The Original "Disney Girls" were cartoon characters: Minnie, Snow White, Cinderella, etc. In the 1950s when Walt Disney tackled the relatively new medium of television, he displayed a knack for finding young, inexperienced real-life actors and dancers with potential for stardom. His methods evolved quickly and the more promising discoveries worked their way from TV to movies and, from the feminine side as it turned out, singing careers. He saw something in Annette Funicello when he came across her performing in a dance school ballet at age 12; her eventual success provided the template by which many other Disney Girls, right up to the present day, have become stars.

Had her family never moved to Southern California from Utica, New York, the whole "Disney Girl" phenomenon might never have started. Her father, Joseph Funicello, lured by warmer weather and, hopefully, better opportunities, packed up the family (with mother Virginia and younger brother Michael) and made the difficult cross-country trip in 1946 when Annette was four. Her interest in music found an outlet in drumming and for several years she took dance lessons. A 1955 recital of Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake at Margaret Rix's School of Dance was witnessed by none other than Mr. Disney, attending at the request of a friend; he hadn't expected to see an appealing young performer who just might fit right in with his upcoming TV project. He sent word the next day offering her a chance to audition at the Disney studios. To say she was shy, nervous, introverted - not interested! - would be an understatement. But mom insisted; the audition, in Annette's mind, was a disaster. Nevertheless, Walt invited her back for two further auditions, she loosened up a bit and even showed off her skills behind the drumkit. But at first she refused to sing; after some coaxing, the reason became clear. Her vocal limitations were painfully obvious.

But Disney kept her in mind as hundreds of children tried out for what became The Mickey Mouse Club. Ultimately 24 were chosen and she was the last, Walt's only personal pick. Prior to the show's premiere, a July '55 TV special featuring Ronald Reagan, Art Linkletter and Bob Cummings heralded the grand opening of Walt's elaborate Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California. All the Mouseketeers were there, calling out their first names, a fleeting public debut for the future star. The weekday afternoon children's series premiered on October 3, 1955 with 45-year-old actor-songwriter Jimmie Dodd serving as the show's emcee; he composed the "Mickey Mouse Club March" as well as "Annette," a song he performed in an early episode (both were released on the Official Mickey Mouse Club record label).

But this 13-year-old with her first name emblazoned onto her turtleneck Mouseketeer outfit was so self-conscious! She asked Disney if she could change her name to Annette Turner, afraid the Funicello surname would be too hard for viewers to pronounce. He preferred her given name and the Mouseketeers were all referred to mononymically anyway. It didn't take long for viewers to reveal a preference: Annette was their favorite! She received as many fan letters as the rest of the cast combined; hundreds of those letters contained marriage proposals from young boys. Being Italian seemed to work in her favor. Castmate Doreen Tracy offered one reason she was so popular, calling her "a small version of Sophia Loren." She wasn't given professional acting lessons; Disney wanted the Mouseketeers come across as "regular kids," yet it became increasingly clear Annette had a certain star quality.

After being featured in Adventures in Dairyland and Spin and Marty (Mouse Club's shows-within-the-show), she was was given her own serial, naturally titled Annette. On one episode she sang "How Will I Know My Love," a wistful, wannabe-love song (with backing vocals by the other Mouseketeers) penned by Tom Adair and lyricists Frances Jeffords (Tom's wife) and William Walsh. No expectations were put on this lightweight tune (except maybe by Uncle Walt!), but young viewers reacted immediately. It was released on a Disneyland label 45 and spent several weeks on the Cash Box singles charts in the summer of '58; sales were estimated around 200,000 copies. The Mickey Mouse Club had been canceled by that time (though ABC continued to air repeats for another year), but the singing-star phase of Annette's career was just beginning.

"That Crazy Place in Outer Space," a second-effort novelty likely inspired by 1958's prevailing "Purple People Eater" craze, met with minimal interest; staff orchestra leader and arranger Salvador "Tutti" Camarata expressed his concerns to Disney about her vocal issues. Meanwhile, representatives for the company searched for commercially promising material for Walt's 16-year-old wonder girl. Enter struggling sibling songwriters Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman who, with similarly desperate tunesmith Bob Roberts, had penned "Tall Paul" ('...great big eyes...great big smile...great big kiss!'). The song was recorded that fall by first-season Mouseketeer Judy Harriet for a small Burbank-based label, Surf, featuring spoken parts by "Paul" ('Oh, yeah...that's me!'). Before long a Funicello version would leave the original in its dust (but don't feel too bad for Judy; after being bounced from the Mousketeer lineup she had a few film roles, the highlight a rocking onscreen performance of "Hard Rock Candy Baby" in the cinematic guilty pleasure Bop Girl Goes Calypso).

