NEW YORK — She was the first crush for a generation of boys, the perfect playmate for a generation of girls.
Annette Funicello, who became a child star as a cute-as-a-button Mouseketeer on The Mickey Mouse Club in the 1950s, ruled among baby boomers, who tuned in every weekday afternoon to watch her on their black-and-white television sets.
Then they shed their mouse ears, as Annette did when she teamed up with crooner Frankie Avalon during the 1960s in a string of frothy but clean, fun-in-the-sun movies with titles such as Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.
Decades later, she endeared herself to baby boomers all over again after she announced in 1992 that she had multiple sclerosis and began grappling with the slow, degenerative effects with remarkably good cheer and faith.
Funicello died Monday at Mercy Southwest Hospital in Bakersfield, Calif., of complications from MS, the Walt Disney Co. said. She was 70 and had dropped from public view years ago.
“She really had a tough existence,” Avalon said. “It’s like losing a family member. I’m devastated but I’m not surprised.”
Avalon said that when they were working together, she never realized how beloved she was.
“She would say, ‘Really?’ She was so bashful about it. She was an amazing girl,” he recalled.
The pretty, dark-haired Funicello was 13 when she gained fame on The Mickey Mouse Club, a kids’ variety show that consisted of stories, songs and dance routines. It ran on ABC from 1955-59.
Cast after Walt Disney saw her at a dance recital, she appeared in the Mouseketeer uniform of mouse ears, a pleated skirt and a turtleneck sweater emblazoned with her first name, and captivated young viewers with her wholesome, girl-next-door appeal.
She became the most popular Mouseketeer, receiving 8,000 fan letters a month, 10 times more than any of the 23 other young performers.
“It was a happy time. They were wonderful times,” she recalled in a TV interview – and she might just as well have been speaking for her Mickey Mouse Club audience.
Singer and composer Paul Anka, the teen idol who briefly dated Funicello when they were on the concert circuit in the late 1950s, said that like seemingly every young American male of the time, he was in love with her.
“She was just the girl next door and they were drawn just to her,” Anka said. “She had that thing. She had the it, and there was just no stopping it.”
They eventually drifted apart, but during the time they were together, he said, Disney tried to end their relationship, resulting in one of Anka’s biggest hits, Puppy Love.
“The Disney crowd, and understandably so, didn’t want her too involved at too young an age,” Anka told the AP. “We had our professional careers and what have you, and they continued to tell her it was a puppy love, and marriage should not be in question. And I wrote about it.”
When The Mickey Mouse Club ended, Funicello was the only cast 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 1960s, Funicello teamed with 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 never stumbled across it. As Halliwell’s Film Guide says of Beach Party: “Quite tolerable in itself, it started an excruciating trend.”
The films had songs, cameos by older stars and some laughs. 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, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.
The beach films featured ample youthful skin, but not Funicello’s.
She remembered in 1987: “Mr. Disney said to me one day, ‘Annette, I have a favor to ask of you. I know all the girls are wearing bikinis, but you have an image to uphold. I would appreciate it if you would wear a one-piece suit.’ I did, and I never regretted it.”
The shift in teen tastes begun by The Beatles in 1964 and Funicello’s first marriage the following year pretty much killed off the beach-movie genre. After that, she had no interest in edgier, more “adult” roles.
“People are more interested in changing my image than I am,” she said in an interview.
In the 1970s, she made commercials for Skippy peanut butter, appearing with her real-life children. She and Avalon were reunited in the 1987 movie Back to the Beach, in which Lori Loughlin played their daughter. Funicello was “kind and down-to-earth,” Loughlin said.
“She was truly the embodiment of the friendly, all-American girl that we all loved to watch in the beach movies,” she said.
It was during the filming of Back to the Beach that Funicello noticed she had trouble walking – the first insidious sign of MS. She gradually lost control of her legs. Fearing people might think she was drunk, she went public with her condition in 1992.
She wrote of her triumphs and struggles in her 1994 autobiography, A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes – the title taken from a Disney song. In 1995, she appeared briefly in a television docudrama based on her book. She spoke openly about the degenerative effects of MS.
“My equilibrium is no more; it’s just progressively getting worse,” she said. “But 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.”
Kathy Lennon, who was one of the singing Lennon Sisters and became friends with Funicello after appearing on The Mickey Mouse Club, said she and Funicello stayed in touch until a few years ago, when Lennon made her usual call to wish the actress a happy birthday and learned that MS had robbed her of her ability to speak.
Funicello was born Oct. 22, 1942, in Utica, N.Y., and her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 4. She began taking dance lessons, and she won a beauty contest at 9. Then came her discovery by Disney.
In 1965, Funicello married her agent, Jack Gilardi, and they had three children, Gina, Jack and Jason. The couple divorced 18 years later, and in 1986 she married Glen Holt, a harness racehorse trainer.
“We are so sorry to lose Mother,” her children said in a statement. “She is no longer suffering anymore and is now dancing in heaven.”