Americana usually fades unremarked into the mists of nostalgia one soda fountain, chrome bumper, or crew cut at a time, but then Americana usually does not take human form. Annette Funicello was an exception.
One of the first Mouseketeers on the old Mickey Mouse Club TV show, she died this week at age 70. She was once the young sweetheart of a generation, a reminder of a time and place in American life that can never be recaptured but also will never be forgotten. No fading away for her, no reacting to her death without a note of sorrow, for it’s hard to think of the 1950s without thinking of Annette Funicello.
Walt Disney, who built an entertainment industry based on wholesomeness in an innocent time, had no better representative of his brand than Annette. Her niceness animated her singing and dancing as a Mouseketeer, from the moment she joined the cast at age 12.
Beloved by a generation of boys and girls in the 1950s, Ms. Funicello appeared later in movies that had the modest young actress wearing bikinis at the beach. Its scenes flirted with being a bit racy, but by today’s standards were tame.
But her star burned brightest when it first dawned. Why she among other cute Mouseketeers became a special favorite is something old fans can debate.
It may simply be that young boys who were otherwise afraid of the mysterious tribe of girls were put at ease by this friendly girl in mouse ears, and young girls never saw her as a competitor. She was everyone’s girl next door.
Nobody really wanted her to grow up and shed her wholesome image. With a few forays back into show business, she settled into the life of a mother of three children. For the past 25 or so years, she battled multiple sclerosis, the complication of which eventually killed her.
But in the words of the old TV show’s theme song, Annette Funicello still holds the banner high and joined a jamboree that is secure in memory.