As confident a performer as Judy was, Annette was the opposite. She tried her best to appease Disney, nervous and very critical of herself at all times. Camarata (a seasoned pro who'd worked with some of the all-time greats including Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra) offered a great deal of guidance as some sessions involved many, many takes. One trick he used was to double-track her vocals and add reverb for a stronger sound. The first time the Sherman brothers heard her recording, they were not pleased. Then "Tall Paul" (with Tutti's technical enhancements) took off, reaching Billboard's top ten in February 1959 (the record credited The Afterbeats, a general name for studio musicians that would be used several more times). Afterwards, Disney engaged the brothers on a regular basis, resulting in a string of hit compositions and many film scores. This one break led to a stellar career for the oft-credited (and eventual two-time Academy Award-winning) Dick and Bob Sherman.

"Typical middle class teenager" Annette had no choice but to adjust to being a star and get over her multiple apprehensions! The Shermans and Roberts came up with the next single, "Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy" (her first on Disney's Buena Vista label), an oddball tale of a teen rock and roll idol who sang like '...a wounded hound' and '...drove the crowd stark raving mad!' (clearly those Oscars would be earned after much trial and error). Follow-up "Lonely Guitar" (a ballad penned by Jimmie Dodd) revealed a notable (albeit echo-drenched) improvement in Annette's voice. Both songs landed mid-chart; "frightened" was the word Annette used to describe how she felt every time she entered the recording studio. In 1959 she appeared in her first theatrical motion picture, Disney's The Shaggy Dog starring Fred MacMurray, three Zorro episodes and a five-time Danny Thomas Show stint playing Gina ("...from Italy"), performing her single "Wild Willie" on the final installment. Guest appearances on ABC's American Bandstand were a regular thing too.

By this time she was socializing with a more adult group of peers, high-profile singers like Bobby Darin and Connie Francis. Then there was the Philadelphia heartthrob whose ode to "Venus" leapt to number one while "Tall Paul" was hitting; she and Frankie Avalon became very good friends and, though it never turned into anything serious, they later became connected in the eyes of many fans. Rumored romances with Frankie and Fabian never amounted to anything, but it was different with Paul Anka; he sought a more active courtship - one she fell for. They toured with Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars, which covered more than 40 cities throughout September and October 1959 (with Annette's mother accompanying her as a chaperone); headlined by Anka, the show featured a who's-who of the year's top singers (Lloyd Price, Duane Eddy, Jimmy Clanton, LaVern Baker, Bobby Rydell, Jack Scott, Freddy Cannon, The Coasters, The Drifters and at least a dozen more). Even with mom there, Paul and Annette grew closer. After the tour, "First Name Initial" began climbing the charts and returned her to the top 20 in January 1960.

"O Dio Mio" (penned by Al Hoffman and Dick Manning in an Italian style) became her second top ten hit in April. Some months earlier, Anka had written "Puppy Love" for his crush (and it became one of the biggest hits of his career). With Disney and Camarata's approval, she recorded Annette Sings Anka, her highest-charting LP, with 12 songs penned by beau Paul including two chart singles, "Train of Love" (a top 40 hit) and "Talk to Me Baby." Another of the album's tracks, "It's Only Love," was reworked two years later as an intrumental (titled "Johnny's Theme," it opened NBC-TV's Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson for the late night series' entire 30-season run). Annette hadn't felt so serious about anyone until Paul came along...but romances in the spotlight can get complicated and their "puppy love" eventually ran its course.

