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Annette Funicello

Annette Funicello was 13 years old when she was discovered by studio head Walt Disney dancing in an amateur production of Swan Lake in Fullerton, California. Much to the enmity of her Mickey Mouse Club co-stars, Funicello joined the cast late in the show's first season and was not required to audition. However, Disney's impulses proved correct, as she swiftly became the most popular performer on The Mickey Mouse Club and featured in her own storyline, Adventures in Dairyland. Soon it was obvious that Funicello needed to make records in order to exploit her potential as a teen star, and while Annette wasn't very enthusiastic about her ability to sing, Disney engaged established arranger Tutti Camerata to pilot her career as a recording artist. Funicello's first record, "Tall Paul," peaked at number seven on the Billboard pop charts and spent nine weeks there; it would prove the highest chart position she would enjoy. Nevertheless, Funicello's enormous audience base -- mostly teen girls -- was enough to support her through 12 albums released through 1965, all but the first appearing on the Buena Vista label, a record company begun by Walt Disney so that Funicello's records need not appear on the Disneyland imprint. Funicello ultimately got accustomed to making records, and genuinely enjoyed working with Camerata, one of the few forty-something arrangers of the time who "got" the basic building blocks of early rock music. Her albums gradually improved starting with the third one, Annette Sings Anka, probably the first LP to treat the work of a rock songwriter as repertoire. In 1963, Funicello starred in Beach Party, the first of five immensely popular "beach party" films, usually co-starring Frankie Avalon; although produced by AIP, the scripts of every one of these films was personally read and approved by Walt Disney in order to protect Annette's squeaky-clean image. Funicello's film vehicles proved important grounds for breaking other artists; Stevie Wonder appeared in Muscle Beach Party (1964), James Brown in Ski Party (1965), and the Beach Boys backed her up in her final film for Disney, The Monkey's Uncle (1965). Funicello's own personal best in terms of LPs came with the soundtrack album to Muscle Beach Party. In 1965, Funicello informed Disney about her intention to marry, and to retire from acting, and Disney gave his blessing. Although she did appear afterward in a few films, including the Monkees' Head (1968), made TV commercials, and appeared in Dick Clark specials in the 1970s, Funicello essentially remained a retired, full-time mom from 1965 forward. She made one more album in the 1970s, The Annette Funicello Country Album, and it proved the only record she made that reflects her personal interests in music. In 1993, Funicello disclosed that she was suffering from multiple sclerosis, and did not appear in public in the years that followed. Her work for Buena Vista remains an acquired taste, a little too saccharine for some listeners. However, some of Camerata's arrangements really did "rock" and Funicello's bright, straightforward, and always enthusiastic singing looked forward to female pop singers of a much later era, the new wave vocalists of the 1980s. In April 2013, Annette Funicello died from complications of the multiple sclerosis she had disclosed years earlier; she was 70 years old.
© Uncle Dave Lewis /TiVo


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