Actress Annette Funicillo, the most popular Mouseketeer on "The Mickey Mouse Club," who went on to a successful career in records and '60s beach party movies, died Monday, The Walt Disney Company said. She was 70.
She died peacefully at Mercy Southwest Hospital in Bakersfield, Calif., of complications from multiple sclerosis, according to the company.
The official Disney fan club tweeted this message Monday:
Funicello stunned fans and friends in 1992 with the announcement about her ailment. 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.
When "The Mickey Mouse Club" ended, Funcillo was the only club member to remain under contract with the studio. She appeared in such Disney movies as "Johnny Tremain," "The Shaggy Dog," "The Horsemasters," "Babes in Toyland," "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones" and "The Monkey's Uncle."
She also became a recording star, singing on 15 albums and hit singles such as "Tall Paul" and "Pineapple Princess."
She gained even more popularity when she starred with Frankie Avalon in a series of "Beach Party" movies in the mid-1960s, including "Beach Party" (1963), "Muscle Beach Party" (1964), "Bikini Beach" (1964), "Beach Blanket Bingo" (1965), and "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini" (1965).
She and Avalon staged a reunion in 1987 with "Back to the Beach." It was during the filming that she noticed she had trouble walking -- the first insidious sign of MS.
When it was finally diagnosed, she later recalled, "I knew nothing about (MS), and you are always afraid of the unknown. I plowed into books."
Her symptoms were relatively mild at first, but gradually she lost control of her legs, and she feared people might think she was drunk. So she went public with her ordeal in 1992.
She wrote of her triumphs and struggles in her 1994 autobiography, "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes" -- the title taken from a Disney song. In 1995, she appeared briefly in a television docudrama based on her book. And she spoke openly about the degenerative effects of MS.
"My equilibrium is no more; it's just progressively getting worse," she said. "But I thank God I just didn't wake up one morning and not be able to walk. You learn to live with it. You learn to live with anything, you really do."
In 1965, Funicello married her agent, Jack Gilardi, and they had three children, Gina, Jack and Jason. The couple divorced 18 years later, and in 1986 she married Glen Holt, a harness racehorse trainer.