"Pineapple Princess," another Sherman-Sherman song, returned Annette to the upper regions of the pop singles charts in September 1960; the lead track from 50th-state concept album Hawaiiannette, it preceded Italiannette, which included another popular Sherman single, "Dream Boy." 1961 was a stellar year for Disney at the box office; with Tommy Sands, she recorded the theme from The Parent Trap, starring next-phase Disney Girl Hayley Mills (playing plotting twins!), the year's third biggest moneymaker behind Columbia's The Guns of Navarone and Disney's The Absent-Minded Professor. At the time, Sands and Funicello were filming Babes in Toyland (she played "Mary Quite Contrary"), one of four top-grossing theatrical films for the studio that year. While her film career was on the rise, Annette's power as a hitmaking singer began to fade; several singles were issued over the next two years, including "Dreamin' About You" with backing vocals by The Vonnair Sisters (Sonia, Sheila and Renee Von Ever), "Bella Bella Florence," a duet with Italian singer Gianni Marzocchi, and "Serendipity," a duet with MacMurray from Son of Flubber.

Annette Funicello

James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, the masterminds behind American International Pictures, weren't the first to reach out to Annette about an opportunity to star in a non-Disney movie. But Walt had final say and had only given his blessing to a few TV appearances. They needed an appropriate leading lady for Frankie Avalon in Beach Party, designed to take advantage of the "surf and sand" trend in music and at theaters. Walt gave the go-ahead, with one condition: she would wear modest swimwear. No bikinis. She was a Disney Girl! Released in August 1963, the low budget film made a two million dollar profit, better than any A.I. production since the company had begun eight years earlier. Annette had a minor chart single with a ballad from the film, "Promise Me Anything," and better yet, Buena Vista's album tie-in Annette's Beach Party was her best-selling record in two years. Several more beach movies were planned.

Guest roles in TV dramas (Wagon Train, Burke's Law) kept coming and The Misadventures of Merlin Jones with Tommy Kirk was another cinema hit in early '64; she sang "Merlin Jones" with male trio The Wellingtons, whose credits included the theme for Disney's Sunday show The Wonderful World of Color and the famous sitcom singalong from Gilligan's Island. Beach-bound sequels (Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, Beach Blanket Bingo, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini) appeared over the next couple of years. Pajama Party left the sand and Avalon behind (Kirk took his place); The Monkey's Uncle (a Merlin follow-up that paired her again with Kirk), for which she performed the opening theme with The Beach Boys, was another big-money Disney pic in '65.

She had brief cameos in American International romps Ski Party and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, took a breather long enough to marry showbiz casting director and agent Jack Gilardi in late '65, starred again with Frankie (and Fabian) in the 1966 race car romance Fireball 500, then finished the cycle with another racing flick, '67's Thunder Alley (sans Avalon with Fabian top-billed); no longer on Buena Vista after Walt Disney's death in 1966, Annette's song from the film, "What's a Girl to Do," was released on the Tower label. With no further desire to appear in formula B productions, she took a small part in the trippy Monkees movie Head before giving it all up to be a wife and mother. Years went by with only one credit (in a 1971 Love American Style segment) until, in 1976, she participated in a four-episode summer variety show, Easy Does It...Starring Frankie Avalon, which led to a pilot for a proposed series, Frankie and Annette: The Second Time Around, but it went unsold. Her marriage to Gilardi ended in 1981; she and Frankie recorded "Together We Can Make a Merry Christmas" for the Pacific Star label later that same year.

A second marriage to race horse trainer Glen Holt, whom she'd first met in the late '50s, occurred several months before filming began on Back to the Beach, a bigger-budget 1987 Frankie and Annette shindig done as a parody of the earlier movies with several '60s-era participants (Connie Stevens, Edd "Kookie" Byrnes, Bob Denver and Leave it to Beaver stars Barbara Billingsley, Tony Dow and Jerry Mathers) along for the ride. During filming she began having difficulties with her equilibrium; diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, it wasn't particularly noticeable at first, so she chose to keep it private, finally revealing her affliction to the public in 1992. Two years later she published her autobiography, A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes: The Annette Funicello Story, also used as the title of a 1995 biopic in which she appeared as herself.

In later years, Holt constantly cared for Annette as the disease gradually worsened, committing himself to giving her as much joy as possible. When fans spotted her in public, they showed their fondness without focusing on her physical issues, which pleased her. Of course, she'd never given anyone reason to feel anything but the deepest affection. "America's Sweetheart" is an expression that has been overused. But throughout her life, Annette Funicello personified the term as much, or more, than anyone. She's the primary inspiration for all the Disney Girls of the past and future.

- Michael Jack Kirby



Tall Paul First Name Initial O Dio Mio Pineapple Princess Talk to Me Baby Dream Boy The Parent Trap Dreamin' About You The Monkey's Uncle