Annette Funicello, the former child star whose squeaky-clean screen image made her a fan favorite on both the original Mickey Mouse Club and in a slew of “Beach Party” movies opposite Frankie Avalon, died Monday from complications of multiple sclerosis. According to Extra, Funicello – who went public with her MS diagnosis over two decades ago – had been in an MS coma for years. She was taken off life support earlier today.
Funicello was only 12 years old when she was hand-selected by Walt Disney to join The Mickey Mouse Club in 1955. Though she later joked that her vocal range is ”about three notes,” her screen presence made her the original show’s most popular cast member by far. Despite her self-perceived musical limitations, Funicello released a number of hit records as a teenager, including “Tall Paul” and “Pineapple Princess.” She went on to star in a series of six iconic “Beach Party” films released between 1963 and 1965.
Funicello faded from the public eye after the ’60s, appearing sporadically on series like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island and occasionally reuniting with Avalon for projects such as 1987’s Back to the Beach. She reemerged in 1992, combating rumors about alcoholism by revealing that she had been suffering from multiple sclerosis since 1987. In 1993, Funicello founded the Annette Funicello Fund for Neurological Disorders; one year later, she released her autobiography, a book that was subsequently adapted into a made-for-TV biopic starring Eva La Rue as Annette.
“Annette was and always will be a cherished member of the Disney family, synonymous with the word Mousketeer, and a true Disney Legend,” Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger said in a statement. “She will forever 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. Annette was well known for being as beautiful inside as she was on the outside, and she faced her physical challenges with dignity, bravery and grace. All of us at Disney join with family, friends, and fans around the world in celebrating her extraordinary life.”
“She’s on her toes dancing in heaven,” Funicello’s daughter Gina Gilardi said in a statement of her own. “No more MS. My brothers and I were there, holding her sweet hands when she left us.”