Annette is leaning on Mickey


Some people have guardian angels. Annette Funicello has a guardian mouse.

The Disney mascot with the perfectly round ears was with her when she debuted in 1955 on "The Mickey Mouse Club," when she married for the first time and when she gave birth to her first child.

The character also was there to steady her last month when she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

And for a taped interview on the "John & Leeza" television talk show that aired recently, Ms. Funicello wore a gold pin in the unmistakable shape of Mickey's head and ears.

"Mickey Mouse is my best friend," Ms. Funicello said in an interview. "He's been there for every important occasion of my life. I'm lucky in this life because of Walt Disney."

The former Mousketeer, who lived a fairy-tale life as a teen-ager in the late 1950s and as a cult-movie princess in the early '60s, now suffers from multiple sclerosis. She needs a wheelchair, a walker or two people -- one on each side -- to help her get around.

To stand, Ms. Funicello uses a Plexiglas cane bearing the likeness of Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters -- a gift from the Disneyland staff on her 49th birthday last year.

Undaunted by the disease, Ms. Funicello is busy promoting a boxed set of her songs recently released by Walt Disney Records, as well as her perfume and teddy bear lines. Next spring, she plans to tour the country promoting her autobiography, and, later next year, she will launch a men's fragrance line.

And then there are the fund-raising and educational activities for her Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases in Los Angeles.

While sitting and talking, Ms. Funicello appears to be a grown-up version of the smiling, poised, sweet Mousketeer and Disney movie star that American youngsters fell in love with. You can see why she was the perfect surfer sidekick in the beach-party movies co-starring Frankie Avalon, as well as Paul Anka's inspiration for "Puppy Love."

But the debilitating disease has robbed Ms. Funicello not only of her ability to dance as she did on television and in the movies, but even to walk.

"My equilibrium is no more. It's just progressively getting worse," Ms. Funicello told the nation on "John & Leeza."

"But thank God I didn't just wake up one morning and not be able to walk," she said. "You learn to live with it. You learn to live with anything -- you really do."

While her parents, Virginia and Joseph Funicello, watched the taping of "John & Leeza" on a monitor in a room off stage, Ms. Funicello told co-host John Tesh about the difficulty she had telling her father of her 1987 diagnosis with multiple sclerosis, a debilitating disease of the central nervous system.

"I didn't want to worry him," said Ms. Funicello, who has two brothers. "My mom knew. My kids knew. I didn't want to worry my dad. I finally had to tell him. I couldn't hide it anymore. He's fine with it now. He's OK."

But watching the monitor, her mother shook her head.

"What she doesn't know is that her father is not OK with it," Virginia Funicello said, her hand on her husband's knee as his eyes welled with tears.

Discovered at 12

Ms. Funicello was 12 when she was discovered by Walt Disney during a dance recital at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank. A budding ballet student, she was performing the lead in "Swan Lake" when Disney spotted her. She was the last of 24 Mousketeers to be hired for the television series and the only one to be signed personally by Walt Disney.

Disney, whom Funicello still refers to as "Mr. Disney" rather than the "Uncle Walt" he preferred, guided her in her career, even through the beach-party movies, which were made by other studios.

Always respectful of Disney, Ms. Funicello agreed, at his request, not to wear revealing bikinis in those films.

A year after "The Mickey Mouse Club" ended in 1958, she recorded the song "Tall Paul," which sold more than 700,000 copies and launched her singing career, which included 15 albums.

Ms. Funicello, shy about her talent, credits music director Tutti Camarata for her success. Mr. Camarata recorded Ms. Funicello's vocals twice and added high levels of echo to add depth to her teen-age voice.

"I can't sing -- that's the running gag," Ms. Funicello said. "Tutti made this special stage for me and recorded my voice in a special way."

After appearing in a half-dozen beach-party movies from 1962 to Ms. Funicello married and settled down. She had three children -- Gina, Jack and Jason -- with her first husband, talent agent Jack Gilardi, whom she married in 1965 and divorced 18 years later.

In May 1986, she married Glen Holt, a harness racehorse trainer whom she met at Hollywood Park, where they both boarded horses.

In 1987, she and Mr. Avalon made "Back to the Beach," a musical comedy about beach-party types who had grown up. The two then toured the country in reunion concerts in 1989 and 1990.

Just before the tour, Ms. Funicello noticed the symptoms that led to the multiple sclerosis diagnosis.

"I had a hard time walking in the sand in 'Back to the Beach,' "

she said. "Then my eyesight was failing and I had to get stronger and stronger prescriptions. After the third time, my doctor sent me to a neurologist. I thought I had a brain tumor, so when they told me I had MS, I was relieved."

When the symptoms, particularly the balance problems, became apparent in 1992 -- there were published reports that Ms. Funicello was drunk in restaurants -- the tabloids

began hounding her for her story. So, Ms. Funicello went public by calling a friend at USA Today.

"I wanted to tell my story, and I trusted that he would let me," Ms. Funicello said. "After that, I didn't have to answer any more questions. It was a relief not to have to lie about it anymore."

Support, not pity

Although she was fearful of the public's reaction, Ms. Funicello said she has received support, not sympathy.

"They never show pity," Ms. Funicello said. "They say they are praying for me. I don't want pity. I'm afraid people are going to feel sorry for me. [So] I have not let the public see me in a wheelchair."

The public's response to her condition is evident in the hallway of Ms. Funicello's home in Encino, where a cane stand holds numerous canes sent to her from fans.

"I have all these wonderful canes people sent me," Ms. Funicello said. "They are decorated for Christmas, Easter. I have canes for every occasion."

Ms. Funicello also keeps a collection of rings sent to her by boys who proposed to her by mail during her Mousketeer days.

Ms. Funicello still doesn't grasp why she was so popular.

"I've run into so many people who were named after me," Ms. Funicello said. "Women would ask me for autographs for their husbands. I'd say, 'Aren't you jealous?' They'd say, 'No.' Women liked me, too. I wasn't threatening."

Ms. Funicello said she was born with a wholesome, silver-lining outlook on life.

"Annette sees the world through rose-colored glasses," said her mother.

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