Actress Annette Funicello, who rose to fame on The Mickey Mouse Club and a string of popular beach movies, passed away Monday at a hospital in Bakersfield, CA. She died of complications from multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease she battled for over 25 years.
Funicello became a pop culture icon in the 1950’s and 60’s, known for her good cheer and wholesome image. But in the last decade of her life the painful and debilitating effects of MS robbed her of the ability to walk and speak, and she became a virtual recluse who required around-the-clock care.
“Annette was well known for being as beautiful inside as she was on the outside, and she faced her physical challenges with dignity, bravery and grace. All of us at Disney join with family, friends, and fans around the world in celebrating her extraordinary life,” said Bob Iger, Chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company
Born October 22, 1942, in Utica, New York, Funicello and her family moved to Los Angeles when she was four years old. She was discovered by Walt Disney at age 13 at a ballet performance. After one audition, Disney hired her as one of the original Mouseketeers on The Mickey Mouse Club, which made its debut in 1955.
Funicello also starred in several Disney films, before appearing with teen idol Frankie Avalon in a series of beach party movies, including Beach Party (1963), Muscle Beach Party (1964), Bikini Beach (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965). During that time, she also recorded a series of top 40 songs, including “Tall Paul,” “First Name Initial,” “How Will I Know My Love,” and “Pineapple Princess.”
In 1987, Funicello began to suffer from dizzy spells and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a chronic, often disabling disease of the central nervous system. Funicello kept her illness a secret until 1992, when she went public with it to combat rumors that her impaired ability to walk was the result of alcoholism.
“I think you only have two choices in this kind of situation. Either you give in to it or you fight it. I intend to fight,” Funicello said at the time
The next year, she opened the Annette Funicello Fund for Neurological Disorders at the California Community Foundation. It is dedicated to funding research into the cause, treatment and cure of MS and other neurological diseases.
Despite her illness, Funicello launched The Annette Funicello Teddy Bear Company, marketing a line of collectible bears on QVC, and developed her own perfume line.
As her MS progressed, Annette retreated from public appearances in the late 1990s and was cared for by her husband, rancher Glen Holt, who she married in 1986.
One of her last public appearances was with her husband at a doll collector show in Los Angeles in 2013:
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, often disabling disease that attacks the central nervous system, destroying the protective myelin sheath that protects nerve cells in the brain, optic nerve and spinal cord.
Symptoms may be mild or severe, ranging from numbness in the limbs to paralysis or loss of vision. The progression, severity and symptoms of MS are unpredictable and vary from one person to another.
An estimated 400,000 Americans have the disease and more than 2 million worldwide. There is no known cure.
In lieu of flowers, Annette’s family requests that donations be made to The Annette Funicello Research Fund at annetteconnection.com.