M-O-D-E-S-T: A key word for Annette the Catholic

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?

Just saying.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia

    I was pleasantly surprised to not see any MSM snickering about such an old-fashioned girl who was so very popular.
    Perhaps because you could tell that she really was like she presented herself. Refreshing Would today’s girl graduates of the Disney channel have retained their popularity if they remained more like their Disney personas and didn’t go the way of Brittany and Miley? That would be an interesting subject for an entertainment writer.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It is refresshing to see that Annette had said that “I’m a Catholic!” instead of: “I grew up Catholic”–the classic words used by those in Medialand who have lost their faith and don’t want anyone to think they believe in all that medieval Catholic morality or do any Godawful Bible thumping.

  • Jacqueline Y.

    The “I’m a Catholic” quote originates from a 1992 interview in People Magazine.
    http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20108427,00.html

  • Jacqueline Y.

    That would be August 17, 1992. Sorry for the broken link.

  • sari

    It’s good that her faith taught her to be M-O-D-E-S-T, but where does D-I-V-O-R-C-E after three children fit into Catholic doctrine? The quote states that Walt Disney, a practicing Catholic, demanded modesty and she complied–all this at a time when girls were expected to be obedient to father figures. Before we insist that religion be added to the obit, we should probably ascertain how and when Catholicism affected her worldview–always or as the result of a chronic, life-threatening illness.

    Btw, her navel is exposed in the promo poster for Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.

    http://www.imdb.com/media/rm410754816/tt0059124?ref_=tt_ov_i

    • http://areformedcatholicinthepcusa.blogspot.com Reformed Catholic

      FWIW .. Walt Disney was not Catholic, he was Congregationalist ..

  • tmatt

    SARI:

    I believe that is a question between her and her priest, not for the editors of a newspaper.

    My journalistic point was linked to the material ALREADY IN the obits, which largely went unexplained — other than saying Disney was the source.

  • FW Ken

    The key here is pre-sexual revolution. Religion in the 50s was to a certain degree a social expectation as much as a faith matter. Were the Funicellos devout Catholics? Sweat-the-details Catholics, if that phrase applies to those years? Faith was also a means to an end: the family that prays together stays together. Walt Disney (a nominal Congregationalist in fact) promoted a “faith in faith” sort of religiosity and it would be interesting to know if the bikini line reflected his interest in maintaining an asset (Annette’s image) or a recognition of her essential character.

    Well, that would all be interesting, but not relevant to the obits. And I’m prejudiced as heck, having been born in 1952. These obituaries made me glad I knew the mousketeers of Annette, and not (shudder) Brittany Spears.

  • tmatt

    Reformed Catholic:

    I know. Your point?


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