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Remembering Annette Funicello, America's Mouseketeer



This is FRESH AIR. We're going to remember Annette Funicello. She died yesterday at the age of 70 from complications of multiple sclerosis, which she had had for more than 25 years.

For anyone growing up in the 1950s, Annette Funicello was a huge celebrity, one of the original Mouseketeers on Walt Disney's "Mickey Mouse Club." The show premiered in 1955. After it ended in '58, Annette had pop hits and starred Beach Blanket movies, then she left the business to raise her children. I spoke with her in 1994 after the publication of her memoir. At that time, because of the MS, she needed a walker at home and a wheelchair when she traveled.

You must hear this all the time, but, you know, I grew up watching the "Mickey Mouse Club" and, of course, like every kid who watched it, I wanted to be a Mouseketeer. I remember one of my neighbors who is about my age, you know, she was a girl, one day I saw her and she had these mouse ears on and I thought, oh, God, I'm so jealous. She's a Mouseketeer now. How did she manage to do this? And, of course, I later figured out she just probably went to Disneyland or something and bought them. But, you know, those mouse ears was such a status symbol when you were a kid. How did you feel the first time you saw the mouse ears and put them on?

ANNETTE FUNICELLO: Well, it was a shock because I think the first thing we thought - especially the boys - was, what do you mean I have to wear those things on my head?

GROSS: Yeah. They were really stupid looking.


FUNICELLO: Yes. And it ruined the boys pomp.

GROSS: Right.

FUNICELLO: So it was quite a shock to us - especially since you don't have any idea about a premise of a show called the "Mickey Mouse Club." It was, it was weird.

GROSS: What were the mouse ears made of?

FUNICELLO: They were beautifully made. They were the finest quality felt and ears were wired, so they didn't flop around. And the girls had beautiful red satin bows and we used to bobby pin them on. And they were very expensive, I mean in those days, I guess they cost about $50 each. And if we accidentally laid them down on the set and couldn't find them anymore, they came out of our pay.

GROSS: Were you ever in that position? Did you ever get fined?

FUNICELLO: I lost three ears - three pairs of ears.


FUNICELLO: And yes, they came out of my pay. So we made sure that we left those bobby pins in and didn't lay 'em around anymore.

GROSS: What was your favorite day of the week? Let's see, Friday was talent roundup day.

FUNICELLO: That was my favorite.


FUNICELLO: I loved it. I was always interested in horses and, you know, being a cowgirl.

GROSS: I really envied you being able to wear the cowgirl suit. I desperately wanted to be a cowgirl when I was growing up.

FUNICELLO: Weren't they great outfits?


GROSS: Yeah. They really were.

FUNICELLO: You know, they were, and those cowboy hats and boots we wore, everything was done in such good taste.

GROSS: After the "Mickey Mouse Club," when you stayed under contract with Disney, he had you start a recording career. So why don't we hear the first hit that you had, and this is "Tall Paul."


FUNICELLO: (Singing) Everybody knows it. I love Paul. Tall Paul, tall Paul. Tall Paul, he's-a my all.

(Singing) Chalk on the sidewalk (chalk on the sidewalk). Initials on a tree (initials on a tree). Ev'rybody knows it (ev'rybody knows it). Paul loves me. (Tall Paul).

(Singing) With the king-size arms. (Tall Paul). With the king-size charms. (Tall Paul). With the king-size kiss. (He's my all) He's my all.

GROSS: That's Annette Funicello, "Tall Paul." Now you didn't think of yourself as much of a singer, and there was what has come to be known as Annette Sound...


FUNICELLO: Yes. Right.

GROSS: ...that was created in part to compensate for the fact that you were still a girl and you didn't have a real, like, singer's voice. What was the sound?

FUNICELLO: Well, Tutti Camaratta, who was my musical conductor, knew how uncomfortable I was and he said I'm going to try something new. It's never been done before. I would sing the first time and then I'd sing to myself and then they would add a lot of echo chambers to it. We came up with the Annette Sound and it made my voice much stronger and I felt much more confident with the echo chambers.

GROSS: It was during the period that you were recording pop tunes and on the road with Dick Clark that you started a romance with Paul Anka. So did he write songs that were about you?

FUNICELLO: Yes. Well, he had the big hit song "Puppy Love," and it was a great song. We were sitting in my mom and dad's living room one night and we were talking about our romance and how crazy we really were about each other. And he said what a shame everyone calls it puppy love. They don't know how we really feel. And I think he said that's a great title for a song, let me work on that. So he just sat at our piano and kind of fiddled around and I guess later he went on to finish the song and it was one of his biggest hits.

GROSS: That must've been fun, someone tells you how much they care about you and they go oh, excuse me, that's a great idea for a song and then they leave you to go sit at the piano and work it out.


FUNICELLO: But that's the way Paul was. You know, he would think of songs at the most inopportune moment. He was a genius. I think he was really so far ahead of all the other pop singers. He was always more adult, had greater goals in mind. He didn't want to do just rock and roll shows.

GROSS: When did you start experiencing the symptoms of MS and realize that something was probably wrong?

FUNICELLO: When I was doing "Back to the Beach."

GROSS: That was 1987.

FUNICELLO: Yes. Yes. We did it in January and February. And there was something different. I had never experienced tingling in my fingers and my toes before. And I couldn't walk on the sand very well. And of course that's not easy to do at best, but I knew there was something wrong. And I couldn't explain it.

GROSS: When you found out that you had MS, it was several years afterwards that you decided to actually tell the public about it. But I mean even early on you withheld the information from some of your family and some of your close friends. Why didn't you want people to know?

FUNICELLO: Because I didn't want anyone to worry about me.

GROSS: Or to feel sorry for you?

FUNICELLO: Yes. I didn't want pity. That was very important to me. I just thought if I hid it, it might go away. And I walked with a cane and I was lying. Every day I was telling a different story.

GROSS: What kind of stories would you make up to explain the cane? And the other problems you were having?

FUNICELLO: Well, that I had dancers knees that finally caught up with me. The old tendinitis set in. And, you know, I would always hold my left leg. But sometimes I would forget and hold my right. And people would say, but I thought it was your left. I mean I was getting caught up in this pack of lies. And I realized when you lie you have to remember, and I wasn't. So I knew it had to end soon.

I had to do something about it because I wasn't happy.

GROSS: What is the experience of reliving your past to write this book been like?

FUNICELLO: Well, I would say three-quarters, even more - 99 percent of my past is full of such wonderful memories. I mean too numerous to even mention. This last bout that I've had really threw me for a loop for a while.

GROSS: The bout with MS, you mean?

FUNICELLO: Yes. And, you know, I've learned to accept it. You have to accept it. Because I want to be able to fight it. I want to keep up my strength. I don't want to give in to it. And I want to keep a smile on my face for others too.

GROSS: Do you think that whole thing of having - of wanting to keep a smile on your face had something to do with the Annette persona? You know, the public Annette.

FUNICELLO: Yes. I know it has everything to do with that. Because I don't want to disappoint anybody. And I basically am a happy person. I'm not putting on any airs. I'm not trying to fool anybody. I'm a happy person.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

FUNICELLO: It has been a great pleasure.

GROSS: Annette Funicello, recorded in 1994. She died yesterday at the age of 70 from complications of MS. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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