In Walt Disney’s entertainment empire, Ms. Funicello was a princess. Although she wasn’t one of the animated fairy-tale heroines — despite having Cinderella’s humility and Snow White’s gentleness — she belonged to the real-life television royalty of “The Mickey Mouse Club.”
(The Mickey Mouse Club continued to generate stars from Mouseketeer ranks in later decades, notably Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake.)
First aired in 1955, the children’s television variety show featured two dozen children known by their first names and bedecked in Mickey Mouse ears who performed in skits and generally provided high-spirited youth-oriented entertainment.
With the word “ANNETTE” emblazoned across the chest of her white turtleneck — just high enough not to lure the eye astray — she won the hearts of armies of American boys who had yet to win their first kiss.
To young female viewers, she was demure and unthreatening, a regular girl who might make a good friend. She described herself as a “late bloomer.”
Walt Disney, the impresario of the wholesome who was looking for young entertainers for “The Mickey Mouse Club,” was reported to have discovered Ms. Funicello in a school production of “Swan Lake.” She was the star.
The last of the children selected for the program, Ms. Funicello swiftly became the best loved. Her fan mail — 6,000 letters or more per week — demonstrated her popularity. An untold number of those missives proposed marriage.
“I really didn’t know how popular I was at first,” she once told film critic Gene Siskel. “I became a Mouseketeer when I was 12. Mr. Disney kept our fan mail from us because he didn’t want to start any jealousy. But then it got out of hand after about a year.”
When the show ended in 1959, she was the only “Mouse Club” member to be offered a Disney contract. She appeared in a number of Disney films, including “The Shaggy Dog” (1959), “Babes in Toyland” (1961) and “The Misadventures of Merlin Jones” (1964).
She reinforced her innocent image by recording such popular songs as “Tall Paul” and “Pineapple Princess.” A series of albums, including “Italiannette” and “Hawaiiannette (both 1960), sold millions of copies. She became a female counterpart to teen idols such as Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell and Paul Anka, whom she was reportedly dating at the time when he wrote “Puppy Love.”
In the 1960s, she appeared in a handful of beach movies with Avalon, including “Beach Party,” “Muscle Beach Party,” “Bikini Beach,” “Beach Blanket Bingo” and, finally, in 1965, “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.”