Annette Funicello, beloved Disney star of the fifties and sixties, died Monday from complications stemming from multiple sclerosis. She was 70.
“She’s on her toes dancing in heaven,” her daughter Gina Gilardi said in a statement. “My brothers and I were there, holding her sweet hands when she left us.”
Originally hailing from Utica, N.Y., Funicello and her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 4. Nine years later, in 1955, she was discovered by Walt Disney himself while dancing the lead in a production of Swan Lake, and he invited her to audition for his new series, “The Mickey Mouse Club.” She was hired on the spot and quickly became a fan favorite, going on to star in a bevy of Disney movies.
“Everyone who knew Annette loved and respected her,” remarked Diane Disney Miller, Walt Disney’s daughter. “She was the consummate professional [and] . . . one of the loveliest people I’ve ever known.”
After recording a series of successful albums, Funicello, who married casting agent Jack Gilardi in 1965, hit the big screen in beach party movies with teen heartthrob Frankie Avalon, before leaving Hollywood to raise her three kids: Gina, Jack and Jason. “She was always there for carpools, Hot Dog Day and the PTA,” her daughter once told InStyle magazine. “She was a normal mom!”
In 1981, she and Gilardi divorced. Three years later, she wed rancher Glen Holt.
It was around that time that Funicello stepped back into the spotlight to film another movie with Avalon called “Back to the Beach.” During filming, however, she began to notice her balance was off, and shortly thereafter, she was diagnosed with MS.
“In the beginning, the whole thing seemed so unreal,” she told PEOPLE in 1992. “[But] the fact that the disease is so unpredictable is frightening.”
Still, Funicello went on to launch a line of collectible bears on QVC, developed her own perfume line and published a memoir, “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes.” But as her symptoms worsened, she cut back on public appearances.
“We have lost one of America’s sweethearts for generations upon generations,” says Avalon, who developed an off-screen friendship with Funicello as well. “She will live on forever. I will miss her and the world will miss her.”
“She always had time for everyone; family, friends and fans alike,” adds fellow Mouseketeer and longtime friend Sharon Baird. “It’s no wonder she was America’s sweetheart.”
In lieu of flowers, donations in Annette’s memory can be made to The Annette Funicello Research Fund.