Richard Hyatt: Time to say goodbye to Annette Funicello

April 9, 2013 

How do we explain our feelings for Annette Funicello when we don't understand them ourselves?

She was our television sweetheart before we could shave and before puberty did unexpected things to her Mouseketeer sweater. Our affection for her extended from puppy love to youthful lust.

Annette was a Walt Disney creation debuting in 1955 in the inaugural season of The Mickey Mouse Club. There was little children's programming on TV then so it wasn't long before my generation hurried home from school to see those nine handpicked Mouseketeers.

Elvis Presley was not yet a national phenomenon and American Bandstand hadn't started rating records and introducing us to rock 'n' roll heartthrobs like Frankie Avalon, Fabian and Paul Anka. So between 1955 and 1959, we had Annette.

She started off as part of a youthful ensemble that included Sharon Baird, Bobby Burgess, Lonnie Burr, Tommy Cole, Darlene Gillespie, Cubby O'Brien, Karen Pendleton and Doreen Tracey.

Watching the show every afternoon, we naively assumed the Mouseketeers were young people just like us when in reality they were professional show business kids. Others in the cast were more talented than Annette, but instantly she became everybody's wholesome next-door neighbor.

Girls wanted to be her, and guys wanted her.

When Georgia Tech football player Chick Granning was hospitalized after having his face rearranged by a brutal hit from Alabama linebacker Darwin Holt in 1961, Annette showed up at a Memphis hospital to wish him well after surgery. The publicity photograph went around the world and teen magazines wrongly claimed she was secretly dating the injured Yellow Jacket.

As the original Mickey Mouse Club began to fade, she starred in some of the most forgettable movies Hollywood ever produced. They were set at the beach. There was lots of sand, 90 minutes of bad acting and bad music and plenty of pretty girls in skimpy bikinis.

Except Annette. To maintain her Mickey Mouse image, she wore demure one-piece swimsuits. (She must have really been shocked when Doreen appeared in a men's magazine wearing nothing but her mouse ears.)

Disney resurrected the Mickey Mouse Club several times through the years. Various incarnations introduced the world to Lisa Whelchel, Keri Russell, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aquilera and Ryan Gosling. By then, the innocence was lost, replaced by a hip-hop group that would have made Annette blush.

Like the rest of us, Annette Funicello grew old. Years ago, we were shocked when she announced she suffered from multiple sclerosis and she had to lean on a cane for support. On Monday, we were sad when we learned she was dead at the age of 70.

My generation prefers to remember the dark-haired girl with the mouse ears who said it was time to say goodbye to all her company.

-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at hyatt31906@knology.net

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