Fans mourn beloved Mouseketeer, actress Funicello

Posted 7:33am on Tuesday, Apr. 09, 2013

NEW YORK -- Annette Funicello, who became a child star as a perky Mouseketeer on The Mickey Mouse Club in the 1950s, then teamed up with Frankie Avalon on a string of '60s fun-in-the-sun movies with names like Beach Party Bingo and Bikini Beach, died Monday. She was 70.

She died at Mercy Southwest Hospital in Bakersfield, Calif., of complications from multiple sclerosis, the Walt Disney Co. said.

Funicello stunned fans and friends in 1992 with the announcement about her ailment.

"She will forever hold a place in our hearts as one of Walt Disney's brightest stars, delighting an entire generation of baby boomers with her jubilant personality and endless talent," said Bob Iger, Disney chairman and CEO.

Avalon said Monday that Funicello never realized how beloved she was.

"She would say, 'Really?'" he told The Associated Press. "She was so bashful about it. She was an amazing girl."

Funicello was just 13 when she gained fame on Walt Disney's television kiddie "club," an amalgam of stories, songs and dance routines, that ran from 1955 to 1959.

Cast after Disney saw her at a dance recital, she soon became the most popular Mouseketeer, receiving 8,000 fan letters a month.

Her devotion to Walt Disney remained throughout her life.

"He was the dearest, kindest person, and truly was like a second father to me," she remarked. "He was a kid at heart."

Beach movie-a-go-go

When The Mickey Mouse Club ended, she was the only club member to remain under contract to the studio. She appeared in such Disney movies as Johnny Tremain and The Shaggy Dog.

She also became a recording star, singing on 15 albums .

Outgrowing the kid roles by the early '60s, Funicello teamed with Avalon in a series of beach movies aimed at the burgeoning teen market.

Living with MS

The shift in teen tastes begun by the Beatles in 1964 pretty much killed off the beach-movie genre.

But she was never forgotten, though she was mostly out of the public eye for years.

She wrote of her triumphs and struggles in her 1994 autobiography, A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes. And she spoke openly about the effects of MS.

In 1965, Funicello married her agent, Jack Gilardi, and they had three children. After her career ended, she devoted herself to her family.

Associated Press writer Bob Thomas in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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