The Walt Disney Co. says Annette Funicello, who went from Mouseketeer to beach party movie icon, has died at age 70.
Funicello stunned fans and friends in 1992 with the announcement she was suffering from multiple sclerosis. Yet she was cheerful and upbeat, grappling with the disease with a courage that contrasted with her lightweight teen image of old.
The pretty, dark-haired Funicello was just 13 when she gained fame on Walt Disney's television kiddie "club," an amalgam of stories, songs and dance routines that ran from 1955 to 1959.
Cast after Disney saw her at a dance recital, she soon began receiving 8,000 fan letters a month, 10 times more than any of the 23 other young performers.
Bob Iger, Chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company, said in a statement, "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, 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."
According to the L.A. Times, Funicello's status as a pop-culture icon was cemented in the 1960s when she teamed up with Frankie Avalon in a popular series of beach movies.
"Throughout all the years we were friends she never changed from that sweet person who cared so much about others," said Sharon Baird, a fellow Mouseketeer and long-time friend. "She always had time for everyone; family, friends and fans alike. It’s no wonder she was America’s sweetheart."