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: