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Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie - Annette Funicello (October 22, 1942 to April 8, 2013) PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephanie Finnegan   
Tuesday, 09 April 2013 12:33
Annette Funicello was a great entertainer and a beloved bear maker. Her immersion in the world of collectibles was done as an altruistic gesture to raise funds and awareness of multiple sclerosis.
Her years as a Mouseketeer and her connection to the Disney brand were enshrined in this Annette bear.
Annette Funicello became a household name, and the heartthrob for millions, when she appeared on the original “Mickey Mouse Club.”
The beach party became a cinematic franchise for Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, who embodied high spirits and cheerful camaraderie.
Pretty and perky, wholesome and sweet, Annette was the girl next door. Her reign as a poster girl was never marred by nasty headlines or bad behavior.
No matter how old she got, or where she traveled, Annette was always known for her Mouseketeer ways. She joked she owed it all to “those ears.”
In 1992, Annette was deemed a Disney Legend, and her hands and signature were embedded in cement. She launched her teddy bear career at this same time.
In 1992, Annette was deemed a Disney Legend, and her hands and signature were embedded in cement. She launched her teddy bear career at this same time.
The Angel Bears were one of the most popular groupings from Funicello and her artists.
To the very end, Annette Funicello was a Disney girl at heart.
Annette Funicello was a great entertainer and a beloved bear maker. Her immersion in the world of collectibles was done as an altruistic gesture to raise funds and awareness of multiple sclerosis.
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Annette Funicello passed away on April 8, 2013, at the age of 70. I heard the news on the radio as I was working on an editing assignment for a book publisher. The subject matter was rather esoteric and scientific, and I needed a mental rest. Then I heard the ABC news anchor intone that “a vestige from many people’s childhoods has died today.” He went on to list Ms. Funicello’s achievements as a young TV star on “The Mickey Mouse Club,” her roles in the Frankie Avalon “Beach Party” movies, and her time spent as a pitchwoman for Skippy peanut butter. The announcement instantly struck me and transported me to a time nearly two decades ago.

I was familiar with Ms. Funicello from the beach movies, but I was not born when she first emerged as a teenage boy’s crush and a household name on the “MMC” show. However, I have seen video of it, and—more important—I got to talk to her personally about it when I had the honor of interviewing her over the phone and face-to-face at the 1996 Doll and Teddy Bear Expo.

What was left out of the initial sound bites about her death is that Annette Funicello was not just America’s sweetheart when it came to singing and dancing. She also created a very popular and commercially successful line of teddy bears back in the 1990s. The Annette Funicello Collectible Bear Company was started in 1992, and it was set up to donate portions of its sales to fund the research into neurological disorders, such as multiple sclerosis. Ms. Funicello was diagnosed with that degenerative disorder in 1987 and was committed to raising awareness and money to help others who were also living with that affliction.

Her reason for utilizing teddy bears as an ambassador for goodwill and charitable donations was simple: “I want to share with people all over the world the comfort and love a teddy bear can bring.”

Because of her luminous personality and her big heart, Annette (yes, I am going to use your first name here) was able to attract some of the most popular and well-regarded bear artists to help her design and create her bears. Initially, Knickerbocker was the company that manufactured the ursine line; then it became Papel Giftware. Eventually, the AFCBC became self-supporting and self-determining. It produced its own bears without any outside assistance.

I met Annette when she was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1996 expo. It was the first one ever given to a teddy bear artist; and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when she accepted it. At that point, she was wheelchair-bound, and her voice was whispery and breathy. She thanked Teddy Bear Review for the honor and acknowledged all the bear artists who turned her visions into reality. She didn’t talk very long, but her sentiments and her sincerity spoke volumes.

Annette’s husband, Glen, often worked as her spokesman. When she was too tired or too overcome to speak at great lengths, he would be by her side, holding her hand, and filling in the blanks or finishing the sentences. It was a moving and heart-touching partnership to witness.

Always self-deprecating, she would often joke that she owed everything she had to her “mouse ears.” That wasn’t true. She owed what she had to her indomitable personality and her warm, beaming face. Promising Mr. Disney that she wouldn’t embarrass him when she did the beach movies, Annette managed to retain her girl-next-door reputation even when she was clad in a swimsuit and twisting by the shore. That’s an admirable accomplishment!

What I remember about Annette Funicello is that she was physically frail and so petite when I met her. However, her aura was large and undeniable. Fans lined up to meet her and thank her for her years of entertaining them and providing enjoyment. They acknowledged her exuberance as an actress/dancer/singer (though she was always quick to point out that she was a “warbler, not a singer”). The fans also thanked her for her teddy bears, which represented a part of her heart and her wholesomeness. During all the adulation, Annette was composed and gracious. Over the phone, she had told me that she feared meeting the fans while in a wheelchair. She thought that she would “disappoint them” and “let them down.” She said, “They remember me as a fresh-faced Mouseketeer or as a beach bunny. I don’t want them to be sad when they see me nowadays.” Ms. Funicello, they were anything but sad! They were honored.

Creating a whole new generation of admirers through the teddy bears and their appearances on QVC, Annette Funicello was an icon who never grabbed the headlines or behaved in a public tawdry fashion. When she was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1987, she feared that her dizzy spells would be mistaken for being tipsy. She remained silent about her condition, until she realized that her public persona would be able to do good for others who also had neural disorders. She made the disclosure in 1992.

Before I began to work at DOLLS magazine and Teddy Bear Review, I saw Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon at a free concert in my onetime hometown of Brooklyn, New York! They were promoting their reunion film, “Back to the Beach,” and it must have been right at the time that she had learned of her illness. No one at the concert that night would ever have suspected that there was anything amiss. She and Frankie sang, danced, joked around, and generally raised the spirits of everyone who was on hand that night.

It was a hot, humid evening in Brooklyn. We were all on folding chairs and blankets in a cement park, where these “Spectacles Under the Stars” were held. But through the combined perkiness of Avalon and Funicello, we all felt that we were surfside in Malibu or Hawaii. It was a gorgeous night, and the two stars were a delight.

I have nothing but happy memories of Annette Funicello. I bought one of her angel bears at the  expo and had her autograph its box and one of its wings for my niece. I wonder if she still has it. I hope she does because it is a touchstone to a long-ago, bygone America.

Annette Funicello is one of the last “good girls.” She played the part of an innocent in the movies and on TV. And in her real life, she displayed courage, bravery, and resolution. She and her bears were inspirations for doing good and being good. It’s no surprise that personalities as diverse as George W. Bush, Geraldo Rivera, and comic Robert Klein have listed her as a dream girl. She was the real-life inspiration for Paul Anka’s classic tune “Puppy Love.”

At her death, current Disney CEO Bob Iger said, “Annette was and always will be a cherished member of the Disney family, synonymous with the word ‘Mouseketeer,’ 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, and she faced her physical challenges with dignity, bravery and grace. All of us at Disney join with family, friends, and fans around the world in celebrating her extraordinary life.”

We at Teddy Bear & Friends do the same. We will all miss you. And I, for one, am so happy that I got to talk with you, shake your hand, and tell you personally that you were a bright spark in our pop culture. Rest in peace. The lyrics to the “Mickey Mouse Club” theme song have more significance now than ever before: “Now it’s time to say good-bye to all our company. M-I-C (see you real soon), K-E-Y (Why? Because we like you) M-O-U-S-E.”