Monday, April 8, 2013
I Remember Annette Funicello
In my 38 years as TV critic I was lucky to meet and interview many top Hollywood living legends: Cary Grant, Lucille Ball, Hank Fonda, Bette Davis, Jim Garner, Roz Russell, Jimmy Stewart.
Right at the top of my favorites list was Annette Funicello.
When we met at a Disneyland function in 1971 she proved as warm and likable as in her Mousketeer days and later beach outings with Frankie Avalon and Fabian.
It was NBC's tradition to shut down Disneyland for a night during the annual TV critics tour which took place in early June.
A lavish supper was laid out and tables set around the main pool.
The Disney organization was always intensely loyal to its stars past and present.
At one of these functions I saw Tommy Kirk from Little Yeller. He had retired to run a rug cleaning business.
And I also spotted Kevin Corcoran --sister Noreen had co-starred on the TV series Bachelor Father. After growing too old for kids' parts Kevin retired to become a top Disney executive.
By chance Annette was seated at my table in 1971 and we talked the night away.
The next year I was seated next to Hayley Mills who was almost as nice.
Born in 1942 Annette was four years my senior --I'd run home from Withrow Ave. Public school to catch the antics of Annette and her fellow Mouseketeers every afternoon at 4 on Buffalo's ABC affiliate, WKRP.
I asked her how she got chosen.
"We were always going on auditions," she remembered. "I mean my mother and me. I was a performer at the age of 4! I was born in Utica but we moved to California for dad's work. Uncle Walt chose me for his show in 1955 and that was that."
I didn't ask Annette about her nose job --Kirk told me that story. But look very closely and her nose does chance. Apparently Uncle Walt didn't want any of his cute kidlets to be considered ethnics.
The show ran from 1955 to 1959 and at her height Annette was receiving 8,000 fan letters a month.
"Did I answer all of them? I didn't even read all of them. That was all done by a separate Disney department. I had school work to do, we were mandated to have four hours a day of schooling."
How did Mr Disney treat you, I asked.
"Like a daughter. I had a crush on Guy Williams star of the Zorro series and Mr. Disney arranged for me to guest star on that show. He controlled my singing career, some of those records went gold but I never considered myself a singer."
I told her I'd read in one of the fan mags how much she hated rival Disney star Hayley Mills.
Annette said sharply "I know about those stories. Planted by Disney publicists. But I always liked Hayley, we were so different we never were up for the same roles. I remember receiving an award for her once when she was sick."
I wanted to know how she got into the Beach movies beginning with Beach Party in 1963?
"I was asked to join the cast so I went to Mr. Disney. I was still under personal contract to Disney Studios. He read the script and said certain risque lines had to go. And he made me promise I'd never appear in a two piece bathing suit. I had an image to protect. I remember his warning: You must never show your belly button. And I never have!"
The other films in the series included Muscle Beach Party (1964), Bikini Beach (1964), Pajama Party (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), How To Stuff A Wild Bikini (1965), Dr. Goldfoot And The Bikini Machine (1965).
"The stories were all the same. Mistaken identity. Falling in and out of puppy love. It was all very innocent. There was always a goofy guy like Dwane Hickman or Jody McCrea, My galpals might be Linda Evans or Debrah Whalley. we even had older stars like Bob Cummings around for laughs."
And then what happened?"We ran out of beaches."
What really happened was Annette married agent Jack Gilardi in 1965, settled down and raised their three children. Occasionally for fun she'd be seen on an episode of Love American Style or Fantasy Island.
"The only serious gig I had was for Skippy peanut butter."
She divorced Gilardi in 1983 and married horse breeder Glen Holt.
In 1987 she made a comeback with Avalon in the frail comedy Back To The Beach (1987) which was not a success.
It was on location that Annette began experiencing the first signs of multiple sclerosis. In 1996 she underwent brain surgery to slow down the resulting tremors.
In 2011 wheelchair bound Annette was hospitalized for smoke inhalation when her mome suffered major damage in a fire.
But I much prefer memories of Annette on that summer evening in 1972, radiant at 29, still very much a Mousketeer, back home on the Disney lot one more time.
In 1998 old pal Avalon summed up her appeal this way: "Annette was very attractive,very pretty and voluptuous. But Annette never flaunted it."
Annette Funicello died from complications associated with MS on April 8, aged 70.