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Annette Funicello dead, 'Mickey Mouse Club' star was 70

Annette Funicello, an original Mickey Mouse Club member

Annette Funicello, an original Mickey Mouse Club member and screen icon who starred in a string of '60s ''beach'' movies, died at the age of 70. Funicello was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1987 and became an advocate for the treatment of the disease. (Aug. 12, 2004) Photo Credit: AP

Annette Funicello, who grew from a beloved Disney child star to the queen of teen "beach party" movies, died Monday at Mercy Southwest Hospital in Bakersfield, Calif. She was 70.

Funicello, who announced in 1992 she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis five years earlier, died of complications from that degenerative disease.

Bob Iger, chairman and chief executive of The Walt Disney Co., 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."

As the most popular of the young Mouseketeers on ABC's 1955-59 children's variety show "The Mickey Mouse Club," she helped entertain a generation glued to their black-and-white TV sets every weekday after school. Blossoming into a young woman, she enticed many of that same generation to a raft of beach-party movies, beginning with the aptly titled "Beach Party" in 1963, when she was 21.

"She never knew how famous she was," her frequent co-star Frankie Avalon told Newsday in 2007, "because she wasn't out there in the middle of everything -- she was busy being married and having babies. Just a wonderful, wonderful person."

Born Oct. 22, 1942, in upstate Utica, she moved with her family to Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley at age 4. Discovered at 13 while dancing the lead in "Swan Lake" at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank, she was invited to audition for the upcoming "Mickey Mouse Club" series.

Afterward, she became the only Mouseketeer to remain under contract to Disney, and starred in such studio features as "The Shaggy Dog" (1959), "Babes in Toyland" (1961), "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones" (1964), and "The Monkey's Uncle" (1965). She and Avalon starred in American International Pictures' low-budget, high-energy teen beach movies with "Beach Party," quickly followed by "Muscle Beach Party" (1964), "Bikini Beach" (1964), and "Beach Blanket Bingo" and "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini" (both 1965). While precursors such as "Gidget" had appeared as early as 1959, AIP's distinctive, slightly surreal films turned the form into a musical-comedy subgenre, one Funicello and Avalon themselves good-naturedly parodied in Paramount's 1987 "Back to the Beach."

A recording star as well, Funicello released a string of top-40 singles, including "Tall Paul" and "How Will I Know My Love" (both 1959) and "Pineapple Princess" (1960).

She married her agent, Jack Gilardi, in 1965, and the couple had children Gina, Jack and Jason before divorcing after 18 years. Largely leaving the film industry following an appearance in The Monkees' trippy movie "Head" (1968), Funicello went on to pitch Skippy peanut butter in TV commercials in 1979. She married harness racehorse trainer Glen Holt in 1986 and published her autobiography, "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes: My Story," in 1994.

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