Those of you old enough to remember the original “Mickey Mouse Club” — and I’m not talking about the lame remake in the late ‘70s with Britney Spears — know that of all the child actors on the weekday show, it was Annette Funicello who became the biggest star. She was certainly my favorite Mouseketeer.
About 22 years ago, when I was working as the TV writer for the Bakersfield newspaper, rumors began to circulate that Funicello and her husband, Glen Holt, were living just outside of town on a horse ranch. I wrote a column saying how big a fan I was and that maybe someday I would run into her at a local store.
The day the column published, I got a call from a man who identified himself as Glen Holt. I was skeptical when he offered to arrange a meeting with Funicello and told him that if this was a joke it would be very cruel.
He wasn’t joking. A few days later, I had dinner with Funicello. It was one thing to be a fan through the black-and-white images I saw on a small TV set when I was a child. Those images didn’t fully show why Funicello deserved to be called “America’s Sweetheart.” She talked to each person in the restaurant like she had known them all her life. It was particularly funny to watch adults send their children to the table — the kids having no idea who she was — as a way for them to come over and meet her.
It was my great honor to have several dinners with her, including the night in 1992 she told me that she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the disease that eventually would take her life. She was the one who would have to face the MS, but it was Funicello who did the comforting that night as I tried to deal with the news. The MS would eventually make it impossible for her to walk and eventually take her ability to speak. It never dampened her beauty or spirit.
Funicello and Holt began to spend more time at their home in Tarzana, but we remained in touch. When she got her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, I was invited to stop by their home after the ceremonies. The house was packed, but when I told her that I was leaving she seemed more concerned I take a sandwich to eat on the way home than chatting with all of her friends and family. She had a natural gift to make you feel like you were the most important person in the room.
Funicello passed away in a Bakersfield area hospital with her family by her side. It’s always sad when someone passes away, but it’s a great loss when we lose someone as special as Funicello.