Annette Funicello, who lit up America’s screens from TV’s “Mickey Mouse Club” to her popular “beach party” movies, died in 2013 from complications of multiple sclerosis symptoms. Here’s how the beloved actress and singer bravely fought MS for 25 years…
Picture a girl with dark bouncing curls, a twinkle in her eye, a dazzling smile and a bubbly personality. Top off that image with mouse ears, and one name springs to mind: Annette Funicello.
The actress, dancer and singer died at age 70 from complications of multiple sclerosis (MS), after fighting the disease for 25 years.
Funicello captured America’s hearts as a young teen on TV’s “The Mickey Mouse Club” in the 1950s and later cemented her stardom with the 1960s “beach party” movies.
But in 1987, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a chronic, debilitating central nervous system disease.
With MS, the body’s immune system eats away at myelin, the protective sheath covering the nerves.
That interferes with the communication between your brain, spinal cord and other areas of your body, according to the Mayo Clinic. The nerves then suffer irreversible deterioration.
How Annette Funicello’s MS symptoms began
While filming the 1987 reunion movie “Back to the Beach” with her longtime co-star and friend, Frankie Avalon, Funicello noticed she was having trouble walking. That’s an early multiple sclerosis symptom.
“When I’d try to get up, I couldn’t balance,” she told People magazine. “Frankie would say, ‘Look at you – you look like you’ve had too much to drink.’
“And I’d say, ‘Frankie, this is just the weirdest thing.’”
As Funicello’s multiple sclerosis symptoms got worse, she began to lose control of her legs and worried that fans might also get the wrong idea about her condition. That’s why she went public about her illness in 1992.
“What was getting out there was that she was drinking, because [with] MS, obviously you’re not steady on your feet,” says Arlene Ludwig, a longtime Walt Disney Company publicist and one of Funicello’s close friends. “She was so brave, and just so forthcoming [in discussing her illness].”
Annette Funicello’s treatment options were limited
Unfortunately, most of today’s treatments didn’t exist when Funicello was diagnosed more than 25 years ago. As a result, the damage was much more severe.
The actress and dancer first relied on a cane, then a walker and finally ended up in a wheelchair, according to Reuters news service.
In the last years of her life, she couldn’t speak, and communicated with her family by blinking or motioning, her step-grandson Canaan McDuffie told the Californian, a newspaper in Bakersfield, Calif., where Funicello lived.
What helped Annette Funicello deal with MS
Funicello said that her lifelong Catholic faith helped her handle the disease.
Still, it was very difficult for her.
“People say to me, ‘Oh, you’re so strong. It’s just great the way you’re taking it,’” she told People. “They don’t see my down side ever.
“I do have times, when I’m all alone and the house is very quiet, when I cry, and sure, I think, ‘Why me? Why me?’ But I believe everything happens for a reason, and I know now that my mission is to help others raise funds for MS,” she said.
In 1993, she founded the Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Disorders, in Shafter, Calif., to help work toward a cure.
“It was painful to see her struggle so many years with MS,” McDuffie told the Californian. “She just never gave up, never, ever complained. It was just the definition of strength.”
An end to a remarkable life
Because every case of MS is unique, it’s hard to say why Funicello eventually succumbed to her illness.
“The disease itself doesn’t kill MS patients,” says Dr. Hornstein (who was not Funicello’s doctor). “It’s the complications, from heart or lung disease to blood clots, infection or pneumonia.
“A 70-year-old woman who had the disease for 25 years probably experienced muscle degeneration and atrophy and skin issues. She may have suffered mini-strokes that developed into more major strokes.”
Annette’s story began with early fame
Funicello was born in Utica, N.Y., in 1942, and her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 4. She started dance lessons at 5, won a poolside beauty contest and did some modeling, according to her website.
In 1955, the perky, pretty dance student, then 12, was discovered by Walt Disney when he saw her perform as the lead in “Swan Lake.”
She was the last of 24 young Mouseketeers chosen for “The Mickey Mouse Club,” a kids’ variety show that aired on weekday afternoons. The program showcased talented youngsters who performed song-and-dance routines.
Soon after, she became a star on the show. Known simply as Annette, she was inundated with 6,000 to 8,000 fan letters weekly, 10 times more than her co-stars, according to news reports.
Her image appeared on lunch boxes, “Annette” dolls and comic books and mystery novels that detailed her fictionalized adventures.
In her 1994 autobiography, A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes, she describes receiving school rings and engagement rings from young male fans, which she returned.
The original “Mickey Mouse Club” series ran for three seasons. Afterward, Funicello was the only Mouseketeer to remain under contract to the studio, according to her website.
She later appeared in the 1957 TV show “Zorro,” and starred in Disney features such as 1959’s The Shaggy Dog and 1961’s Babes in Toyland.
From child star to movie and music star
Meanwhile, Funicello made a series of hit pop records. Her 1959 song “Tall Paul” was the first by a female singer to reach the top 10 on the rock ’n’ roll charts.
Then her “beach party” movies, made with Avalon in the mid-’60s, hit the silver screen like a tsunami. America’s teens went wild for the bikini-clad revelers dancing and flirting on the sand – although Funicello never actually wore a bikini in the films, at Walt Disney’s request.
The films, which also starred comic actors such as Mickey Rooney, Don Rickles and Buster Keaton, were dismissed by critics as fluff, but they were a popular staple of the then-exploding youth market.
Funicello’s family life
In 1965, the actress married her agent, Jack Gilardi, with whom she had three children, Gina, Jack and Jason; the couple divorced 18 years later. She then married racehorse trainer Glen Holt in 1986, and he eventually became her primary caregiver.
She continued making occasional movies, along with some fondly remembered Skippy peanut butter commercials, but mostly she concentrated on raising her children.
Eventually, her multiple sclerosis symptoms made it difficult for her to continue performing. “She will always hold a place in our hearts as one of Walt Disney’s brightest stars, delighting an entire generation of baby boomers with her jubilant personality and endless talent,” said Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger in a statement released after Funicello’s death.
And to fans, many of who felt as if they grew up with her, Annette always remained the sweet, upbeat girl in mouse ears who could sing, dance and melt hearts.
Annette Funicello missed out on latest treatments
Unfortunately, most of today’s treatments didn’t exist when Funicello was diagnosed more than 25 years ago. As a result, the damage could be much more severe, says neurologist William Hornstein, M.D., director of the Fountain Valley Multiple Sclerosis Center at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.
The severity of multiple sclerosis symptoms varies significantly among patients, Dr. Hornstein adds.
- Numbness or weakness in one or more limbs
- Partial or total loss of central vision, usually in one eye, and blurred vision
- Tingling or pain in parts of your body
- Electric-shock sensations that occur with certain head movements
- Tremor, lack of coordination or unsteady gait
- Slurred or loss of speech
- Fatigue and dizziness
What are MS treatments?
A large percentage of cases today are mild, Dr. Hornstein notes.
Patients take medications that inhibit the immune response that causes multiple sclerosis symptoms – along with interferon, IRN beta and glatiramer acetate, which reduce the nerve-damaging inflammation.
These medications include:
- Natalizumab (Tysabri)
- Mitoxantrone (Novantrone)
“It’s a serious disease, but most people get through it and have a good family life,” he says. “They work close to retirement age.”
For more information and expert advice, visit Lifescript’s Multiple Sclerosis Health Center.
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