As fans of Annette Funicello mourn her death at 70 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis, I realized that although the after-school, black-and-white memories belong to those who grew up with the Mousketeers (I didn’t watch the show), her smile belonged to everyone.
It’s a smile she wore even after she announced her MS diagnosis in 1992, when she greeted fans with kind words and good humor at events and shows. When she could no longer walk, and used a wheelchair, I would see photos of her taking care with each person who showed up with a doll or a lunchbox, a record or picture.
In the Disney announcement of her death, fellow Mouseketeer and long-time friend Sharon Baird said, “Throughout all the years we were friends she never changed from that sweet person who cared so much about others. She always had time for everyone; family, friends and fans alike.”
She became the most popular of Walt Disney’s Mouseketeers – Annette, no last name needed – because she was a friend for girls and a crush for guys. In photos of the young crew, her dark-haired beauty stood out; it was about as “ethnic” as Walt Disney’s Mouseketeers would ever get. Following Disney’s recommendation, she kept her bathing suits fairly modest in those beach-party movies – they look like burkas compared with today’s skimpy models.
Though later reports would paint Disney as a feared and demanding boss, Funicello never had a harsh word for the man she called her second father. And, like Baird, no one had anything but praise for Annette Funicello, who married, raised a family and skipped the too familiar trajectory of many child stars.
After she told the public about her illness, she established the Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases to fund research into the cause, treatment and cure of multiple sclerosis and similar diseases. While she waged her own battle, she launched a line of collectible Teddy bears on QVC, and developed her own perfume line, making more fans.
In recent years, as her MS worsened and she retreated from the public eye, Funicello became one of those celebrities you don’t really think about, until the news broke. Then, it was time for an avalanche of old film clips and photos to jog the memory – of the charming girl in tutu and pointe shoes or the young woman acting silly with Frankie Avalon on the beach.
Nothing, though, is more lasting than that open smile. “Annette was well known for being as beautiful inside as she was on the outside,” said Bob Iger, chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Company, “and she faced her physical challenges with dignity, bravery and grace.”
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3