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Monday, April 8, 2013

Annette and I

Annette Funicello was so famous in the '50s and the '60s, she was known simply as Annette. Like Cher! Or Barbra! And that makes her forever a true and legendary diva. (After all, when someone mentions, "Annette," is there one amongst us who asks: "Bening?")

Today, at age 70, she died of complications from multiple sclerosis, having been diagnosed in 1992. Born in Utica, NY, Annette grew up in Southern California. She took singing and dancing to overcome shyness and was discovered by the Walt Disney people when she was 12. She went on to star in the original Mickey Mouse Club on tv. This is where I first saw Annette -- and she instantly captured my attention and my heart. Even as a pre-schooler, I knew star quality when I saw it, people!

And so, in a figurative sense, Annette and I grew up together! I was thrilled when she became a recording artist with hit songs like "Tall Paul" and "Pineapple Princess." Even my mother approved of her pop tunes!

Then, when I was in 6th grade, Annette starred in the American-International Beach Party series with Frankie Avalon. Why, they were the Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire of the swingin' sand-and-surf set! Annette was a movie star! (And Frankie wasn't so hard to look at or listen to, either.) She had previously done a series of cute Disney films like Monkey's Uncle and Babes in Toyland. But, with the Beach Party films, she was headlining!  I took the Beach Party flicks to be a realistic projection of what my teen life would be like, even though they were set in SoCal and I lived in NJ. I guess I was thinking of summering on the beach at Asbury Park at the time.

Why, once, when Muscle Beach Party was on a double-bill with Edgar Allen Poe's The Masque of the Red Death (starring Vincent Price (my favorite, suavest leading man I secretly had the hots over)), I stayed at the movies to watch both films twice. I arrived home not only late for dinner but to a hysterical mother certain something bad had happened to me. "I didn't think about it" was not a satisfactory reply to my mother's question, "But why didn't you phone me? There is a pay phone in the lobby!" I got one of the two spankings of my childhood that fateful night. My mother was the one left in tears. I recall I kind of liked it. So... thank you, Annette, I guess!

By the '70s, the times they were a-changin', and Annette and I parted ways. I was off to college and she disappeared from screen, records and tv. I heard a rumor that she was considered for the role that Nancy Sinatra coveted in Roger Corman's Wild Angels but broke into tears and stormed off after being asked if she'd consider a brief, topless shot of her famous "shelf." (I heard a similar story about Shari Lewis, another pre-school crush, around the same time, regarding a different film.)

In the 1980s, Annette returned as a camp icon, with Frankie, in the film, Back to the Beach. It was a box-office hit. Pee-wee Herman said today on Facebook: "Completely heartbroken to hear the news that Annette Funicello passed away. I loved her from the first time I saw her on The Mickey Mouse Club. I finally got to meet her on the film 'Back To The Beach'. It was 100% the reason I was in the movie. She later appeared on Pee-wee's Playhouse Christmas Special. There wasn't a warmer, lovelier person in show business. Or anywhere. You are already missed by generations. Rest In Peace, Annette."

And Facebook friend, Andrew Martin, posted this great story:

In mourning the loss of Annette Funicello, I'm reminded of something slightly amusing regarding her and her mother Virginia. This was... when the MS was just starting to really take hold of her and become noticeable, so she took her mother to lunch and said, "Mama, I think it's time for me to hold a press conference. People are starting to wonder if I'm drinking, and I think it's better for people to finally know." Her mother shifted uncomfortably and Annette asked her what was wrong. She said, "Well...it's not that everybody doesn't know. Frankie (Avalon) knows." Annette said, "Mama! How does Frankie know?" She said, "Well, honey, I had to tell Frankie. He was so worried." Annette said, "OK, Frankie knows. And that's all?" Her mother said, "Yes, that's all. And Mr. (Dick) Clark." Annette said, "Frankie told Mr. Clark? I don't believe that." She said, "Well, no, honey, I told Mr. Clark. But I had to. He was so worried." Annette said, "So Frankie knows and Mr. Clark knows. And that's ALL?" She said, "Yes, honey, that's all. I promise. And Shelley (Fabares)." Annette said, "Mama! HOW could you tell Shelley??" She said, "Well, honey, I HAD to tell Shelley!! She was SO worried." Annette started arranging for the press conference immediately after lunch. 

By the way, Annette stayed close friends throughout her life with Shelley Fabares, Frankie Avalon and Tommy Kirk -- who had been drummed out of Hollywood by Walt Disney when Kirk chose to come out of the closet. 

Annette, you were truly one of America's sweethearts but, more importantly, my own. Rest in Peace. 

"Tall Paul" video:



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