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Tuesday, April 09, 2013


It's been said that she was a "Mouseketeer's Mouseketeer." She was America's quintessential "girl next door." She described herself as "the queen of teen".

Yes, Annette Funicello was all that.

Then again, it was a different time in America, when you could, in fact, be all that. 

Her sweet, innocent face, deep-brown doe-eyes and soft voice captured something about pre-adolescence in the 50s and adolescence in the 60s that spoke to a generation of young people who watched her grow up as one of Walt Disney's Mouseketeers.

Actually, she was the last of the 24 original Mouseketeers chosen for “The Mickey Mouse Club,” the immensely popular children’s television show that began in 1955, when fewer than two-thirds of households had television sets.

Before long, she was getting more than 6,000 fan letters a week, and was known by just her first name in a manner that later defined celebrities like Cher, Madonna and Prince.

She is also known for the "Beach Blanket Bingo" movie series with Frankie Avalon. 

It was "good clean fun," said producer Walt Disney - who begged Annette to call him "Uncle Walt" but she insisted on "Mr. Disney" - with a little dash of spice. 

Bikinis were worn - well, okay, a two piece bathing suit - but no exposed navels. And, certainly no 'thigh high' cuts to the leg. Not even any real cleavage - except around the toes.

It was a different time.

It was a time when "fairness" was still something that was a goal in life - from relationships to negotiation.

We had no idea that "fairness" was also part of the Disney fantasy.  That, in fact, life wasn't fair.

I sent her a letter once. Really. She had that kind of personality with whom a young girl like me felt an easy rapport.  As I recall, I asked her advice concerning one of my younger sisters who, quite simply, hated me.

No, really. Far as I know, she still does. 

She stole my clothing and jewelry - not to wear for herself but to destroy it just so I wouldn't have it. She would order things in my name out of catalogs - like books or purses or trinkets - and giggled wickedly as I argued with my mother that I didn't - honest to God! - order that item and pleaded with her to help me to return it.

Finally, my mother caught on but for a couple of months, it was pretty awful. I was the oldest and had no one to whom to turn for advice. Annette was as close to an older sister as I was going to get.

So, I wrote to her and asked her advice.

I wish I had kept my letter to her and hers to me. I don't remember the exact content of either letter. What I do remember is my letter being distraught and desperate and, no doubt, dramatic. I remember her letter being kind and gentle and filled with practical advice and encouragement.

And, I remember it was hand-written. Honest!

What I remember most is that Annette advised that I not be "mean back" to my sister.  She said something like, "You are older than her and it wouldn't be fair. She'll eventually grow up and be as mature as you. You just keep your head high and set a good example for her."

Well, she was wrong, but it was absolutely what I needed her to say.

Well, at the time. She called me to all the ideals embodied in being a Mouseketeer: Fair. Mature. Holding your head high. Setting a good example for others.

Annette has suffered for the past 25 years with multiple sclerosis, a cruel, debilitating disease that robbed her of simple dignities like the ability to feed or dress herself, or talk.

All that sweetness and innocence and talent.

It just wasn't fair.

Then again, as we later learned, life isn't fair.

"Fair" was only life on television for 30 or 60 minutes at a time on programs like "The Mickey Mouse Club" - or for a little more time in movies like "Beach Blanket Bingo". 

Where fairness was part of the fantasy. 

And, it was a different time in America. 

I sure do miss Annette and all she represented.

I think I have - and will - for a very long time.


Sextant said...

The news of someone dying from complications from MS always comes as a shock to me. I have it, but in a benign form. I had several nasty attacks in 1985 but no additional attacks since. So for me, MS has been a more of a source nuisance and worry than actual disability. I need to thank God for my relative good fortune.

Being a guy, Annette Funicello, is of course a name that I have heard of but never exactly followed. I am sure that her passing will be a sad occasion for many women of our generation such as yourself.

I once read in a book, can't remember where, but an older gentleman lamented that he was at the age where things are taken away from him. Alas, I am beginning to understand that sentiment.

Anonymous said...

Lovely--thank you. I well remember the simplicity of MMC, and was moved that you letter was answered--by a person! I was also taken by your comments about your sister. She sounds like my adult daughter, who I thought was on the road to wellness, but who just revealed something that left me so gobsmacked that I am now moving legally to make a Very Big Change. I am hesitant to identify myself here because there are a lot of people who read your blog who know us both, but I just wanted to say that if you have any advice for how to grieve the death of the living in one's life, I would be most grateful.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Annette represented more than she or the studio intended I think. Cultural icons are like that.

Sorry about your MS, Sextant. I'm glad you have a "benign" form.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi, Anonymous.

I have two sisters, both of whom were deeply affected by the dysfunctional relationships in our family. My youngest sister is just a very mean spirited person. The fact that she keeps her distance is a real mercy. The one of whom I spoke has a serious mental illness - spent a few years on the street while I raised her two sons for a time. I have no idea where she is these days. Someplace in TX, I last heard. Haven't seen her in 30 years. She didn't come to either of my parents funeral services. Just as well, I think.

Here's the thing: I think estrangement between siblings, while difficult, is a whole 'nother smoke from mother-daughter stuff, which is so fraught with archtypical stuff as to make one's head swim. My advice? Get yourself into therapy, if you're not already. Boundaries. Boundaries. Boundaries. So important to avoid the manipulation that is so easy in mother-daughter relationships when mental illness is involved.

So painful. So difficult. So complicated and complex

Know that you are in my prayers.

Bex said...

I remember Annette dancing in toe shoes. I REALLY wanted to dance in toe shoes, but never got past ballet slippers. I guess I just wanted to be Annette. Trivia challenge: Which day on the MMC was Anything-Can-Happen-Day?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I think we all wanted to be Annette.

I should know the answer to that but I don't . Uncle. Tell me.

Bex said...


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I think I had choir practice on Thursday.

JCF said...

RIP, Annette (I'm named after someone who struggled w/ MS about as long as Annette did, but passed away about 5 years before Annette was diagnosed. MS is *usually* so much more manageable than in my Aunt J's day!).


I'm so sorry to hear about your family problems, Elizabeth. I guess every family has them to some degree, but I'm blessed that---it *seems!*---mine aren't anywhere near as severe.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - I watch in amazement as people live longer and well with neurological diseases like MS and Parkinsons. Annette was not supposed to live to be 70. She did with stye and grace.

As for my family, well, after a while you just become numb to it all. It is the way it is. Wishing it to be different is an exercise in futility and only makes you sadder. She has a mental illness. I don't. It's up to me to be more understanding and loving. That's what I try to be.

The thing is that no family is perfect. By telling the truth about my family, I hope others can tell the truth about their family. It's a much better way to live.

Sue McCormick said...

I'm a wee bit concerned about your comment about "fairness" being a myth. I agree with you that life isn't fair. And also that it's futile to wish for what isn't there.

But "hope" (or some similar term) is a place somewhere between reality and myth. We should all "hitch our wagons to a star" knowing that we'll never get there but improving lives and life by trying. One such star would be attempting to add fairness to life.

I encouraged my children to watch the Mouseketeers. On the other hand "Spin and Marty" has become family short-hand for stories too simplified to be honest. Disney has sometimes done that, but it's a good star to hitch your wagon too. Annette was also

Sue McCormick

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi, Sue. I wish life were fair. It is not. For me, hope comes from working for a sense of fairness, even though we know life is not.

It's about what you make of the reality that's handed to you, and trying to make the best of that reality. That was the best of the MMC.