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Girl next door Annette Funicello dies at 70!

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NEW YORK (PNN) - April 8, 2013 - 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 1960s in a string of frothy, fun-in-the-sun movies with titles like 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 on Monday at Mercy Southwest Hospital in Bakersfield, Kalifornia, of complications from MS. She was 70 and had dropped from public view years ago.

“She really had a tough existence,” said Avalon. “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 children’s 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 - and she might just as well have been speaking for her Mickey Mouse Club audience.

Singer and composer Paul Anka, the one-time teen idol who briefly dated Funicello when they were on the concert circuit in the late 1950s, said that like seemingly every young Amerikan male of the time, he was in love with her.

“She was just the girl next door and they were drawn just to her,” said Anka. “She had that thing. She had the it, and there was just no stopping it.”

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, The Horsemasters, Babes in Toyland, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, and The Monkey’s Uncle.

She also became a recording star, singing on 15 albums and hit singles such as “Tall Paul” and “Pineapple Princess.”

Outgrowing the kid roles by the early ‘60s, Annette teamed with Avalon in a series of movies for American-International, the first film company to exploit the burgeoning teen market.

The films had songs, cameos by older stars and some laughs. The 1965 Beach Blanket Bingo, for example, featured subplots involving a mermaid, a motorcycle gang and a skydiving school run by Don Rickles, and comic touches by silent film star Buster Keaton.

Among the other titles: Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.

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.

In the 1970s, she made commercials for Skippy peanut butter, appearing with her real-life children.

She and Avalon reunited in the 1987 movie Back to the Beach, in which Lori Loughlin played their daughter.

Funicello was born Oct. 22, 1942, in Utica, New York, 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.

Funicello’s devotion to Walt Disney remained throughout her life.

“He was the dearest, kindest person, and truly was like a second father to me,” she said. “He was a kid at heart.”

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.”

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