When I made this post regarding the passing of Annette Funicello, I promised I would have more to write regarding her life and my own personal feelings about it. It took me a lot longer than I thought to write this, because I decided to write up a review of one of her films to post with it, something I couldn’t do for Roger Ebert. I’ll be posting that review later.
Some celebrity deaths sadden me more than others. That was the case with Roger Ebert. When Annette Funicello passed away just four days after Ebert, it was the second celebrity death within a week that deeply saddened me.
Annette hadn’t made a feature film since 1986, but yet I felt as if she had never left us. She made many appearances as herself, on news shows and talk shows in the years that followed in an effort to bring awareness to the disease that inflicted her and was slowly disabling her. That disease was Multiple Sclerosis.
I kind of felt a kinship to her. I was once diagnosed as possibly having that MS. It’s a diagnoses that has never been actually confirmed, or refuted. And that’s the problem with MS. It’s not easily detected in its initial stages, and much of the time it is extremely difficult to pinpoint. Those who have the disease often go years without realizing they have it because the severity of MS is inconsistent. Annette’s bout with M.S. was one of a worst case scenario.
But that’s not the only reason her death affected me more than say Jonathan Winters who also passed away recently. If you were a child in the fifties and sixties, and a teen in the mid sixties to the early seventies, you grew up with Annette.
The Mickey Mouse Club is one of my earliest and strongest television memories. I can even remember my sisters trying to convince me to give it up on certain days so that they could watch the Gold Cup Matinee late afternoon movie on one of the other two channels we were blessed with. Most of the time they would lie to me about who was in the movie they were wanting to watch by naming every one of the super hero and cartoon characters I worshipped. A couple of times it worked, but I soon caught on to the game and then it didn’t. I wasn’t a complete dunce, even at five and six years old.
The Mouse Club eventually disappeared, was rerun a couple of times then appeared for a while on the Disney Channel when it first made it’s debut on cable. The show may have become dated, but I never have outgrown it. When the Disney Channel became just another one of 500 commercial channels in the vast cable wasteland, that was the end of not only the original Mouse Club, but many of the other catalogue films from Disney’s vast TV Library sent to the vault to probably suffer a slow death from indifference. No room for a classic Disney channel, but we do get Disney XD, Tune Disney, and Disney Jr. Whooppee!
There was a reason why Annette’s star shone brighter than those of the other Mousketeers who were all talented in their own way. What attracted you to Annette was this aura of friendliness that made you just flat out like her. She was the original Italian Santa Claus. She was just brimming with wholesome goodness.
You may have never met her, but you just knew there wasn’t a mean bone in this girl’s body. Annette was the gal you wanted to be your sister instead of the ones you got stuck with. No offense to my siblings, but that’s just the way it was.
She was super photogenic, and could act, but she was often better than the material she was given to work with. She was good in Spin and Marty, but in her own serial Annette, she and the whole cast were hampered by a really crappy script. I’m not talking about the storyline either. That worked. But those poor kids were saddled with some of the weeniest stilted dialogue ever forced upon anybody, let alone teenagers of any decade. Uncle Walt should have known better.
But when you’re a kid, you didn’t care about that stuff. Probably not even the acting. I mean, this was Annette, and she had her own serial, and that’s all that mattered.
When she guest starred on Make Room For Daddy (aka The Danny Thomas Show) as Gina Minelli and on Zorro as Anita Campillo, you made an extra effort to seek those shows out just because it was Annette. In Make Room For Daddy, it was her first real attempt at straight comedy, and she did it beautifully. Likewise, she was able to slightly extend her dramatic legs in her appearances on Zorro which she appeared in twice as two different characters. When she did The Horsemasters for World of Disney, you watched it and watched it again when they would rerun it.
I never was a big fan of the Beach Party Movies. I guess I just expected more from my movies then what those offered. But since they were a big part of Annette’s career, I revisited Beach Party and will offer up my take on that sooner rather than later. Probably the worst thing about the Beach Party films, is that they put the nail in the coffin of the younger actors involved of ever being given a chance to do more theatrically. Which is quite a shame.
