Publicity for Walt Disney’s original black-and-white “Mickey Mouse Club” indicates Annette Funicello was 12 when she appeared on the Oct. 3, 1955, debut episode of the seminal children’s TV program. But it should be noted that she turned 13 just three weeks later.
This was significant to me. I was five years younger and Annette was not just a perky, ever-smiling, raven-haired beauty, she was an older woman. I was immediately smitten. And I wasn’t the only one. She was reportedly receiving 6,000 letters a month by the end of the show’s first season.
Annette’s death on April 8 — at age 70 after years of struggling with multiple sclerosis — brought waves of nostalgia as I recalled those innocent youthful days when I watched her blossom, not just singing and dancing in “Mickey Mouse Club” skits but also appearing in the show’s serials, including “Spin and Marty” and her own “Annette” series. And Disney movies, too — “The Shaggy Dog” and “Babes in Toyland.”
Then, when I was in high school, Annette started the “Beach Party” series, with Frankie Avalon, and when he wasn’t available, Tommy Kirk or Dwayne Hickman. She became a sort of chaste pin-up girl for those of us in the right age bracket, our version of Doris Day. And as silly as those sand-and-bikini movies were, I went to every one, often at drive-ins after a day at the beach, which made them seem all the more relevant.
But in fact, they weren’t relevant very long. “Beach Party” was released in 1963, followed rapidly by three sequels in 1964, which also happened to be the same year “A Hard Day’s Night” came out. Compared to the Beatles’ movie, the “Beach Party” franchise quickly began to look rather precious. John, Paul, George and Ringo’s cinematic debut, along with films starring other budding rock ‘n’ roll acts, took pop musicals to another level, leaving Annette and Frankie and all those just-as-silly Elvis movies in the dust.
But I continued to go to all of them even as I recognized they had become also-rans.
Annette was growing up and so was I. In a way, we grew up together. But by the end of the 1960s, the romance was over as Annette’s film career dried up. I could still feel the love when I happened to see her on the occasional TV guest appearances she did over the years, or in reruns when an old movie would show up on TV.
And in 1987 there was “Back to the Beach,” a sort of “Airplane!”-style spoof of the old “Beach Party” pictures, reteaming her with Frankie and a lot of other ’60s former stars. I think I was alone on that one, giving it a three-star review in the Deseret News while most critics around the country slammed it. Perhaps it was just me trying to relive my youth. But I had a good time, and it was great to see Annette in a starring role again.
The relationships movie fans have with movie stars, even those who burn bright for just a few years and then seem to fade, is very personal. We all have someone we sort of fall in love with in our youth, someone that still manages to generate a spark within us every time she shows up on some show after we’re well into adulthood and their career has faded.
For me, that was Annette. And even though she's gone now, I know that the next time I catch one of her old shows on TV, that glimmer will still be there.