NEW YORK -- "What day is this, Tuesday?" says Frankie Avalon, sagging wearily into the sofa cushions.
Talk about a cue. " 'Today is Tues-day, you know what that means; we're going to have a Spe-cial Guest,' " twitters Annette Funicello without a second's prompting, all such ditties from her Mousketeer childhood wired into her brain. "Tuesday was my favorite," she adds. "I liked the song."
"I thought she was a Musketeer," Frankie quips. "Always wondered where D'Artagnan and the rest of the guys were." He's a million laughs.
Jeepers, Frankie and Annette. Thirty years since he was a teen crooner and she was a nymphet in mouse ears; twenty-odd since they were bathing cuties in all those mindless cheapo beach movies; and here they are again, not a streak of gray on either carefully groomed head, chirpily flacking for their new movie "Back to the Beach."
They sit close together on the hotel room sofa; he calls her "dear." When it's picture-taking time, they slide into each other's arms with the ease of two people who've known each other forever. "Tell me when," Frankie tells the photographer, "so I can suck in my gut."
First, the stuff you really want to know. He's 47, not so much of a gut, to tell the truth, face not unduly jowly or creased, hair like the shag carpeting in a garden apartment complex. She's 44, thinner than you remember her, those winged black eyebrows still fixed in an expression of eternal surprise.
Each has lived happily ever after, pretty much. Avalon's been married to "the former Kay Deibel," as the press kit puts it, since 1963 and is the father of eight. Funicello, who has three children, was divorced, sad to say. But about a year ago she married a horse breeder and now calls herself "a newlywed" and says it's "absolutely wonderful" and that her new husband Glen Holt is "quite a guy." He accompanied her on the first leg of this promotional blitz, but at the moment she's traveling with her mom.
Well, what did you expect? Sordid Hollywood tales? Confessions of retreats to the Betty Ford Center? We are talking Frankie and Annette, whose gang of cinematic surfers would spend days frugging and ogling on the sand, nights frugging and smooching at a beachside bar, then repair to a shack with a blanket hung between the boys' bedroom and the girls' -- where no one ever crossed the Maginot Line.
In their six good-clean-fun flicks, from "Beach Party" in 1963 through "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini" in 1965, his most erotic line was "Awww, honey." She could cruise in a red roadster, ride the wild surf, and once (in "Beach Blanket Bingo") actually parachute into the Pacific -- all without disturbing a strand of her glossy bouffant 'do.
Some actors would have been screaming about typecasting and artistic growth, would now be lobbying to play hookers, cokeheads and Nazis. Frankie and Annette? "Nahhh," says Frankie. "We've been very lucky to stay around for four decades. Lucky, fortunate and blessed ... How can you turn your back on that? Unless you're a nut."
Avalon and Funicello are not nuts; they've known for years that they had a potentially lucrative franchise in an age when nostalgia sells.
Frankie did something like 80 concerts last year, plus syndicated TV specials, but hadn't made a movie since he'd appeared as a Teen Angel in "Grease." Annette had stopped making Skippy peanut butter commercials after almost a decade. ("Time to say goodbye," she smiles, suddenly breaking into song. "Que sera, sera.")
People had been asking them when they were going to make another beach movie together, and with everything from Perry Mason to miniskirts making comebacks, it seemed time to cash in.
There were scripts written, lots of them. "We were married," Frankie ticks off the proposed plots. "We weren't married. Her husband died and I was divorced."
"One, we were divorced," Annette chimes in. "The picture opened with me throwing something at him -- splat! -- against the wall." She gestures with perfect frosted-salmon nails.
The idea was "to do a sequel," Frankie says. "Bring back Bonehead, Candy, Animal, all those characters."
These were the surfer guys and gals that Frankie and Annette hung out with back when. (No one named Moondoggie appeared in a Frankie-and-Annette flick; you're thinking of the Gidget oeuvre.) Your celluloid surfer had no job, no family, no thoughts of high SPF-rated sunscreens. But he or she knew how to shake that thing and did so, repeatedly, through 90 minutes of dopey subplot that typically involved outsiders threatening to take over the beach -- bikers in black leather, for instance -- and appearances by unhip comics like Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett and Paul Lynde. Dick Dale and the Del-Tones would provide a pseudosurf sound track ("Everybody's gonna grab a chick now; everybody's gonna get their kicks now"). And while all this was going on, some bimbo would make eyes at Frankie, forcing Annette to sulk for a good 45 minutes before their final duet and clinch.
Contemporary studios had as much interest in reviving this formula, Avalon and Funicello came to learn, as in reverting to silent films. Most moviegoers are kids; most of Frankie and Annette's loyal fans aren't.
At Paramount's strong suggestion, therefore, "Back to the Beach" is self-parody. A middle-aged Frankie sells cars in Ohio; his dippy wife Annette forces endless peanut butter sandwiches on her kids and won't leave the house without a headband to match her dress; their nubile daughter and her surfer boyfriend (who does not sleep on the other side of a blanket barrier) provide the mush. The movie has cameos by '50s TV stars (the Beaver, Gilligan, Kookie et al.) and by an '80s TV star (Pee-wee Herman), musical numbers by Stevie Ray Vaughan and by Frankie with Connie Stevens. Something for everyone; the marketers have clearly been all over it.
Did Frankie and Annette mind becoming caricatures of their younger selves? "It was the only way to go," Annette says serenely. "Because yesterday's movies would not have worked today."
The other major difference in this neobeach picture, Avalon points out, is two months and $9.7 million. The old movies were shot in 15 days ("we talked fast," says Frankie) and cost $300,000 a pop. "Back to the Beach" involved such novelties as rehearsals.
"It's still considered a B-film," Frankie comments.
"It's not a B-film." Annette is shocked. Is that nice?
After a long day of interviews, Annette's throat is killing her; she's going to excuse herself and "bag some Zs," as someone once actually said in "Muscle Beach Party."
Annette blows Frankie a kiss.
"Get a good rest," Frankie says tenderly.
Now and then he remembers that he's made more than 30 motion pictures, "with Otto Preminger, whoever you want to name," and that "nobody's seen them. They're just not around." Some of his best work, Frankie says, was "in episodic television," a particularly perishable medium for most of its actors. You can't rent cassettes of old "Police Story" and "Combat" episodes.
Sometimes it bothers him that so much of a 40-year career goes unremarked. "You'd like your work to be seen and noticed," Frankie says. "But you can't predict, 'This one's gonna be a hit, that one's gonna be a flop.' You've gotta go along with it ... The ones that stand out are the beach pictures."
And if there were going to be one last beach blast, Frankie and Annette had decided, they were going to go out with pizazz. A network had offered them a two-hour television movie, but they'd turned it down. "We didn't want to do a one-timer," he says. "It's on Sunday night, and if you have a ball game to go to, you miss it ... A motion picture makes a mark."
Which raises the question of whether this is really the Last Beach Movie. "Back to the Beach" was produced by the man who brought you "Friday the 13th" Parts III through VI. If it makes enough of a mark, well, dig the possibilities. The daughter and her surfer boy starring in a new generation of mindless, still-pretty-cheapo beach movies. "They'll come visit us," Frankie muses. "We'll do cameos."
Picture it. "Son of a Beach." "Bored With the Beach." "The Beach Goes On."