I didn’t grow up in the 1950s. I’m a child of the 70s, which means I didn’t see Annette Funicello’s smile light up the black and white TV as an original Mousketeer. I first remember seeing her on the Skippy peanut butter commercials. Even then, I remember thinking how beautiful and radiant she was.
I did, however, work for the mouse for many years in Orlando. My love for all things Disney began young with the Little Golden books, then the Wonderful World of Disney as I got older, and then it really took off when I got to perform at the Magic Kingdom with my high school chorus group as a teenager. I started working at Disney in 1990 when the new Mickey Mouse Club was introducing new talent like Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, and Britney Spears. My first job there was at the Disney MGM Studios (now known as Disney’s Hollywood Studios). I drove the big long red shuttle trams around the studios while giving a “backstage tour” to guests.
One day, Annette was visiting the Studios to give the new mouseketeers a surprise visit. I recall seeing her riding around the backlot in a golf cart and giving my shuttle a waver and her signature smile. With the announcement of her passing today, it made me think about the woman behind the mouse ears. And three things came to mind that I think are really good life lessons.
1. Keep smiling. I dare you to find a picture of Annette Funicello where she isn’t smiling. Seriously. There really aren’t any. Even when she was in a serious moment, the smile was there. It shone brightly behind her eyes.
2. Stay positive. Bad things happen to good people. For more than 25 years, Annette Funicello battled Multiple Sclerosis rather privately. She established the Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases. And she continued to work for years after her initial diagnosis. She was an inspiration to me and many others for the way she handled her debilitating illness with grace and dignity.
Fellow Mouseketeer and long-time friend Sharon Baird observed, “Throughout all the years we were friends she never changed from that sweet person who cared so much about others. She always had time for everyone; family, friends and fans alike. It’s no wonder she was America’s sweetheart.” – (courtesy of the Disney Post blog.)
3. Honor your past. We’ve all seen child stars who have tried to rid themselves of the image or character they portrayed as a child just so they could further their pursuits on the big screen. Instead of fighting against it, Annette Funicello embraced her Disney heritage. She was the only Mouseketeer who remained on contract with Walt Disney when the show ended and she went on to appear on other Disney shows and in movies. She was true to herself and her authenticity shone through in all of her work.
And for that, I thank her.
What’s your favorite memory of this Disney legend?