I just recently caught up with Fireball 500 and Thunder Alley. Both were better films than the Beach Party movies, and given the chance, Annette was able to prove that she could handle a dramatic role. But by that time, nobody was paying attention, wholesomeness was a thing of the past, and after havin made bookoo bucks for American International Pictures, Annette was cast aside. She was relegated from that point on to mostly guest star roles on TV series. She deserved better.
I watched her do a rare dramatic story on The Love Boat recently, a show that was known more for it’s comedy then drama. It reminded me of the fact that she was a lot more talented actress than some were willing to give her credit for. I don’t know if she minded that fact. If Annette did, she never appeared to, but you would have to ask those who actually knew her. Actress Shelley Fabares, who met Annette while doing a small part in her Mouse Club serial, remained her lifelong friend, and says Annette was the real deal.
I do know one thing, choosy mothers may have chosen Jif, but Annette used Skippy and that was good enough for most of us.
But her sense of humor about herself was always apparent. She never shied away from poking fun at her image or herself. She had fun with it when she did an episode of Growing Pains in which she played an overzealous Goody Two-shoes Uptight Repressed Teacher. After that, both Frankie and Annette returned to the big screen to star in and co-produce the film Back to the Beach, a very under-appreciate, misunderstood satirical film that was much better than it was given credit for at the time and has now become a cult classic.
Somebody uploaded it to YouTube, so it’s there now (as of 5-12-2013) but undoubtedly not for long which is why I don’t link to it. I linked to the Zorro video up against my better judgment and you can find the rest of the episode on YouTube as well. It would be well worth your time to hurry and seek out Back to the Beach along with the Zorro episode and any others you can find. Other than that, it’s $9.99 to buy the instant viewing at Amazon (you own it unless or until the license is revoked), or you pay a fortune for the now out of print disc. I chose the 9.99 option.
But the Annette/Frankie comeback was short lived. It was during the filming of Back to the Beach and while doing a follow up tour with Frankie Avalon that she was diagnosed with M.S. Three years later she would go public with the disease in an attempt to bring more awareness to MS and to help raise funds through the Annette Funicello Research Funds For Neurological Diseases. So on top of all her other attributes, you can add bravery to the list.
Maybe I’m too old and cynical, but I doubt if today’s young audiences would ever understand the allure of someone like Annette Funicello. I can think of no 21st Century equivalent that connects to their audience on a personal level or has a relationship with their fans in the same way.
Many of the things Annette did early in her career are getting harder to find. Much of the fault of that lies with the Disney Studios and current ownership, who are sticklers for copyright adherence while at the same time leaving many of their catalog titles in the vault they claim to be so fond of to waste away since there doesn’t seem to be enough profit in these films and shows for them to bother with any longer. If you can’t mass market them to today’s kids, why market them at all is the new Disney philosophy.
I was hoping they would be part of their deal with Netflix, but that hasn’t happened either. But that’s a topic for later discussion and I’ll leave it for now except that it would be a crime if the early works of an icon such as Annette Funicello are left to wither on the vine.
I hope someday those who didn’t grow up with Mickey Mouse Club or saw her in the Beach Films, will take the time to understand who she was, and why she had such a lasting impact on so many of us who grew up in that era. I only wish I could revisit her early work myself at some point, but I’m not getting any younger and when you get to be my age, you’re not in a demographic that really matters to corporate suits.
Disney placed an obituary for Annette up on this page in which they list her accomplishments. Maybe now would be the time to do something more than just pay her lip service. Release her World of Disney films from your library, donate the proceeds to the charity she left behind would be a start. And yes, Merlin Jones, Shaggy Dog, and Monkey’s Uncle are all readily available, but all have also been given shabby DVD treatment as has become par for the course when it comes to Disney and their catalog titles.
The video below is a a look at Annette through the years in film and television, along with a few publicity shots and a few personal pictures. About 95 per cent of the stills come from my own personal DVD collection, the rest come from the web. It runs about nine minutes, but I hope you’ll watch and if perhaps get a small sampling of who she was and what she gave to so many. The world was a better place with Annette Funicello, but it is a sadder place without her.
(Best viewed at full screen)