It’s been a bad week for beloved public figures. As we mourn America’s Sweetheart Annette Funicello, who passed away yesterday due to complications from Multiple Sclerosis, here are 10 things to remember about her.
1. Annette was just 12 years old when Walt Disney himself discovered her. There was no audition, and Funicello wasn’t seeking fame. She was simply performing the part of the Swan Queen in an amateur production of Swan Lake. Disney happened to be in the audience - he was looking for one more kid to round out his new Mickey Mouse Club show and decided that Annette fit the bill. She was one of the only cast members to be personally chosen by Walt.
2. Walt knew was he was doing - it didn’t take long before Annette was receiving 8,000 fan letters a month. For reference, the other cast members received maybe 800 letters monthly. Only Elizabeth Taylor got more fan correspondence. She also received watches and school rings from legions of boys across America who wanted to date her. She always returned them.
3. Thanks to her popularity, Disney decided to cast her in The Rainbow Road to Oz, a live-action film about Oz characters. Annette would play Ozma, with fellow Mouseketeer Darlene Gillespie as Dorothy. The proposed multi-million dollar musical got so far that Walt gave viewers of his Disneyland TV show a little taste of what was to come, which you can see in the clip below. However, the project ended up getting tabled, and Walt decided to move forward with Babes in Toyland instead. Incidentally, Annette has said that Babes in Toyland was her favorite movie.
4. Already a TV and film star, Annette branched out into music in 1959. Her first release, “Tall Paul,” topped out at #7 on the Billboard charts, the first time a female singer had ever charted so high on the rock and roll charts. Annette was always stunned by her singing success and once said, “After each song kind of made the charts, I thought, ‘How much longer can this go on? I don’t sing!’”
5. It was largely thanks to Annette’s musical success that the famous Sherman Brothers ended up having such a long and successful career with Disney. Robert and Richard Sherman wrote “Tall Paul,” and Walt Disney took note when the song was such a commercial hit. He hired them to write for the Annette-starring made-for-TV movie The Horsemasters in 1961, and soon they became mainstays at Disney Studios. They won Oscars for their work on Mary Poppins just four years later.
6. “Toot Sweet,” also known as Paul Anka’s “It’s Really Love,” was another success for Annette in 1959. Anka later reworked it to become “Johnny’s Theme” on The Tonight Show.
For comparison, here’s Annette’s song, and here’s “Johnny’s Theme.”
7. After a brief romance with Annette, Paul Anka wrote the song “Puppy Love” about her - and wrote it in her parents’ living room, no less. She recorded it in 1960.
8. From the time they were teenagers until the day she died, Annette’s best friend was fellow teen idol Shelley Fabares. They attended catechism class together as teens, then both later starred in Walt Disney Presents: Annette in 1958. Fabares was a bridesmaid in Annette’s first wedding to her agent,
9. Annette once said Walt Disney was like a second father to her. ““He was the dearest, kindest person and truly was like a second father to me,” she said. “He was a kid at heart.” And he definitely made fatherly recommendations. When she wanted to change her name to “Annette Turner,” Walt talked her out of it, saying that “Funicello” was a name people would remember. He also requested that she refrain from baring her navel in her beach movies. She said she would, but it managed to make a few appearances anyway. Despite their closeness, she only ever referred to him as “Mr. Disney.”
10. Annette went public with her MS in 1992 to combat rumors that her dizzy spells and unstable public appearances were the result of alcoholism. She remained remarkably positive about her diagnosis, saying, "I thank God I just didn't wake up one morning and not be able to walk. You learn to live with it. You learn to live with anything, you really do."