As you would expect in a world that remains obsessed with all things Baby Boomer, the death of the ultimate Mouseketeer — that would be the always lovely Annette Funicello — drew quite a bit of mainstream media attention.
It would be easy to sum up most of the coverage, since the themes were so cookie-cutter consistent, but the two reports that ran online and in print at The Washington Post will do. The key to the stories was capturing her squeaky clean image. She was the nation’s sweetheart, you see, but American was a radically different nation back then.
As the Associated Press put it:
NEW YORK — She was the first crush for a generation of boys, the perfect playmate for a generation of girls.
Annette Funicello, who became a child star as a cute-as-a-button Mouseketeer on “The Mickey Mouse Club” in the 1950s, ruled among baby boomers, who tuned in every weekday afternoon to watch her on their flickering black-and-white television sets.
Then they shed their mouse ears, as Annette did when she teamed up with Frankie Avalon during the ‘60s in a string of frothy, fun-in-the-sun movies with titles like “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.”
All of the mainstream stories also focused, as they should, on the fact that as an adult she announced — in 1992 — that she had multiple sclerosis. Instead of hiding herself away, until the very end, Funicello talked openly about the affects of her illness and how life could be lived to its fullness, no matter what.
But back the main theme of the stories, which was the unique nature of her appeal on television and then in films. You see, this superstar had a unique quality that, in story after story, was all but described with a rare and powerful word — modest. This was a strange approach to making beach movies with wink-wink titles.
The 1965 “Beach Blanket Bingo,” for example, featured subplots involving a mermaid, a motorcycle gang and a skydiving school run by Don Rickles, and comic touches by silent film star Buster Keaton. Among the other titles: “Muscle Beach Party,” ‘’Bikini Beach,” ‘’How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” and “Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.”
The beach films featured ample youthful skin. But not Funicello’s. She remembered in 1987: “Mr. Disney said to me one day, ‘Annette, I have a favor to ask of you. I know all the girls are wearing bikinis, but you have an image to uphold. I would appreciate it if you would wear a one-piece suit.’ I did, and I never regretted it.”
What was going on here?
In its own obituary, the Post team returned to these teams and offered a similar level of insight:
With the word “ANNETTE” emblazoned across the chest of her white turtleneck — just high enough not to lure the eye astray — she won the hearts of armies of American boys who had yet to win their first kiss. To young female viewers, she was demure and unthreatening, a regular girl who might make a good friend. She described herself as a “late bloomer.”
And in the movies and in popular music:
She reinforced her innocent image by recording such popular songs as “Tall Paul” and “Pineapple Princess.” A series of albums, including “Italiannette” and “Hawaiiannette (both 1960), sold millions of copies. She became a female counterpart to teen idols such as Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell and Paul Anka, whom she was reportedly dating at the time when he wrote “Puppy Love.”
In the 1960s, she appeared in a handful of beach movies with Avalon, including “Beach Party,” “Muscle Beach Party,” “Bikini Beach,” “Beach Blanket Bingo” and, finally, in 1965, “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.” Despite the films’ mildly naughty titles, Ms. Funicello’s clean-cut reputation remained intact.
“Go ahead and have fun — the good, clean fun,” Ms. Funicello recalled Disney saying. “But I have one request. I know everyone will be bikini-clad. I’d like you to look different. Would you wear a one-piece suit, or if it’s a two-piece, please don’t expose your navel.”
And finally, this obituary stated the obvious, or came close to it:
Throughout her life, Ms. Funicello retained popularity, at least in part, through her obvious modesty.
Now, to figure out the background for this element of her life, all readers really needed to do was to search for this star’s name, the word “Disney” and then add one other word, a word that is rather logical in light of the modesty element of her characters and, yes, her own character.
That word is “Catholic.” Add that word to your digital search and, all of a sudden, a wide range of information appears.
Now, am I saying that that mainstream reports HAD to include her Catholic faith in their reports on her life?
Not really. But I am saying that it is strange to focus on her pre-Sexual Revolution appeal, the “modest” nature of her career, without looking for a logical source. There was more to this story than that strange old Disney man asking her to avoid bikinis, in other words. There was a faith-based element to this part of her life.
Thus, in the liberal National Catholic Reporter, one could read:
Annette Funicello was diagnosed with MS in 1987 but kept it secret until 1992, when the condition became obvious. For many years, she has been one of my “saints” since I, too, have MS. Her courage and cheerfulness in dealing with the mystery of this disease continue to inspire me. Annette, a Catholic, told People magazine about her diagnosis and living with MS in 1992, as well as what her faith meant to her while living with MS:
“I’m a Catholic, and I’ve always been a religious person, and having MS reminds me that there’s a higher power up there who knows what HE’s doing. MS has brought my family closer together, if that’s possible.”
Knowing this one fact makes the whole story a bit easier to understand. Right?