ANAHEIM, Calif. — The world has bid farewell to Annette Funicello, an actress who captivated the hearts of the baby-boom generation of Americans, who knew her as one of Walt Disney’s original Mouseketeers on television’s Mickey Mouse Club in the late 1950s.
Dubbed America’s “favorite Mouseketeer,” Annette (1943-2013), known to millions by her first name only, would go on to star in Disney films like The Shaggy Dog and Babes in Toyland, and, later, she would star alongside fellow singer and actor Frankie Avalon in the iconic Beach Party movies of the 1960s.
In 1992, Annette told the world that she was suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS). She progressively lost the ability to walk and speak, and she needed continual care before she finally succumbed on April 8 at age 70 to complications from MS. She set up the Annette Funicello Fund for Neurological Disorders in 1993 to discover therapies for the treatment of MS.
A wife (she was married to Jack Gilardi from 1965-1981 and Glen Holt from 1986 to her death), mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, Annette was also a baptized Catholic. She told People magazine back in 1992 that her faith helped her cope with the disease.
“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,” she said.
Mousketeer — and fellow Catholic — Sherry Alberoni spoke with the Register about her memories of Annette and a nearly six-decade-long friendship that began on the set of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club.
How long did you know Annette?
We’d been friends for 57 years, beginning when I was a new member of the Mickey Mouse Club. She was extremely nice to me, even though, relatively speaking, I was four years younger than her. I was a “little kid” to her pre-teen.
What was it like when you and Annette first met?
We hit it off instantly because we were both of Italian descent, and she said I would be her “little sister.” My mother didn’t drive at that time, so my father would drive us to Annette’s family’s home in Encino, and her mother would drive us out to the Disney Studios in Burbank.
And what was it like being with Annette and the other Mousketeers?
The original Mouseketeers were truly a unique and pretty exclusive club. We were like family, together day after day at the studio, in school, in rehearsal halls, performing at Disneyland on weekends, celebrating our birthdays together. For our 25th anniversary, a small group of us were brought together to do reunion shows, re-creating our original television show on stage at Disneyland. It was incredible to be singing and dancing in line with the same people you sang and danced with 25 years earlier — people you’ve known since childhood.
Those shows brought us even closer together; Sharon, Bobby, Cubby, Tommy, Doreen: We’re all still friends, and we love being together, especially at our kids’ weddings and parties ... but not at funerals.
You and Annette both shared the Catholic faith. What are some memories you have?
Yes, that’s true. We had spoken about taking her to Lourdes with the Order of Malta. My husband was the medical director of the Western Association’s pilgrimage, and she really wanted to go. But before we could make it happen, she got to the point where she was unable to travel.
She had been raised by some pretty “rigid” priests and really didn’t know where to turn, spiritually wise. So I spoke with my priest at the time, Father Bruce Lavery, pastor at St. Timothy’s in Laguna Niguel. He called her and then went to her home several times and gave her such good spiritual direction and counseling. She had never met a priest like him before. He was a real Godsend.
When did you first learn about Annette’s struggle with MS?
About 15 years ago, when a small group of original Mouseketeers were in Florida filming the first-anniversary show of the New Mickey Mouse Club, she got us together and privately told us she was diagnosed with MS. She was a little unsure of herself on her feet, so we all were very protective of her. The news hadn’t broken to the public yet, so we were all sworn to secrecy.
When did you find out that the end was near for your fellow Mouseketeer?
I received the call on April 5 that she was in the hospital with pneumonia and having a hard time breathing. She had suffered with this horribly debilitating disease for 25 years, and we never knew, with each call, if this would finally be the end. Annette would have succumbed many years ago if it wasn’t for her “guardian angel.”
Her guardian angel?
Her beloved husband, Glen Holt, who, for these past many years, has seen her through some terrible times. Last year, when an electrical fire started in the middle of the night in their attic, he carried her out and literally dropped her over their neighbor’s fence and saved her life.
How has this loss affected you and the other Mouseketeers?
It’s been a pretty tough few years for our little club of lifelong friends. My heart was completely broken when Mouseketeer Cheryl Holdridge passed away three years ago. Cheryl and I were in each other’s weddings, and we were like family. Our mothers had gone to elementary school together in Kentucky. Then we lost Don Grady; not only were we Mouseketeers together, but I played his girlfriend on his TV show My Three Sons. Don’s mother was my niece’s agent. Next was Bonni Lynn Fields, an incredible dancer who was in all the reunion shows at Disneyland for many years with me.
And now Annette ... Even though we expected this, it still hurts. She fought this ravaging disease for so many long, hard years. Now, at least, she’s able to rest in peace.
Register correspondent Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.