Childhood & Early Life
Annette Funicello was born on October 22, 1942, in Utica, US, to Italian–American parents, Virginia Jeanne and Joseph Edward Funicello. The family moved to California when Annette was 4 years old. She grew up with two brothers, Joey and Michael.
The family faced poverty for many years. The decision to move to California was made to make sure the children received good education. Her father worked as a mechanic, and during the first few months of struggle in California, the family lived in a trailer park. However, things changed for the better and Joseph got a steady job as a mechanic soon.
Annette was a shy child but also loved performing arts and excelled in dancing and acting. As soon as she moved to California, her desire to venture into acting intensified. She took professional lessons in acting and dance. This helped her overcome her shyness.
She also learned to play the drums and participated in various beauty pageants from time to time. She won the locally held ‘Miss Willow Lake’ beauty contest. As a child, she also modeled.
She learned ballet during her junior years, and this turned her life around. Walt Disney, the man behind the vastly successful empire, himself saw her perform a dance routine during one of her ballet classes. He asked her to audition for ‘Disney’ along with two hundred other children.
She was the last to be selected as a “Mouseketeer” and her career received a boost. Since she was selected by Walt Disney himself, she carried a lot of pressure on her shoulders.
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Disney started the ‘Mickey Mouse Club’ in the mid-1950s and hired the “Mouseketeers” to become more popular with the children. The show became a mega success by the end of its first season. Annette became the most popular of the “Mouseketeers,” and the show’s overall success made her doubly famous.
She started receiving numerous fan letters. A study revealed that she received about eight thousand fan letters every month, while the other members of the original club received about eight hundred. The ‘Mickey Mouse Club’ became a huge success, and Annette appeared in many of their dance routines and comedy sketches.
Inspired by its success, several spin-off shows such as ‘Adventure in Dairyland’ and ‘Walt Disney Presents: Annette’ were later aired. Annette also sang a song for ‘Walt Disney Presents: Annette,’ which became the stepping stone of her future music career. Following the success of the song, Walt Disney offered Annette a professional contract.
‘Disney’ ventured into live-action films with the proposed release of the film ‘Rainbow Road to Oz,’ but the film got shelved. ‘Disney’ had planned to cast some of the “Mouseketeers” to star in the film but the plans did not materialize. Finally, in 1961, ‘Babes in Toyland’ released. The film starred Annette but released after she had already made her film debut.
In 1959, Annette appeared in the first film of her career, ‘The Shaggy Dog.’ The film featured her as ‘Allison’ and was a major success. It was the most profitable ‘Disney’ film that year.
After her successful stint with the ‘Mickey Mouse Club,’ she remained in touch with ‘Disney’ for a while. She made appearances in series such as ‘Zorro’ and ‘The Horsemasters.’ She also appeared in the successful ‘Disney’ films ‘The Misadventures of Merlin Jones’ and ‘The Monkey’s Uncle.’
Annette stated many times that she did not want to be known as a singer. Despite that, she created many hits, such as ‘Tall Paul,’ ‘First Name Initial,’ ‘Puppy Love,’ and ‘Toot Sweet.’ She also performed live on the show ‘Disneyland After Dark.’
Toward the mid-1960s, when her contract with ‘Disney’ had ended, Annette continued to appear in more mature film roles. In 1963, she appeared in the film ‘Beach Party’ and continued to appear in many such films in the years that followed. The films mostly had Annette co-starring with Frankie Avalon. The production company ‘American International Pictures’ made a lot of profit from Annette’s films and soon decided to offer a contract to Annette.
Her new persona was very different from the one she had projected during her stint with ‘Disney.’ She was requested by ‘Disney’ to wear modest bikinis for her roles, but she denied the request. Over the years, she appeared in many “beach films,” such as ‘Bikini Beach,’ ‘Pajama Party,’ ‘Muscle Beach Party,’ and ‘How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.’
Toward the late 1960s and the early 1970s, she became disinterested in her career as an actor. She frequently mentioned in interviews that she wished for a simple house with nine kids. She signed fewer films during that period. After the 1968 film ‘Head,’ she took a break of almost two decades to appear in the 1987 film ‘Back to the Beach,’ where she once again flaunted her “beach girl” persona.
She also continued to appear on TV from time to time and was part of shows such as ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse: Christmas Special,’ ‘Full House,’ ‘Growing Pains,’ and ‘Lots of Luck.’
Personal Life & Death
Annette Funicello dated Jack Gilardi for a while before they got married in 1965. The marriage lasted until 1981, and the couple had three children.
In the 1980s, she was frequently seen with racehorse trainer Glen Holt. They were rumored to be dating and got married in 1986. The couple stayed together until her death in 2013.
Annette and fellow actor and singer Shelley Fabares were lifelong friends. She was also very close to fellow “Mouseketeer” Lonnie Burr. She later stated in an interview that he was her first boyfriend.
Annette was raised as a Catholic, and she ardently followed the faith till the end of her life.
In 1987, during the promotion of her film ‘Back to the Beach,’ she felt dizzy for the first time. She was soon diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She lost the ability to walk and talk during her final years and passed away on April 8, 2013.