The tragic loss of Annette Funicello hit all who knew her pretty hard. She was the quintessential girl next door, from early in her career with “The Mickey Mouse Club,” through the ‘60s as the “good girl” in the “Beach Party” films. Death is never easy to face, but the passing of Annette is even harder to grapple with, as she left the public eye when she was young woman in order to settle down and start a family. Annette as an adult and a senior citizen was virtually unknown to the public, compared to her ubiquitous presence during her youth. When we think of the loss of Annette, we think not of a 70-year-old woman battling multiple sclerosis, but as our childhood crush, a teen idol, and an American icon.
Like most who were born after “The Mickey Mouse Club” stopped airing in reruns, my exposure to Annette started not with the Club, arguably her most famous role, but instead with her beach party films. While these films were not very serious and mostly focused on fun, Annette stood out even from a contemporary context for her portrayal of her character Deedee, a romantic counterpart to Frankie Avalon’s Frankie. For a young woman in the 1960s, Annette as Deedee showed admirable independence and savvy. In the films, which were released over several years, she and Frankie dated and bickered, like most young couples, and had some serious conversations about marriage, yet we never saw them tie the knot. At first glance, this might not seem like much, but in an era when young people would get married right out of college, this was surprisingly progressive and set a strong example for young audiences. Annette and Frankie are romantically interested, but she didn’t drop everything to marry him; she insisted that they needed to give their relationship more time, and that they had to go through more challenges as a couple, before making the commitment of marriage. This determination to be sure of herself and her relationships made Annette stand out as a strong-headed young woman on the eve of the 1960s feminist movement.
As my own fanhood (crush?) on Annette grew, I started delving into her earlier works with “The Mickey Mouse Club.” Like the beach party movies, Annette’s presence on the Club was also very impressive for its modesty and relatability to the audience of young children. In her spotlight feature, the “Annette” serial, Annette portrayed a teenage girl who moved from the country to a small town. Throughout the serial, she struggled to fit in, had boy problems, and faced other challenges common to children at that age. What made Annette stand out was not some extraordinary talent or ability, but the earnestness and genuine portrayal she gave: Annette was an ordinary girl with an extraordinary heart. The modest ambitions of this serial, to portray an everyday young girl and how she could find herself even when facing the struggles of moving to a new town, made the “Annette” serial both entertaining and impactful.
The height of Annette’s fame may have passed decades ago, but the heartfelt support expressed following her passing shows how she still means so much to her fans all these years later. Many of you have grown up watching Annette on both the big and the small screen, and now would be a good time to share her with your kids. In today’s fame-obsessed media, a story about an ordinary, small-town girl is a refreshing alternative to other programs. Given the celebrity-driven nature of contemporary culture, shows featuring Annette, a star your kids might not have even heard of, may be even more powerful to them than they were to you. Taking the opportunity to go back and revisit Annette’s wonderful performances can remind you, and show your children, why she was — and will continue to be — such an incredible icon.
The images accompanying this piece are of Annette Funicello appearing in the 1959 Disney film “The Shaggy Dog.”