much known was known about her illness, which made it harder to stop the disease from progressing as much as it did over the years.
Videos taken in her later years showed the actress struggling to move. It is believed that her cognitive functions probably remained unaffected, even as she fought to move and express herself. She couldn’t really speak. Dr. Rock Heyman, director of the Pittsburgh Institute for MS care and research at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, stated that he’d that witnessed many patients with the illness remain intellectually unaffected. "I have seen patients who are unable to move their arms or legs that are still intellectually active," he said.
Annette Funicello left behind a rich legacy
When Annette Funicello passed away in April 2013 at the age of 70, her death was mourned by many across the world who remembered her for the unique person she was. Her devastated children released a statement, remembering the legendary actress (via CNN). "We are so sorry to lose Mother," they said. "She is no longer suffering anymore and is now dancing in heaven. We love and will miss her terribly." Disney’s chairman, Bob Iger, also paid a tribute to the actress and said that she’ll forever be a huge part of the Disney family. He added that Funicello will always be celebrated as one of Disney’s most talented stars, one who managed to inspire a whole generation with her talent and unique personality. Iger called Annette a beautiful person and added that she confronted her physical challenges with grace and dignity.
Frankie Avalon also remembered his former co-star and said that the country had lost one of its sweethearts and that he felt lucky to have been friends with the actress and work with her on so many projects. "She will live on forever, I will miss her and the world will miss her," Avalon said in a moving statement.