Mouseketeer Annette Funicello won people’s hearts with her shy yet friendly smile, and by the end of the first season of the Mickey Mouse Club, her fan mail had ballooned to 6,000 letters a month.
Annette recalled Walt Disney’s response to her phenomenal success: “I was about 13 and the fan mail started coming in and he said to me, ‘Do you have lots of Italian relatives?’ ‘No, why?’ I replied. ‘The amount of mail for you is incredible!’”
Born in Utica, New York, on October 22, 1942, Annette was four when her family moved to Los Angeles. The next year, her mother enrolled her in dance lessons, to help Annette overcome her shy nature.
In 1955, at the age of 12, she performed the lead role in Swan Lake at the Burbank Starlight Bowl. Little did she know at the time, Walt Disney was sitting in the audience; he was there scouting children for his new television show, the Mickey Mouse Club. The next day, Annette’s dance school received a call from the Studio asking to see the little girl who played the Swan Queen. Annette soon became the 24th Mouseketeer. She would go on to be cast in several of the show’s serials, including Adventures in Dairyland and Spin and Marty.
In 1959, after the Mickey Mouse Club disbanded, Annette was kept on contract with the Walt Disney Studio and went on to appear in many television shows, including Zorro, The Horsemasters, and Elfego Baca, as well as feature films The Shaggy Dog, Babes in Toyland, and The Monkey’s Uncle.
She also enjoyed a successful recording career at Disney, recording 15 albums that featured such hit singles as “Tall Paul” and “How Will I Know My Love?” In 1994, Walt Disney Records released a double CD retrospective, Annette: A Musical Reunion With America’s Girl Next Door. That same year, her autobiography, A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes: My Story, written with Patricia Romanowski, was published by Disney’s Hyperion Press. The book was made into a telefilm in 1995, featuring Annette in an appearance as herself.
In the early 1960s, Annette starred with teen idol Frankie Avalon in a string of successful movies, produced by American International Pictures, including Beach Party and Beach Blanket Bingo. In 1987, she teamed up once again with Frankie Avalon, co-producing and starring in the motion picture Back to the Beach, followed by a “Frankie and Annette” concert tour in 1989 and 1990.
In July 1992, Annette publicly disclosed her battle with multiple sclerosis, a crippling disease of the central nervous system. She created the Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases, and has since pursued numerous business ventures including the successful Annette Funicello Teddy Bear Company.
After a long and courageous struggle, Annette Funicello passed away on April 8, 2013 in Bakersfield, California. She was 70.