Annette Funicello, the Disney Mouseketeer who grew into a teen idol, beach movies icon, singer, actress, and even Skippy Peanut Butter spokesperson, has died at the age of 70, of complications from multiple sclerosis.
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People Magazine described her as “the ultimate Girl Next Door to a generation of Baby Boomers who first fell in love with her on the original 1955-’59 incarnation of The Mickey Mouse Club,” and mourns her loss:
With her brunette curls and expressive brown eyes, “Annette,” as she was simply known, grew up on the nation’s TV screens in her unquestioned role as the princess of Walt Disney’s daily afternoon syndicated TV show. She embodied the image of wholesome Eisenhower Era youth both on screen and off, even when she graduated to the role of Frankie Avalon’s beach-blanket buddy in the early ’60s.
“You knew she was very attractive, very pretty and voluptuous, but Annette never flaunted it,” Avalon, now 75, told PEOPLE in 1998. “She underplayed everything. She never tried to be sexy. People said to themselves, ‘I could date that girl if I ever met her.’ She wasn’t untouchable.”
One spring day in 1955, Walt Disney, casting his new kids’ TV program, happened to stop by the Burbank Starlite Bowl, where a dance school was giving its year-end recital of Swan Lake. And a star was born.
For several years after the diagnosis, only her immediate family knew of her illness, but when her equilibrium finally gave out in 1991, causing rumors of alcoholism, Funicello had no choice but to go public. Two years later Disney’s Hyperion published her autobiography, A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes, in which she detailed her battle against MS and her relentless search for a cure. A TV movie based on the story aired in October 1995, on Funicello’s 53rd birthday, with the former Mouseketeer appearing in a few scenes playing her contemporary self.
No longer able to read or write and speaking only with great difficulty, she spent her final years mostly confined to a wheelchair, specially designed by her husband with a seat from a harness-racing sulky. Her home for the past 40 years was a smoky-blue ranch house in Encino, Calif., with frilly, white wrought iron fencing that she called “my good-luck house.”