The FIRST LADY OF THE BEACH PARTY HANGS UP HER SURFBOARD
Not too many celebrity deaths bring a tear to my eye (only Lucille Ball and Jill Haworth come quickly to mind), but the passing of Annette Funicello has and more. I spent many an afternoon as a pre-teen and teen glued to the TV set watching Annette, Frankie Avalon and the zany beach party gang on the ABC-TV 4:30 Movie. Annette was just so pretty and likable and had such wonderful chemistry with Frankie. Her films like Beach Party, Beach Blanket Bingo, Pajama Party, Muscle Beach Party always brought joy to a sometimes lonely kid in the suburbs.
Annette Joanne Funicello was born on October 22, 1942. Her family relocated to Los Angeles from Utica when Annette was just a child and her mother enrolled her timid daughter into dance classes to help her overcome her shyness. Producer Walt Disney happened to see her dance the lead role in Swan Lake at her school’s year-end recital in the spring of 1955 and had an associate contact her to audition to become a Mouseketeer. The Mickey Mouse Club debuted in October 1955 and Annette quickly became one of the show’s most popular cast members. Part of this had to do with her talent and the sweetness that she just radiated but the fact that the twelve-year-old was maturing into womanhood far faster than her peers certainly played a big factor. Due to her growing bosom she quickly became the fantasy girl of pubescent boys around the country and the butt of many jokes.
The Mickey Mouse Club was excellent training for the newcomer as she sang and danced, and acted in a number of its serials including her own entitled “Annette.” When the series came to an end in 1959, Funicello was the only Mouseketeer who remained under contract at Disney. Though her singing voice was thin, it was perfect for the undiscriminating teenage rock ‘n’ roll fan. Annette cut a few singles—the most popular being “Tall Paul,” which climbed to No. 7 on the Billboard charts in 1959. She had another Top 10 hit the following year with “O Dio Mio.”
Walt Disney, who took the amiable girl under his wing, knew she had acting talent and cast her in the hit comedy The Shaggy Dog (1959) starring Fred MacMurray and Tommy Kirk. Annette went on to star in The Horsemasters (1960) one of three films that she starred in that were broadcast in two parts on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color but released theatrically in Europe and other parts of the world. Annette could be seen on the big screens in the U.S. as Mary Contrary in the disappointing musical Babes in Toyland (1961).
In 1962, Annette turned twenty years old and Disney was having trouble finding parts for the well-developed actress to play. When AIP offered her a lead role in the swinging new surfing epic Beach Party (1963), Disney strongly advised Annette to take the role but not to wear a bikini so she would stick out from the other beach beauties like Valora Noland, Delores Wells, Salli Sachse, and Meredith MacRae. Paired with Frankie Avalon as teenage lovers Frankie and Dolores, Beach Party was the sleeper of the year and AIP immediately commissioned a sequel. After starring with Tommy Kirk in Disney’s The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964), Annette reprised her Beach Party character renamed Dee Dee in Muscle Beach Party (1964) where the surfers battle the musclemen and Bikini Beach (1964) where drag racing and British Potato Bug (Avalon in a dual role parodying the Beatles) take center stage. Pajama Party (1964) was an offshoot as Annette co-starred with Disney alumni Tommy Kirk playing a Martian who crashes the beach party.
All four of Annette’s movies were box office hits and she delivered charming performances especially in Muscle Beach Party as she vied for Frankie with Luciana Paluzzi as a spoiled Italian contessa. She was voted a Star of Tomorrow placing second in the Motion Pictures Exhibitor’s poll and was named a Star of the Future by Boxoffice magazine. That same year she was also nominated for the Photoplay Gold Medal Award for Favorite Actress.
Though Annette became synonymous with surfing and beach movies, she rarely ventured into the ocean with her surfboard or even got her hair wet. She explained in Interview, “Well, 24 years ago the surfboards were so big and heavy. A couple of times we tried to get a shot of me grabbing a board, running down to the water and diving in. But every time we’d rehearse it I’d grab this huge board and say something like, ‘Hey kids! Surf’s up!’ and then I’d have to drag this heavy, ungainly board down to the water. By the time I got to the ocean I’d be totally out of breath.” Needless to say, director William Asher (a real surfer himself) gave up and used the old reliable blue screen to show Annette “surfing” the waves.
Annette had a very busy year in 1965. She married her agent Jack Gilardi and then re-teamed with Tommy Kirk in the Disney comedy, The Monkey’s Uncle, whose title tune was sung by Annette and the Beach Boys on screen. After co-starring with Frankie Avalon in arguably the best of the sand-and-surf epics Beach Blanket Bingo and making a very funny cameo appearance as an amorous college professor in Ski Party, Annette became pregnant with her first child. She was a few months along when she had to head back to the beach for How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.
Though How to Stuff a Wild Bikini was the end of the beach-party for Frankie and Annette, AIP would team the popular duo one last time. Fireball 500 (1966) featured Avalon and Fabian as rival stock car racers who battled over the charms of Annette while becoming embroiled in a moonshine smuggling operation. Funicello would co-star again with Fabian in Thunder Alley (1967) playing the good girl vying with Diane McBain as a golddigging vixen for stunt driver Fabian. It was her final movie for AIP.
After leaving the studio in 1967, Annette Funicello did a cameo as Davy Jones’ girlfriend in The Monkees’ madcap musical Head (1968) before limiting her acting career to spend more time with her children. She made sporadic TV guest appearances during the seventies and co-hosted with Frankie Avalon the variety series, Easy Does It in 1976. But she is best remembered as the spokeswoman for Skippy Peanut Butter in a string of commercials that ran into the eighties. Annette was more active during the Reagan years and donned a swimsuit for her return with Frankie Avalon to the sandy shores of Malibu in Back to the Beach (1987). They were wonderful and didn’t disappoint, however the producers did by not bringing back any of the old beach party gang like Mike Nader, Aron Kincaid, Salli Sachse, Patti Chandler, Bobbi Shaw, etc. Instead they surrounded the duo with former sitcom stars of the sixties and an annoying Connie Stevens. Annette though as one last wonderful on screen musical number.
Annette was diagnosed with Multiple Scierosis in 1988. At first the devastating nerve disorder just affected her balance but got progressively worse and due to her illness disappeared from public life.
Goodbye Annette. The beach won’t be the same without you in your one-piece.