Annette Funicello, the ultimate Girl Next Door to a generation of Baby Boomers who first fell in love with her on the original 1955-59 incarnation of The Mickey Mouse Club, died Monday after a long battle with multiple sclerosis. She was 70.
Her family told Extra that Funicello passed away from complications of her illness, and they were by her side when she was taken off life support. Funicello had been in an MS coma for years.
“She’s on her toes dancing in heaven. No more MS,” Gina Gilardi, Funicello’s daughter, tellsExtra. “My brothers and I were there, holding her sweet hands when she left us.”
With her brunette curls and expressive brown eyes, “Annette,” as she was simply known, grew up on the nation’s TV screens in her unquestioned role as the princess of Walt Disney’s daily afternoon syndicated TV show. She embodied the image of wholesome Eisenhower Era youth both on screen and off, even when she graduated to the role of Frankie Avalon’s beach-blanket buddy in the early ’60s.
“You knew she was very attractive, very pretty and voluptuous, but Annette never flaunted it,” Avalon, now 75, told PEOPLE in 1998. “She underplayed everything. She never tried to be sexy. People said to themselves, ‘I could date that girl if I ever met her.’ She wasn’t untouchable.”
Born Oct. 22, 1942, in Utica, N.Y., to auto-repair-shop owner Joseph Funicello and his homemaker wife Virginia, Annette was 4 when she moved to Southern California with her family. One spring day in 1955, Walt Disney, casting his new kids’ TV program, happened to stop by the Burbank Starlite Bowl, where a dance school was giving its year-end recital of Swan Lake. And a star was born.
“Mr. Disney,” as she always called him, guided Funicello’s career for the next 10 years. During and even after leaving the Club, she starred for him on TV’sZorro and in such movies as 1959’s The Shaggy Dog and 1961’sBabes in Toyland.