Annette Funicello, beloved 1950s Disney “Mouseketeer” and 1960s movie star, died April 8th at the age of 70 from complications of multiple sclerosis. In addition to being an actress, wife and mother to three children, Ms. Funicello was a respected advocate for multiple sclerosis awareness and research, a disease she lived with since her diagnosis in 1987.
“Our condolences and heart felt wishes go out to Annette’s family,” shares Cyndi Zagieboylo, president and CEO of the National MS Society. “The love we all had for her since she debuted as a Disney Mouseketeer has put a very personal face on MS for millions of Americans and helped rally them to the MS movement to end this disease forever.”
Born in Utica, New York on October 22, 1942 to an Italian-American family, Ms. Funicello was discovered in 1955 by Walt Disney, himself, during her performance in Swan Lake at a Burbank, Ca. dance recital. (The family moved to Southern California when Ms. Funicello was four.) On the basis of this appearance, Disney cast her as one of the original Mouseketeers. For the next four years, she sang and danced on TV, quickly became the most popular and famous Mouseketeer on the program.
As Ms. Funicello and the nation's baby boomers grew up together, she found continued success as a young movie starlet. She starred in numerous Disney films including the classic, “The Shaggy Dog,” as well as “Babes in Toyland” and the “Beach Party” movie series, in which she co-starred with teen heartthrob, Frankie Avalon. Ms. Funicello’s popularity stemmed from her wholesome image and girl-next-door looks.
Ms. Funicello semi-retired after marrying her first husband, Jack Gilardi, in 1965 and they had three children together. During this time, she guest starred in a variety of projects, including a series of commercials for Skippy peanut butter, which launched in 1979. Following a 1981 divorce, in 1986, Ms. Funicello married her current husband, Glen Holt, a race horse breeder.
Ms. Funicello first noticed her multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms in 1987 when she was making the movie Back to the Beach, a friendly spoof of her Beach Party, sand-and-surf films that received both public and critical acclaim. Eventually, in l992, when rumors and gossip began to surface in the press after Ms. Funicello’s MS symptoms became increasingly pronounced, she decided to go public with her condition. She felt it was necessary to combat false rumors that her impaired carriage was the result of alcoholism. In 1993, she opened the Annette Funicello Fund for Neurological Disorders at the California Community Foundation.
Ms. Funicello once said, "When the stories about my MS came out, everyone gave me their love and their prayers. I'm human, and sometimes I can't help but ask, 'Why Me?' But I believe everything happens for a reason, and I know now that my mission is to help others raise funds for MS. The more I read about MS, the more encouraged I am. When I wake up in the morning, I like to imagine, this is the day I'm going to hear about an MS cure on the news."
Although Ms. Funicello was forced by the effects of MS to retire from her stage and screen career, her indomitable spirit led her to found the popular Annette Funicello Collectible Bear Company, which created unique bears for more than 10 years until 2004. A portion of the proceeds from several of these lines were also donated to the National MS Society.
Annette’s life was further commemorated in the Lifetime Television made-for TV movie, “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes: The Annette Funicello Story”
which was based on her autobiography A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes: My Story (Hyperion, 1995). The film concluded with a National MS Society PSA.
In 2002, Ms. Funicello accepted the role of Ambassador for the Society's Walk MS event. She shot several PSAs and encouraged fans to form "Annette’s Amazing Angels" Walk MS teams in her honor to help educate the public and heighten awareness about the challenges of living with MS. Although in later years her public appearances became fewer as her MS complications worsened, Ms. Funicello remained committed to the mission of the National MS Society and to all those impacted by MS and that is to end the disease forever.. Ms. Funicello is survived by her three children Gina Portman, Jack Gilardi, Jr. and Jason Gilardi; and her husband, Glen Holt of California.