Today we've lost Annette Funicello at age 70, after a long and largely private struggle with multiple sclerosis. Wikipedia reports she was unable to walk since 2004 and unable to speak since 2009, enforcing her early retreat from public view. This news is hard to believe for those of us who remember Annette as a 12-year old Mouseketeer (I can, thanks to 1960s reruns of THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB) and her later appearances in a half-dozen BEACH PARTY movies for AIP which, to me as a pre-teen, played like freewheeling, madcap previews of what teenage life might be like.
Walt Disney had seemingly plucked her out of nowhere after spotting her in a juvenile performance of "Swan Lake" at Burbank's Starlight Bowl, in which she played the Swan Queen; she was the last Mouseketeer to be cast and the most popular, even before her puberty hit in a manner television had never documented before. Though noticeably more voluptuous, she wasn't a conspicuously different Annette in the Beach Party films than in the MICKEY MOUSE CLUB serials "Annette" (which launched her hit song "How Will I Know My Love?"), "The Further Adventures of Spin and Marty", or the Disney series ZORRO; there was still something of "Swan Lake's" Swan Queen about her, a warmth and sweetness but also a tacit distance; a hermetic sense of young, grassroots American royalty. With her earnest voice double-tracked, she recorded a number of hit songs ("Tall Paul", "Pineapple Princess"), some of them written by her first serious boyfriend, Paul Anka, who famously spun one of them ("It's Really Love") into the theme music for THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON.
One of the great images of Annette Funicello that I carry with me is one I never saw, but was once described on an episode of THE MATCH GAME by actor Bart Braverman. He remembered seeing her once drive into a studio parking lot in a peach-colored sportscar convertible and stepping out in peach-colored clothes and boots. He said it was the one thing he'd seen in his life that spoke of genuine stardom to him and that he would never forget. I also remember hearing somewhere that Annette and Shelley Fabares were best friends who met once a week to have lunch together, and thinking how many men must see them talking at a nearby table and fight the urge to pick up their check out of simple gratitude.
My own favorite memory of Annette is the opening credits for a certain movie from 1965. I saw this on the big screen as a kid and it may still be the only time a credit sequence has outdone the rest of the picture, even though I like the rest of the picture. Written by the Sherman brothers, it's still the happiest song in the world for me, and I thank her for it -- and for a lifetime of companionship, though she never knew me and I'm sure I knew the real Annette less well than I'd like to believe. To borrow the title of another Beach Boys song, Annette embodied the romance of The Nearest Faraway Place, always close but too far to reach.