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The American actress and singer Annette Funicello, photographed here circa 1960, died April 8, more than two decades after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. (Getty Images)

A Tip Of The Mouse Ears To Annette Funicello, 1942-2013

Apr 8, 2013 (All Things Considered)

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Former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello reconnected with an old friend and colleague when she unveiled her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in September 1993.

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Now it's time to say goodbye to former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello. The singer, dancer and actress died April 8 at the age of 70, having battled multiple sclerosis for more than two decades.

Throughout her career, she was devoted to Walt Disney, who famously discovered her during a Swan Lake dance recital when she was just 12 years old.

She was the only Mouseketeer Disney himself hand-picked to be on the TV show he launched in 1955 — The Mickey Mouse Club. Wearing mouse ears, a pleated skirt and a sweater emblazoned with her name, Annette became wildly popular among baby boomers with teenage crushes.

When the original Mickey Mouse Club ended in 1959, Funicello was also the only Mouseketeer to remain under contract to the studio.

The actress wanted to Americanize her Italian-American name, but Disney told her not to — a decision that helped her continue to get roles for years, as she told WHYY's Fresh Air.

"People probably should have forgotten me, and I was so lucky that they never did," she said. "I think it was the name Funicello that stuck in their mind."

Starting in 1962, Funicello moved from strictly kiddie fare to teen roles when she teamed with Frankie Avalon for a string of musical bikini-party movies, including Bikini Beach, Muscle Beach Party and Beach Blanket Bingo.

Even then, though, she sought advice from the man others called "Uncle Walt" — though she could never bring herself to be that informal.

"Mr. Disney read the scripts, and he thought they were good clean fun," she told NPR in 1993. "And he told me to go out and have a good time."

And she had Disney to thank for keeping her image wholesome; he was the one who asked her to wear a relatively modest two-piece swimsuit.

"He said, 'Would you mind not exposing your navel?' " she told NPR's Liane Hanson. "He said, 'I know all the girls will be bikini-clad, and I would like you to look different. Is that OK with you?'

"And I said, 'Of course it's OK.' I mean, I respected him so much that whatever he said was OK."

Over the years, Funicello reunited with Avalon to satirize the beach-party genre. She made her last TV appearance in 1986 and revealed her MS diagnosis in 1992, five years after learning that she had the disorder. A year later, she established the Annette Funicello Fund for Neurological Diseases, and she chronicled her experiences with the disease — and in Hollywood — in a memoir, A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes.

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