The endless crush on Annette
Who's the leader of the club
That's made for you and me.
M-I-C-K-E Y M-O-U-S-E
To the strains of this catchy march, the Mickey Mouse Club debuted on Oct. 3, 1955, on ABC-TV, right after Bandstand, and this entranced 16-year-old Summit Hill High School sophomore was there from the beginning.
In those days, Bandstand was a local show that aired on WFIL-TV in Philadelphia, and its host was Bob Horn, predecessor to Dick Clark. Bandstand went national in 1957, and its name changed to American Bandstand.
It was by accident that I saw the first broadcast of the Mickey Mouse Club, on our 12-inch RCA TV, probably because I had been watching Bandstand until 5 p.m. and didn't bother turning off the set.
After the opening intro, the "Mousketeers" marched by to introduce themselves. When I saw 13-year-old Annette Funicello, I was instantly smitten. She was the first of three major teen-age crushes. The others were French sexpot Brigitte Bardot and Italian film star Sophia Loren, but I fell hardest for Annette.
Annette was different. She was cute, perky, innocent and chaste, even though I had an enormous curiosity and fascination about those two developing points coming from her chest that pushed ever so slightly against her Mousketeer uniform.
Annette died this past April at the age of 70, ravaged by multiple sclerosis which slowly sapped her energy, mobility, speech, and, eventually, her life.
When I saw the NBC Nightly News Report the day she died, I choked up and couldn't talk for a few minutes. My wife, Marie, couldn't believe it. As a hard and crusty life-long journalist, I did not give in to tears easily. I explained to Marie that an important part of my teen-age memory bank had been withdrawn, and I was very sad.
I remember someone once told me that those ``good old days" were really never as good as we remember them, but the mind is a great filter to make them seem more special and unique than they really were. Maybe that is true of a lot of things, but not with Annette.
No, my crush on Annette was no flash-in-the-pan. I watched her intently every weekday from 5 to 6 on the TV set in our second-floor living room adjoining my parents' grocery store at 19 N. Market St.
I sometimes had to outwit my mom, who had been slaving over a hot stove for hours, because that was our dinnertime. I kept making up excuses - had to go to the bathroom, forgot to wash my hands, had to change my socks and on and on. Finally, my mother capitulated and agreed to wait until 6 p.m. to eat.
When I tried to explain this to my disgruntled father, who wanted to eat earlier, he could not understand how his hunger had to play second fiddle to a 13-year-old girl. When I told him that her last name was "Funicello," my Italian immigrant father smiled slightly and was somewhat mollified.
I wrote to Annette numerous times, complimenting her on her singing and dancing abilities. Once, I even confessed, in great and specific detail, that I was madly in love with her and would be eternally grateful if she were to return the feelings. Not surprisingly, I never received a response. But it didn't matter. I knew she was busy.
I enjoyed most of the Mickey Mouse Club cast, including head Mousketeer Jimmy Dodd, Big Mousketeer Roy Williams and Annette's contemporaries, Darlene Gillespie, Cubby O'Brien, Karen Pendleton, Bobby Burgess (who went on to fame on the Lawrence Welk Show), Sharon Baird and Doreen Tracey. Johnny Crawford, who later starred on The Rifleman series with Chuck Connors, was on the show the first season only.
Each day had a theme: Monday was Fun with Music, Tuesday's was Guest Star day, Wednesday's theme was Anything Can Happen, Thursday's was the Circus, and Friday's was Talent Roundup, my favorite. Friday was the day when Annette really showed off her dancing and singing talents. She looked so cute in that cowgirl outfit she would frequently wear during ``roundup" day.
Annette was born on Oct. 22, 1942, in Utica, N.Y. When she was just 3, the family moved from Central New York to North Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley.
She instantly became the most popular of the Mousketeers, but some critics said a large amount of the fan mail she received came from her large and extended family back in New York State.
When the Mickey Mouse Club ended, Walt Disney kept her under contract, and she went on to have a successful career as a solo singer recording more than 200 songs. Some of her big hits were "O Dio Mio," "Tall Paul," "First Name Initial" and "Pineapple Princess."
Her friend and musical director, Tutti Camarata, was instrumental in developing the "Annette Sound" by double-tracking her voice to make it appear stronger.
I instantly hated singer Paul Anka when he and Annette became an item. Anka even wrote his big hit "Puppy Love" about their relationship.
When she was 22, she began starring with singer Frankie Avalon in a series of insipid beach movies, including the first one "Beach Party" (1963), "Beach Blanket Bingo" and "How to Stuff A Wild Bikini." She told Walt Disney that she would never wear a skimpy bikini in these movies and kept her promise by wearing one- or two-piece suits which never revealed too much of her ample charms.
She and Avalon had a reunion in the 1987 film "Back to the Beach." It was during the filming of this movie that Annette suffered physical issues which led to the M.S. diagnosis.
In 1986, I thought I was finally going to fulfill my lifelong dream and meet my teen-age crush. She was listed as one of the stars who would appear at the 15th anniversary media spectacular to celebrate Disney World's success in Orlando. At the last minute, she cancelled because she was still filming "Back to the Beach." Even though I interviewed Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, Gloria Estefan and former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger during that extraordinary weekend, I was crushed that I never got to meet my first love, Annette.
Upon news of her death, Bob Iger, Disney chairman and chief executive, summed it up best for those of us who were beguiled by this enchanting and unassuming darling with the funny mouse ears:
"Annette was and always will be a cherished member of the Disney family, synonymous with the word 'Mousketeer,' and a true Disney legend. 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…."
(Bruce Frassinelli, a 1957 graduate of Summit Hill High School, lives in Schnecksville. He is an adjunct instructor in the Political Science Department at Lehigh Carbon Community College.)