Today, my heart is broken. Annette Funicello died from complications from Multiple Sclerosis at 70.
Like most American men of a certain age, Annette was one of my first crushes. The thing was, I was born in 1969; just about the time Annette stopped making AIP movies. I did have the luxury of living in a wondrous time, however. I lived in a time where I watched black and white syndication runs of The Mickey Mouse Club on weekday afternoons, Beach Party movies on Weekends and seeing Annette as she was currently on variety shows and commercials. She was truly every where in my pre-teen world. I had Disneyland Records of Annette's singles, which I sang along to, knowing every word. Even today, if I hear "Tall Paul" or "Pineapple Princess" in a supermarket (and it actually does happen), I still find myself dancing a little and mumbling the words from behind a bit lip.
It was the Beach Party movies that really cemented my love for Annette. In my pre-teen mind, she was the perfect girl. While my pre-pubescent mind was still trying to suss out the dimensions of her body, I crushed on her for much more innocent reasons. She sang, she danced and she pined for Frankie, all the while smiling that amazing smile. She was feisty, too. If Frankie screwed up (and he usually did at least once a film), she let him have it with both barrels. Even on-screen angry, she was the picture of grace.
In my teen years, I temporarily lost my connection with Annette (and Frankie). The Mickey Mouse Club was a vague, total kids stuff memory, the Beach Party Movies were replaced by slasher movies and the songs were replaced with music by Talking Heads and Prince. When, in the late 80s, "Back To The Beach" was released, I was excited to see it, but disappointed that it wasn't at all like the Beach Party movies I remembered and loved so well. It was a true kick to see Frankie and Annette on talk shows and the old NBC "Friday Night Videos", introducing the latest hits while bantering like old friends (which they were).
It wasn't until a few years later that I revisited the old Beach Party movies again, buying them on Laserdisc. It was all there, just as I remembered. The fun, the singing, the dancing... the hysterical jokes and sight gags. And Annette. Beautiful and funny and talented as she'd always been. I could never get too many friends to share in the exhilaration I felt watching these movies, but how could I? It's like introducing your girlfriend to an old crush and expecting her to see what you saw in her.
It was around that time that Annette announced she has Multiple Sclerosis. It was a sad and horrifying thing to hear. Incomprehensible. Not Annette. I followed the stories and watched the "A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes" biography TV movie, which she narrated in wraparound segments. It made me so absolutely terrified of MS. A condition that takes away your ability to do anything you might want to do? Something that causes your body to not respond to what you tell it to do? Hideous. I admired Annette's resilience. The whole time she spent in the public eye afterward was met with a brave, resilient face. I can only wish that I would have that courage if such a thing were to ever happen to me.
I'm now sitting at my computer writing these thoughts. To my left, is a framed Laserdisc of Muscle Beach Party that's signed by Frankie Avalon. I didn't meet Frankie, but I have a friend that has him as a family friend. She brought it to him to sign for me. He thought it was a bootleg record! She had to explain to him what Laserdiscs were. Anyway, I'm looking at that photo on the cover with Annette in her mesh bikini with Frankie laying on her lap, both smiling and happy and I smile myself. But I'm also welling up with tears, thinking about those tabloid photos in those dirt rags at the supermarket checkout showing Annette in poor health, stripping her of her public dignity. I'm also thinking of an Entertainment Tonight article on her from before she was too far gone to speak. she was till struggling with her words, but her spirit was unbroken. The bravest face. At the end of that piece, she spoke about how all she wants to do in life is to dance again. In life, she never got the chance, but if there's a reason to believe in a life beyond this one, then that's it. I'm having a daydream where I see Annette and she's dancing, lighter than air. She's dancing so wild and graceful. Her feet aren't even touching the ground. And she's singing. And she's happy. And there's no pain.
Rest In Peace, Annette. And thank you.