NEW YORK – She was the first crush for a generation of boys, the perfect playmate for a generation of girls.
Annette Funicello, who became a child star as a cute-as-a-button Mouseketeer on “The Mickey Mouse Club” in the 1950s, ruled among baby boomers, who tuned in every weekday afternoon to watch her on their flickering black-and-white television sets.
Then they shed their mouse ears, as Annette did when she teamed up with Frankie Avalon during the ’60s in a string of frothy, fun-in-the-sun movies with titles such as “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.”
Decades later, she endeared herself to baby boomers all over again after she announced in 1992 that she had multiple sclerosis and began grappling with the slow, degenerative effects with remarkably good cheer and faith.
Funicello died Monday at Mercy Southwest Hospital in Bakersfield, Calif., of complications from MS, the Walt Disney Co. said. She was 70 and had dropped from public view years ago.
“She really had a tough existence,” Avalon told the Associated Press. “It’s like losing a family member. I’m devastated, but I’m not surprised.”
Avalon said that when they were working together, she never realized how beloved she was. “She would say, ‘Really?’ She was so bashful about it. She was an amazing girl,” he recalled.
The pretty, dark-haired Funicello was 13 when she gained fame on “The Mickey Mouse Club,” a kids’ variety show that consisted of stories, songs and dance routines. It ran on ABC from 1955 to 1959.
Cast after Walt Disney saw her at a dance recital, she appeared in the Mouseketeer uniform of mouse ears, a pleated skirt and a turtleneck sweater emblazoned with her first name, and captivated young viewers with her wholesome, girl-next-door appeal.
She became the most popular Mouseketeer, receiving 8,000 fan letters a month, 10 times more than any of the 23 other young performers.
“It was a happy time. They were wonderful times,” she recalled in a TV interview as an adult.
When “The Mickey Mouse Club” ended, Funicello was the only cast member to remain under contract to the studio. She appeared in such Disney movies as “Johnny Tremain,” “The Shaggy Dog” and “Babes in Toyland.”
She also became a recording star, singing on 15 albums.
Outgrowing the kid roles by the early ’60s, Funicello teamed with Avalon in a series of movies for American International, the first film company to exploit the burgeoning teen market.
The beach films featured ample youthful skin. But not Funicello’s.
She remembered in 1987: “Mr. Disney said to me one day, ‘Annette, I have a favor to ask of you. I know all the girls are wearing bikinis, but you have an image to uphold. I would appreciate it if you would wear a one-piece suit.’ I did, and I never regretted it.”
The shift in teen tastes begun by the Beatles in 1964 and Funicello’s first marriage the following year pretty much killed off the beach-movie genre.
After that, she had no interest in edgier, more “adult” roles.
“People are more interested in changing my image than I am,” she said in an interview.
She went public with her MS in 1992 and wrote of her triumphs and struggles in her 1994 autobiography, “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes.” In 1995, she appeared briefly in a television docudrama based on her book. And she spoke openly about the degenerative effects of MS.
“My equilibrium is no more; it’s just progressively getting worse,” she said. “But I thank God I just didn’t wake up one morning and not be able to walk. You learn to live with it. You learn to live with anything, you really do.”
Funicello was born Oct. 22, 1942, in Utica, N.Y., and her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 4. She began taking dance lessons, and she won a beauty contest at 9. Then came her discovery by Disney.
In 1965, Funicello married her agent, Jack Gilardi, and they had three children, Gina, Jack and Jason. The couple divorced 18 years later, and in 1986 she married Glen Holt, a harness racehorse trainer.
After her film career ended, she devoted herself to her family.
“We are so sorry to lose Mother,” her children said in a statement. “She is no longer suffering anymore and is now dancing in heaven.”