- Associated Press - Monday, April 8, 2013

NEW YORK (AP) — Annette Funicello, the most popular Mouseketeer on “The Mickey Mouse Club,” who matured to a successful career in records and ‘60s beach party movies but struggled with illness in middle age and after, died Monday, The Walt Disney Co. said. She was 70.

She died peacefully at Mercy Southwest Hospital in Bakersfield, Calif., of complications from multiple sclerosis, the company said.

Funicello stunned fans and friends in 1992 with the announcement about her ailment. Yet she was cheerful and upbeat, grappling with the disease with a courage that contrasted with her lightweight teen image of old.

The pretty, dark-haired Funicello was just 13 when she gained fame on Walt Disney’s television kiddie “club,” an amalgam of stories, songs and dance routines that ran from 1955 to 1959.

Cast after Disney saw her at a dance recital, she soon began receiving 8,000 fan letters a month, 10 times more than any of the 23 other young performers.

Her devotion to Walt Disney remained throughout her life. “He was the dearest, kindest person, and truly was like a second father to me,” she remarked. “He was a kid at heart.”

When “The Mickey Mouse Club” ended, Annette (as she was often billed) was the only club member to remain under contract to the studio. She appeared in such Disney movies as “Johnny Tremain,” ”The Shaggy Dog,” ”The Horsemasters,” ”Babes in Toyland,” ”The Misadventures of Merlin Jones” and “The Monkey’s Uncle.”

She also became a recording star, singing on 15 albums and hit singles such as “Tall Paul” and “Pineapple Princess.”

Outgrowing the kid roles by the early ‘60s, Annette teamed with Frankie Avalon in a series of movies for American-International, the first film company to exploit the burgeoning teen market.

The filmmakers weren’t aiming for art, and they didn’t achieve it. As Halliwell’s Film Guide says of “Beach Party”: “Quite tolerable in itself, it started an excruciating trend.”

But the films had songs, cameos by older stars and a few laughs and, as a bonus to latter-day viewers, a look back at a more innocent time. The 1965 “Beach Blanket Bingo,” for example, featured subplots involving a mermaid, a motorcycle gang and a skydiving school run by Don Rickles, and comic touches by silent film star Buster Keaton.

Among the other titles: “Muscle Beach Party,” ”Bikini Beach,” ”Beach Blanket Bingo,” ”How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” and “Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.”

The shift in teen tastes begun by the Beatles in 1964 and Funicello’s first marriage the following year pretty much killed off the genre.

But she was somehow never forgotten though mostly out of the public eye for years. She and Avalon staged a reunion in 1987 with “Back to the Beach.” It was during the filming that she noticed she had trouble walking — the first insidious sign of MS.

When it was finally diagnosed, she later recalled, “I knew nothing about (MS), and you are always afraid of the unknown. I plowed into books.”

Story Continues →